The original Social Security Act provided
only retirement benefits, and only to the worker. The 1939 Amendments
made a fundamental change in the Social Security program. The Amendments
added two new categories of benefits: payments to the spouse and minor
children of a retired worker (so-called dependents benefits) and survivors
benefits paid to the family in the event of the premature death of
a covered worker. This change transformed Social Security from a retirement
program for workers into a family-based economic security program.
(The 1939 Amendments also increased benefit amounts and accelerated
the start of monthly benefit payments to 1940.) The 1939 Amendments
thus became a pivotal turning-point. Indeed, the 1939 law is probably
second in importance only to the original Act itself in shaping Social
Security in America.
The 1939 Amendments grew out of the work of an Advisory Council, jointly chartered by the Social Security Board and the Senate Finance Committee.
A variety of background materials are available
on the 1939 Amendments:
"Social Security In Review"-- Announcement in Social Security Bulletin, September 1939
"The Revised Benefit Schedule Under Old-Age Insurance"-- Article in Social Security Bulletin, September 1939
"Reasons for the 1939 Amendments to the Social Security Act"-- Internal memorandum, January 1940
President Roosevelt's remarks on signing the legislation-- August 11, 1939
See also the materials on the 1938 Advisory Council
FULL TEXT OF 1939 LAW (Adobe PDF format file)