PolitiFact: On entitlement programs, Obama's very mistaken

The statement

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt started Social Security, "it only affected widows and orphans," and when Medicare began, "it was a small program."

President Barack Obama, in a news conference this week

The ruling

In trying to sell a deal he struck with Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts, Obama makes the argument that half a loaf is better than none, citing two earlier landmark programs — Social Security and Medicare.

On Social Security, Obama has a point that the program started slowly and expanded over time. But he is flat wrong that it began by serving only widows and orphans. On the Social Security Administration's website, it says: "In the original (Social Security) Act, benefits were to be paid only to the primary worker when he/she retired at age 65. Benefits were to be based on payroll tax contributions that the worker made during his/her working life.''

The history page continues, "The original Act provided only retirement benefits, and only to the worker. The program was later expanded to include payments to the spouse and minor children of a retired worker 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."

So widows and orphans were indeed covered early on, but they were only covered after retired workers had already been granted coverage — not the other way around, as Obama said.

Obama is even less accurate in his description of Medicare. The health care program for the elderly was passed in 1965 and, in retrospect, it emerged with remarkable speed.

Medicare "was implemented in less than one year, an administrative tour de force of which the SSA commissioner at the time, Bob Ball, remained proud until the day he died," said Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution. The bill even made provisions for elderly Americans who would not have been covered since they had not worked long enough to qualify for Social Security.

It's true that Medicare has expanded in size and cost since its creation. But that is mostly because health care was less expensive at the outset and because of natural population growth, said Jonathan Oberlander, a health policy professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

So Obama was clearly incorrect that the first groups to be covered by Social Security were widows and orphans. And on Medicare, it's not accurate to say, as the president did, that the program started "small." On balance, we rate his claim False.

Edited for print. For more, go to PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: On entitlement programs, Obama's very mistaken 12/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 9:55pm]

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