Tag: History

Social Security Frequently Asked Questions

Q1: When did Social Security start?

A: The Social Security Act was signed by FDR on 8/14/35. Taxes were collected for the first time in January 1937 and the first one-time, lump-sum payments were made that same month. Regular ongoing monthly benefits started in January 1940.

Q2: What is the origin of the term “Social Security?”

A: The term was first used in the U.S. by Abraham Epstein in connection with his group, the American Association for Social Security. Originally, the Social Security Act of 1935 was named the Economic Security Act, but this title was changed during Congressional consideration of the bill. (The full story has been recounted by Professor Edwin Witte who was present at the event.)

Q3: When did Medicare start?

A: Medicare was passed into law on July 30, 1965 but beneficiaries were first able to sign-up for the program on July 1, 1966.

Q4: Is it true that Social Security was originally just a retirement program?

A: Yes. Under the 1935 law, what we now think of as Social Security only paid retirement benefits to the primary worker. A 1939 change in the law added survivors benefits and benefits for the retiree’s spouse and children. In 1956 disability benefits were added.

Keep in mind, however, that the Social Security Act itself was much broader than just the program which today we commonly describe as “Social Security.” The original 1935 law contained the first national unemployment compensation program, aid to the states for various health and welfare programs, and the Aid to Dependent Children program. (Full text of the 1935 law.)

Q5: Is it true that members of Congress do not have to pay into Social Security?

A: No, it is not true. All members of Congress, the President and Vice President, Federal judges, and most political appointees, were covered under the Social Security program starting in January 1984. They pay into the system just like everyone else. Thus all members of Congress, no matter how long they have been in office, have been paying into the Social Security system since January 1984.

(Prior to this time, most Federal government workers and officials were participants in the Civil Service Retirement System (CSRS) which came into being in 1920–15 years before the Social Security system was formed. For this reason, historically, Federal employees were not participants in the Social Security system.)

Employees of the three branches of the federal government, were also covered starting in January 1984, under the 1983 law–but with some special transition rules.

  1. Executive and judicial branch employees hired before January 1, 1984 were given a one-time irrevocable choice of whether to switch to Social Security or stay under the old CSRS. (Rehired employees–other than rehired annuitants–are treated like new employees if their break-in-service was more than a year.)
  2. Employees of the legislative branch who were not participating in the CSRS system were mandatorily covered, regardless of when their service began. Those who were in the CSRS system were given the same one-time choice as employees in the executive and judicial branches.
  3. All federal employees hired on or after January 1, 1984 are mandatorily covered under Social Security–the CSRS system is not an option for them.

So there are still some Federal employees, those first hired prior to January 1984, who are not participants in the Social Security system. All other Federal government employees participate in Social Security like everyone else.

This change was part of the 1983 Amendments to Social Security. You can find a summary of the 1983 amendments elsewhere on this site.

Q6: Is is true that the age of 65 was chosen as the retirement age for Social Security because the Germans used 65 in their system, and the Germans used age 65 because their Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was 65 at the time they developed their system?

A: No, it is not true. Generally, age 65 was chosen to conform to contemporary practice during the 1930s.

More details:

Germany became the first nation in the world to adopt an old-age social insurance program in 1889, designed by Germany’s Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. The idea was first put forward, at Bismarck’s behest, in 1881 by Germany’s Emperor, William the First, in a ground-breaking letter to the German Parliament. William wrote: “. . . those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

One persistent myth about the German program is that it adopted age 65 as the standard retirement age because that was Bismarck’s age. In fact, Germany initially set age 70 as the retirement age (and Bismarck himself was 74 at the time) and it was not until 27 years later (in 1916) that the age was lowered to 65. By that time, Bismarck had been dead for 18 years.

By the time America moved to social insurance in 1935 the German system was using age 65 as its retirement age. But this was not the major influence on the Committee on Economic Security (CES) when it proposed age 65 as the retirement age under Social Security. This decision was not based on any philosophical principle or European precedent. It was, in fact, primarily pragmatic, and stemmed from two sources. One was a general observation about prevailing retirement ages in the few private pension systems in existence at the time and, more importantly, the 30 state old-age pension systems then in operation. Roughly half of the state pension systems used age 65 as the retirement age and half used age 70. The new federal Railroad Retirement System passed by Congress earlier in 1934, also used age 65 as its retirement age. Taking all this into account, the CES planners made a rough judgment that age 65 was probably more reasonable than age 70. This judgment was then confirmed by the actuarial studies. The studies showed that using age 65 produced a manageable system that could easily be made self-sustaining with only modest levels of payroll taxation. So these two factors, a kind of pragmatic judgment about prevailing retirement standards and the favorable actuarial outcome of using age 65, combined to be the real basis on which age 65 was chosen as the age for retirement under Social Security. With all due respect to Chancellor Bismarck, he had nothing to do with it.

