Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian's Office

Research Note #15:
The Roosevelt Administration's Proposal for Voluntary Annuities

The Administration's Proposals-

When President Roosevelt submitted his legislative package to Congress on January 17, 1935, the Administration's proposals contained three provisions designed to provide retirement security for older Americans:

1. A System of Old Age Pensions- These were state-run welfare programs for the elderly. The Administration's proposal was for block grants to the states to help them fund their existing or any new old-age pension programs. Many states already had such programs in existence and there was considerable interest in securing federal assistance with these programs. In the terminology of the period, old-age "pensions" meant welfare benefits.

2. A System of Mandatory Old Age Annuities- This was the old-age insurance system that we now call Social Security (the term "Social Security" was not applied to the Administration's program until mid-way through the Congressional hearings). In the terminology of the time, this was referred to as "mandatory old-age annuities."

3. A System of Voluntary Old Age Annuities- The Administration also proposed a program of voluntary old-age annuities. These were to be insurance-type annuities, issued by the government, to supplement the benefits contemplated under the mandatory part of the program, or to provide a basic annuity to workers not covered under the mandatory program.

The proposal called for the government to sell annuity certificates to workers. These certificates could then be cashed-in when a worker retired and used to purchase an increased annuity amount as a supplement to their mandatory annuity, or to purchase a basic annuity if the worker was not eligible under the mandatory system. Income from the sale of these certificates would go into the trust fund along with the payroll taxes collected under the mandatory program.

The Administration's bill, introduced as H.R. 4120, contained only the sketchiest outline of the voluntary annuity provision as Title V of its bill. It provided:

  • The Social Insurance Board was authorized to borrow such sums as were necessary to pay the annuity certificates;
  • The annuities could not exceed $100 per month;
  • The funds involved in this program would be deposited in the old-age trust fund and the payments would be made from this fund;
  • The Social Insurance Board could set virtually all other rules and conditions involving the certificates.

The voluntary old-age annuities was a proposal developed by the Committee on Economic Security (CES) and supported by President Roosevelt. During the Congressional hearings on the Administration's proposals, Edwin Witte, Executive Director of the CES, explained in more detail how the voluntary annuities would work and why the CES thought them necessary:

"The voluntary system of old-age annuities we suggest as a supplement to the compulsory plan contemplates that the Government shall sell to individuals, on a cost basis, deferred life annuities similar to those issued by commercial insurance companies; that is, in consideration of premiums paid at specified ages, the Government would guarantee the purchasers a definite amount of income, starting at 65, for example, and continuing throughout the lifetime of the annuitant. The primary purpose of the plan is to offer persons not included within the compulsory system a systematic and safe method of providing for their old age. It could also be used by insured persons as a means of supplementing the old-age income provided under the compulsory plan.

Without attempting to outline in detail the terms under which Government annuities should be sold, it is believed that a satisfactory and workable plan, based on the following principles, could be developed without great difficulty:

1. The plan should be self-supporting, and premiums and benefits should be kept in actuarial balance by any necessary revision of the rates which periodic examinations of the experience would indicate.
2. The terms of the plan should be kept as simple as practicable in the interest of economical administration and to minimize misunderstanding on the part of individuals utilizing these arrangements. This could be accomplished by limiting the types of annuity offered to two or three of the most important standard forms.
3. The plan should be designed primarily for the same economic groups as those covered by the compulsory system; hence, provision should be made for the acceptance of relatively small premiums (as little as $1 per month) and the maximum annuity payable to any individual should be limited to the actuarial equivalent of $50 per month.
4. The plan should be administered by the social insurance board along with the compulsory old-age-insurance system, but as a separate undertaking.
5. The social insurance board should study the feasibility of Government contribution toward the annuities of people now middle aged or older with income of $2,500 per year or less who come under this voluntary plan . . ."

Congressional Consideration-

It was the President's view, and that of the experts on his Committee on Economic Security (CES), that ultimately the welfare pensions funded by the states with federal contributions would become unnecessary as the two programs of annuities would gradually come to obviate any need for such welfare type programs.

In his January 17th message to Congress, President Roosevelt summarized his view of these three proposals this way:

"In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, non-contributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps thirty years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans."

The proposal for voluntary annuities did not receive much attention during the hearings process. There were some objections raised on the grounds that this proposal would put the government in competition with the private insurance industry in the sale of annuities.

The proposal did not survive the Committee process in the House, and was not included in the Ways & Means Committee Report on the bill. The Ways & Means Committee had 25 members: 18 Democrats and seven Republicans. All seven Republicans members opposed both annuity titles in the Administration's bill, supporting only the provision for old-age pensions, as they indicated in a minority statement to the Committee Report. At least six Democrat members expressed their intention to vote against the two annuity provisions, according to a contemporaneous account by Edwin Witte, who attended the executive sessions of the Committee. According to Witte, Congressman Vinson (D-KY) proposed dropping the voluntary annuity provision and this compromise persuaded wavering Democrat members to support the mandatory annuity provision in the bill. Witte reports the subsequent vote to drop the voluntary provision as passing unanimously, and the second vote on the mandatory annuity program as passing by "three or four votes," with one member (Lamneck, D-OH) absent. (Lamneck was opposed to the Administration's bill and would have been expected to vote against both provisions as well as final passage.)

The bill as received from the House thus contained no provision for voluntary annuities. During the executive sessions on the bill in the Finance Committee, Representative David J. Lewis (D-MD) appeared as a witness in support of the voluntary annuity plan, trying to persuade the Finance Committee to restore the provision deleted by his own Committee in the House. He told the Finance Committee that 22,000,000 workers would not be covered under the mandatory annuity plan and he urged adoption of the Administration's proposal for voluntary annuities to help these uncovered workers. Senator Lonergan (D-CT) spoke in opposition to the voluntary annuity provision. Senator Edward Costigan (D-CO) moved to include the provision and it passed in Committee on a vote of 7-5 (9 members being absent). Witte reports that the Committee Chairman, Pat Harrison (D-MS), gave Senator Lonergan assurances that he could move to delete the provision on the floor and that the Chairman would not oppose such a motion.

Consequently, a more-detailed version of the voluntary provision was included as Title XI of the Finance Committee Report. The provision as proposed by the Finance Committee was:

  • The Secretary of the Treasury was authorized to issue United States Annuity Bonds;
  • The bonds could be purchased by the public in cash, in exchange for Savings Bonds, or by installment payments;
  • The bonds were to be redeemable for an annuity in installments, under varying terms;
  • The bonds were to return no more than a 3% investment yield;
  • The bonds were to be tax-exempt, but the annuity payments were not;
  • The bonds were not transferable or assignable "in law or in equity;"
  • The income from the sale of the annuities were public-debt receipts, and the payments were to come from the Treasury as public-debt redemptions, using any money "not otherwise appropriated;"
  • The sale of the annuities was to be through the Post Office Department.

During the final day of Senate floor debate on the bill, Senator Augustine Lonergan (D-CT) introduced an amendment to delete Title XI from the bill. Following a brief debate, the Senate voted by voice vote to delete the provision from its bill.

Thus, the provision was not in either version of the legislation as finally passed, and was not an issue in the Conference Committee.

There is little indication that the Administration considered this provision a priority and no record of any extensive efforts on the part of the Administration to save it.

Larry DeWitt
SSA Historian's Office
June 21, 2001