John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Memorial Program, 25th Anniversary of Signing of Social Security Act, Hyde Park, NY

August 14, 1960

I am grateful to you, Mrs. Roosevelt, for allowing me to be here today. For I come to Hyde Park not to instruct but to learn.

And I think that we can all agree that Eleanor Roosevelt is a true teacher. Her very life teaches a love of truth and duty and courage. The wide world is her neighborhood. All its people are her daily concern. She is frank; she is outspoken; she is forthright - and I know she always will be.

A visit to Hyde Park is both a pilgrimage and a challenge. We journey here to pay tribute to one of America's most honored leaders. And we find here a challenge to renew the march toward those high goals of peace, and freedom, and a decent life for all men, to which he dedicated his life.

"I occasionally go back home to Hyde Park," said Franklin Roosevelt, "so that I can have a chance to think quietly about the country as a whole." Today, in the turmoil and conflict of our daily lives, we, too, can pause here a moment to think about the man whose home this was - and about the Nation which he led to greatness.

Standing on this quiet lawn - this spacious and soothing scene - it is difficult to recall the furious battles which were fought by the man who lies here in honored glory - the conflicts which he waged; the victories which he won.

Yet we who lived while he governed can, here at Hyde Park, still hear the echoes of those heroic struggles; the struggle to rescue America from poverty and economic collapse, the struggle to build a new America where all could live in dignity, the struggle to secure freedom against the ominous armed advance of tyranny and oppression, and, the last, the most arduous, the unending struggle, the struggle which his wife still steadfastly carries on, the struggle to build a world of free and peaceful nations.

If these battles were nobly fought, if the America of Franklin Roosevelt had a rendezvous with destiny, it met that rendezvous only because it was guided to its destination by a great leader of men.

Today we commemorate one of those battles - the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 - the most important single piece of social welfare legislation in the history of this country. It was 25 years ago this very day that Franklin Roosevelt could say, after a long and arduous struggle: "Today a hope of many years' standing is in large part fulfilled"; and with that he signed his name and social security became law.

For millions of Americans, with that one stroke of the pen, their insecurity and fear were transformed into hope - their poverty and hunger were transformed into a decent life - their economic degradation was transformed into a chance to live out their days in the dignity and peace they had so richly earned.

But the job which Franklin Roosevelt set out to do in 1935 is not yet done. That opening battle was won - but the war against poverty and degradation is not yet over. And no one realized this more than Franklin Roosevelt himself. "This law," he said, 25 years ago today as he signed it, "represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built, but which is by no means complete." We are here at Hyde Park today - not merely to commemorate the cornerstone but to help complete the edifice.

It is fitting that we celebrate this anniversary. It is essential, from time to time, that we pay tribute to past greatness and historic achievement. But we would betray the very cause we honor if we did not now look to the future as well. We would be unfaithful to the man we honor if we did not look beyond his work to the new challenges - the new problems - the new work which lies ahead. For the last public message he ever wrote, on the morning of his death, closed with these words to the American people: "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith."

This is not 1935 - or 1945. This is 1960 - and today there are 16 million Americans past the age of 65; 3 out of every 5 of these - more than 9 1/2 million people must struggle to survive on an income of less than $1,000 a year; 3 million more receive less than $2,000 from all sources combined; and those who draw social security receive an average check of $72 a month which - in 1960 dollars - does not begin to do the job.

With the cost of living continually spiraling upward, with the cost of basic items continually rising - $72 a month or $1,000 a year cannot pay for even the most basic rudiments of a decent and dignified old age. And, even worse, the substandard incomes - the poverty and neglect - dissipate and destroy the morale, the self-respect, the personal pride of our older citizens.

These are shocking and shameful figures. They unmistakably reveal the dismal poverty, the hardship and the lonely want which millions of Americans must face as they near retirement - they describe the meager and humiliating reward which this, the richest country on earth, gives to those who have contributed to our country's strength.

This poverty and hardship becomes heartbreak and despair when illness threatens No costs have increased more rapidly in the last decade than the cost of medical care. And no group of Americans has felt the impact of these skyrocketing costs more than our older citizens. Almost 20 percent of all those on social security must use one-quarter to one-half of their meager annual incomes for medical expenses alone. Those over 65 suffer from chronic diseases at almost twice the rate of our younger population - they spend more than twice as many days restricted to bed - and they must visit a doctor twice as often. And even these impressive figures do not tell us of the uncounted thousands who suffer from lack of needed medical care - from lack of vital drugs - and of hospitalization simply because they cannot afford to pay the bills.