Q7: Is it true that life expectancy was less than 65 back in 1935, so the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would not live long enough to collect benefits?

A: Not really. Life expectancy at birth was less than 65, but this is a misleading measure. A more appropriate measure is life expectancy after attainment of adulthood, which shows that most Americans could expect to live to age 65 once they survived childhood.

More details:

If we look at life expectancy statistics from the 1930s we might come to the conclusion that the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would work for many years paying in taxes, but would not live long enough to collect benefits. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed only 58 for men and 62 for women, and the retirement age was 65. But life expectancy at birth in the early decades of the 20th century was low due mainly to high infant mortality, and someone who died as a child would never have worked and paid into Social Security. A more appropriate measure is probably life expectancy after attainment of adulthood.

As Table 1 shows, the majority of Americans who made it to adulthood could expect to live to 65, and those who did live to 65 could look forward to collecting benefits for many years into the future. So we can observe that for men, for example, almost 54% of the them could expect to live to age 65 if they survived to age 21, and men who attained age 65 could expect to collect Social Security benefits for almost 13 years (and the numbers are even higher for women).

Also, it should be noted that there were already 7.8 million Americans age 65 or older in 1935 (cf. Table 2), so there was a large and growing population of people who could receive Social Security. Indeed, the actuarial estimates used by the Committee on Economic Security (CES) in designing the Social Security program projected that there would be 8.3 million Americans age 65 or older by 1940 (when monthly benefits started). So Social Security was not designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits.

As Table 1 indicates, the average life expectancy at age 65 (i.e., the number of years a person could be expected to receive unreduced Social Security retirement benefits) has increased a modest 5 years (on average) since 1940. So, for example, men attaining 65 in 1990 can expect to live for 15.3 years compared to 12.7 years for men attaining 65 back in 1940.

(Increases in life expectancy are a factor in the long-range financing of Social Security; but other factors, such as the sheer size of the “baby boom” generation, and the relative proportion of workers to beneficiaries, are larger determinants of Social Security’s future financial condition.)



Q8: When did COLAs (cost-of-living allowances) start?

A: COLAs were first paid in 1975 as a result of a 1972 law. Prior to this, benefits were increased irregularly by special acts of Congress.

The Story of COLAs:

Most people are aware that there are annual increases in Social Security benefits to offset the corrosive effects of inflation on fixed incomes. These increases, now known as Cost of Living Allowances (COLAs), are such an accepted feature of the program that it is difficult to imagine a time when there were no COLAs. But in fact, when Ida May Fuller received her first $22.54 benefit payment in January of 1940, this would be the same amount she would receive each month for the next 10 years. For Ida May Fuller, and the millions of other Social Security beneficiaries like her, the amount of that first benefit check was the amount they could expect to receive for life. It was not until the 1950 Amendments that Congress first legislated an increase in benefits. Current beneficiaries had their payments recomputed and Ida May Fuller, for example, saw her monthly check increase from $22.54 to $41.30.

These recomputations were effective for September 1950 and appeared for the first time in the October 1950 checks. A second increase was legislated for September 1952. Together these two increases almost doubled the value of Social Security benefits for existing beneficiaries. From that point on, benefits were increased only when Congress enacted special legislation for that purpose.

In 1972 legislation the law was changed to provide, beginning in 1975, for automatic annual cost-of-living allowances (i.e., COLAs) based on the annual increase in consumer prices. No longer do beneficiaries have to await a special act of Congress to receive a benefit increase and no longer does inflation drain value from Social Security benefits.

Q9: What information is available from Social Security records to help in genealogical research?

A: You might want to start by checking out the Social Security Death Index which is available online from a variety of commercial services (usually the search is free). The Death Index contains a listing of persons who had a Social Security number, who are deceased, and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration. (The information in the Death Index for people who died prior to 1962 is sketchy since SSA’s death information was not automated before that date. Death information for persons who died before 1962 is generally only in the Death Index if the death was actually reported to SSA after 1962, even though the death occurred prior to that year.)

