Almost every year since the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, there have been amendments to that original law. Many years, they are simply minor technical adjustments. But some years, they include major changes to the program. Here is a brief summary of how the Social Security program has evolved over the years.
--The Social Security Act of 1935
The original law provided benefits only for a retired worker age 65 or older.
--The 1939 Social Security Amendments
Even before the first monthly benefits were paid in 1940, these amendments added many provisions to the original law. They included benefits for a dependent wife 65 and older and for the minor children of a retiree. They also added the first survivor's benefits: for a widow age 65 or older, for the minor children of a deceased worker, for a widowed mother of any age caring for those children and for dependent parents of a deceased worker.
--The 1950 Social Security Amendments
Congress must have realized the 1939 amendments were sexist because this year they added benefits for a dependent husband of a retired woman and for a dependent widower age 65 or older. They also provided benefits for a retiree's dependent wife of any age as long as she was caring for his minor child. And for the first time, Congress realized that not all marriages last forever. They included benefits for a divorced widowed mother caring for the minor child of a deceased worker, but only if she was married at least 20 years.
--The 1956 Social Security Amendments
These amendments added a major new Social Security program: disability benefits. This first law offered monthly benefits only for disabled people over age 50. But in a few years, disability benefits were made available to people of all ages. Provisions were also added to pay monthly benefits to disabled adult children of retired, disabled and deceased workers. And for the first time, Congress recognized that not all senior citizens wanted to wait until age 65 to claim benefits. Initially, they offered earlier benefits only to women. They provided reduced retirement benefits for women between ages 62 and 64 and reduced spousal benefits for dependent wives and widows between ages 62 and 64.
--The 1961 Social Security Amendments
Finally, Congress authorized reduced retirement benefits to men. These changes also provided for reduced benefits for dependent widowers between ages 62 and 64.
--The 1965 Social Security Amendments
For the first time, benefits were offered to divorced wives if they were at least 62 years old and if they had been married for at least 20 years. (The 1950 amendments had provided benefits only for divorced widows.) The 1965 amendments also added the Medicare program. But Medicare is NOT a Social Security program and an entirely separate funding mechanism was established for these health care benefits, so I am not including Medicare changes in the rest of this column.)
--The 1972 Social Security Amendments
The concept of a "delayed retirement bonus" was added for the first time to offer an incentive to workers who wait to file for retirement benefits until beyond age 65. Over the years, this bonus has been liberalized.
--The 1977 Social Security Amendments
Congress closed a big loophole in Social Security law. A Social Security retirement pension had always offset any spousal benefits a retiree might be due on a husband's or wife's Social Security record. But folks getting non-Social Security retirement pensions (like many teachers and government employees) were still able to get such spousal benefits. Congress changed the law to treat teacher and government pensions in the same way as Social Security retirement pensions. Also this year, the length of marriage requirement for divorced spouses was lowered to 10 years.
--1983 Social Security Amendments
The retirement age was bumped up — in gradual steps. It is currently planned to reach age 67 by 2027. In a rare move to actually cut a Social Security benefit, payments to children over age 18 were eliminated. Also, for the first time, Social Security benefits became taxable.
--1996 Social Security Amendments
The earnings penalty provisions were eliminated for anyone over Full Retirement Age and were liberalized for people between age 62 and the FRA. Provisions in these amendments also led to the "file and suspend" and "restricted application" rules (discussed many times in this column) that allow folks over age 66 to maximize their Social Security benefits.
As I said at the beginning, these are just SOME of the highlights of Social Security changes over the years.