Of course, some of those who are now uncared for can get free health care. But such public assistance is often painstakingly slow, the tests for giving it are often rigid and unrealistic. The care itself is often impersonal and inadequate.

And even more important - thousands of our older citizens would rather endure pain and suffering than rely on public charity. And they should not have to ask for charity.

This story is a living story, not merely statistics. It is deeply burned into every city and town, every hospital and clinic, every neighborhood and rest home in America', whenever our older citizens live out their lives in want and despair under the shadow of illness.

You have seen it in your States - I have seen it in my travels across all 50 States. It is a sight engraved upon our minds and hearts, but it is a sight which, together, we can wipe from the face of this great rich land forever.

First, we must enact immediately an adequate, comprehensive plan to enable our older citizens to meet their pressing medical needs. Such a plan, a soundly financed program without a destructive, degrading means test - based on the tried and tested operation of the social security system, is now before the Congress; and it can - and should - and must be enacted this year.

But I also say to you that this bill will be - like the original social security law - only a single stone in an unfinished structure. It is an important start toward meeting the health problems of our older citizens - but it is only a start. And the coming years will require even more of us.

Second, we must broaden and extend the current scale of social security benefits, which have barely kept pace with the rising cost of living. We must devise machinery that will enable us to keep ahead of rising prices - so that human welfare will not be cruelly dissipated by inflation.

Third, we must raise the amount which retired persons can earn and still be eligible for social security benefits - so that our older people can supplement their meager benefits with meaningful outside employment.

Fourth, we must provide more than benefits. Our older people must receive not only their earned reward for their contributions to America's past - they must be allowed to share in the great task of building America's future. Today too many of our older people who can work - who want to work - cannot find work. Their abilities and skills - their experience and wisdom and knowledge - are wastefully ignored, by a country which desperately needs their services.

We must embark on a great program to use the skills of older Americans - through changes in Government hiring policies - through expanded employment services - and through an intensive education of our Nation's employers to the immense value of this great reservoir of unused talents.

And, since new work for our older citizens will often require new training, we must expand vocational training facilities to ease their change to new job opportunities.

Fifth, we must provide adequate housing for the aged - housing which will be an integral part of the community in which they live. For this we may need a new program of loans, and new incentives to builders to construct homes which meet their special requirements.

Sixth, if we adopt these programs of housing and employment, and construct a system of adequate benefit - then we can move to reduce the number of those who must depend on public assistance, thus increasing the benefits to those who still need assistance.

Seventh, we must expand our basic research into the causes and prevention of those chronic illnesses and diseases which are associated with advancing age.

Eighth, we must do more for the widows and children who survive. Today, the widow whose savings are gone - who is forced to live on an income even less than her husband's retirement benefits - is truly the "forgotten woman" of social security.

We must remedy this shameful defect in our law.

And social security is just one of the many, vital battles for human welfare which are now being waged. I come to you from a Congress where we are fighting to secure a decent, minimum wage for millions of Americans. This, too, is an important and arduous struggle. And many other such struggles lie ahead.

To meet these urgent responsibilities will take determination, and dedication, and hard work. But I believe that America is ready to move from self-indulgence to self-denial. It will take will and effort. But I believe that America is ready to work. It will take vision and boldness. But I believe that America is still bold.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence did not promise us happiness - they promised only the "pursuit of happiness - and by this they meant fulfillment as a Nation and as human beings.

It is this pursuit - this endless questing - which we must now resume. There are new problems, new dangers, new horizons - and we have rested long enough. The world is changing - the perils are deepening - the irresistible march of history moves forward. We must now take the leadership in that great march - or be forever left behind.

And this is why we have gathered here at the home of enduring greatness - not merely to pay tribute - but to refreshen our spirits and stir our hearts for the tasks which lie ahead. We celebrate the past to awaken the future.

This was said for all time almost 100 years ago, by a great American standing at another graveside, at another memorial service. "It is," he said, "for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion * * * that this Nation, under God, may have a new birth of freedom."

Today, in that spirit, we pay our humble tribute.

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Memorial Program, 25th Anniversary of Signing of Social Security Act, Hyde Park, NY Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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