Obama Incorrectly Tells Jon Stewart Social Security Was Originally For Widows and Orphans Only

For a man who thinks Social Security is the most important social safety net we have in America, Barack Obama appears to know very little about its history.

Consider that on Wednesday, the President actually told the "Daily Show's" Jon Stewart that Social Security benefits originally only applied to widows and orphans (video available here, transcript and commentary follow):

BARACK OBAMA: If the point, Jon, is that overnight we did not transform the health care system, that point is true.

(Laughter)

JON STEWART, HOST: But when you put it that way, it seems so petty. ..

OBAMA: When we promised during the campaign, change you can believe in…

STEWART: Right.

OBAMA: …it wasn't change you can believe in, in 18 months. It was change you can believe in, but, you know what, we're going to have to work for it. The history of this country, let me make this point because I think it's really important.

STEWART: I think it’s a good point.

OBAMA: Look, when Social Security was passed, it applied to widows and orphans. And it was a very restricted program. And over time that structure that was built ended up developing into the most important social safety net that we have in our country. The same is true on every piece of progressive legislation, every bit of progress that we've made.

No, Mr. President. According to SSA.gov:

Although Social Security did not really arrive in America until 1935, there was one important precursor, that offered something we could recognize as a social security program, to one special segment of the American population. Following the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, and hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans. In fact, immediately following the Civil War a much higher proportion of the population was disabled or survivors of deceased breadwinners than at any time in America's history. This led to the development of a generous pension program, with interesting similarities to later developments in Social Security. (The first national pension program for soldiers was actually passed in early 1776, prior even to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Throughout America's ante-bellum period pensions of limited types were paid to veterans of America's various wars. But it was with the creation of Civil War pensions that a full-fledged pension system developed in America for the first time.)

The Civil War Pension program began shortly after the start of the War, with the first legislation in 1862 providing for benefits linked to disabilities "incurred as a direct consequence of . . .military duty." Widows and orphans could receive pensions equal in amount to that which would have been payable to their deceased solider [sic] if he had been disabled. In 1890 the link with service-connected disability was broken, and any disabled Civil War veteran qualified for benefits. In 1906, old-age was made a sufficient qualification for benefits. So that by 1910, Civil War veterans and their survivors enjoyed a program of disability, survivors and old-age benefits similar in some ways to the later Social Security programs. By 1910, over 90% of the remaining Civil War veterans were receiving benefits under this program, although they constituted barely .6% of the total U.S. population of that era. Civil War pensions were also an asset that attracted young wives to elderly veterans whose pensions they could inherit as the widow of a war veteran. Indeed, there were still surviving widows of Civil War veterans receiving Civil War pensions as late as 1999!

As such, the CWP was a precursor to Social Security, but was not the beginning of the program.

Obama also misrepresented this pension plan, for benefits could go to disabled veterans and/or their associated widows and orphans. As such, the President even got the fundamentals of this program wrong.

As for Social Security, the first recipient of such a benefits check was "a retired Cleveland motorman named Ernest Ackerman, who retired one day after the Social Security program began. During his one day of participation in the program, a nickel was withheld from Mr. Ackerman's pay for Social Security, and, upon retiring, he received a lump-sum payment of 17 cents."

Safe to say Ackerman was neither a widow nor an orphan.

Of course, we shouldn't expect the so-called smartest president in American history to know the difference between Social Security and the Civil War Pension program any more than we should expect Stewart to either be aware of the distinction or correct the President on national television.

After all, one really doesn't have to know the facts of subjects you discuss on television anymore regardless of your position - as long as you're a liberal, that is.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.