If you find a person in the Death Index you will learn the date of birth and Social Security Number for that person. (The Social Security Death Index is not published by SSA for public use, but is made available by commercial entities using information from SSA records. We do not offer support of these commercial products nor can we answer questions about the material in the Death Index.)

Other records potentially available from SSA include the Application for a Social Security Number (form SS-5). To obtain any information from SSA you will need to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Q10: Does Social Security have any lists of the most common names in use in the U.S.?

A: Yes, based on the applications for Social Security cards, SSA’s Office of the Actuary has done a series of special studies of the most common names.

Q11: Where do I get more information about the Social Security program as it exists today?

A: Go to the Social Security Online home page.

Q12: Who was the first person to get Social Security benefits?

A: A fellow named Ernest Ackerman got a payment for 17 cents in January 1937. This was a one-time, lump-sum pay-out–which was the only form of benefits paid during the start-up period January 1937 through December 1939.

Q13: If Ernest Ackerman only received a single lump-sum payment, who was the first person to received ongoing monthly benefits?

A: A woman named Ida May Fuller , from Ludlow, Vermont was the first recipient of monthly Social Security benefits.

Q14: How many people, annually, have received Social Security payments?

A: This history is available as a detailed table. (Payment history table)

There is also a (PDF-format) table which shows the minimum and maximum Retirement Benefit amounts over the years.

Q15: What is the “notch”?

A: In 1972 a technical error was introduced in the law which resulted in beneficiaries getting a double adjustment for inflation. In 1977 Congress acted to correct the error. Instead of making the correction immediate, they phased it in over a five year period (this is the notch period). This phase-in period was defined as affecting those people born in 1917-1921. Individuals in the notch generally receive higher benefits than those born after the notch, although they receive lower benefits than those born in the period prior to the notch when the error was in effect.

Q16: Where can I find the history of the tax rates over the years and the amount of earnings subject to Social Security taxes?

A: The history of the tax rates is available as an Adobe PDF file. (Tax rate table). There is also a table showing the maximum amount of Social Security taxes that could have been paid since the program began.

There are also tables showing the minimum and maximum Social Security benefitfor a retired worker who retires at age 62 and one who retires at age 65.

Also, there is a table showing the number of workers paying into Social Security each year. (Covered workers table) And also a table showing the ratio of covered workers to beneficiaries. (Ratio table)

Q17: What does FICA mean and why are Social Security taxes called FICA contributions?

A: Social Security payroll taxes are collected under authority of the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). The payroll taxes are sometimes even called “FICA taxes.” In the original 1935 law the benefit provisions were in Title II of the Act and the taxing provisions were in a separate title, Title VIII. As part of the 1939 Amendments, the Title VIII taxing provisions were taken out of the Social Security Act and placed in the Internal Revenue Code. Since it wouldn’t make any sense to call this new section of the Internal Revenue Code “Title VIII,” it was renamed the “Federal Insurance Contributions Act.” So FICA is nothing more than the tax provisions of the Social Security Act, as they appear in the Internal Revenue Code.

Q18: Is there any significance to the numbers assigned in the Social Security Number?

A: Yes. Originally, the first three digits are assigned by the geographical region in which the person was residing at the time he/she obtained a number. Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the northeast and moving westward. So people on the east coast have the lowest numbers and those on the west coast have the highest numbers. The remaining six digits in the number are more or less randomly assigned and were organized to facilitate the early manual bookkeeping operations associated with the creation of Social Security in the 1930s.

Beginning on June 25, 2011, the SSA implemented a new assignment methodology for Social Security Numbers. The project is a forward looking initiative of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to help protect the integrity of the SSN by establishing a new randomized assignment methodology. SSN Randomization will also extend the longevity of the nine-digit SSN nationwide.

For more information on the randomization of Social Security Numbers, please visit this website:


Q19: How many Social Security numbers have been issued since the program started?

A: Social Security numbers were first issued in November 1936. To date, 453.7 million different numbers have been issued.

Q20: Are Social Security numbers reused after a person dies?

A:  No. We do not reassign a Social Security number (SSN) after the number holder’s death. Even though we have issued over 453 million SSNs so far, and we assign about 5 and one-half million new numbers a year, the current numbering system will provide us with enough new numbers for several generations into the future with no changes in the numbering system.

Q21: When did Social Security cards bear the legend “NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION”?

A: The first Social Security cards were issued starting in 1936, they did not have this legend. Beginning with the sixth design version of the card, issued starting in 1946, SSA added a legend to the bottom of the card reading “FOR SOCIAL SECURITY PURPOSES — NOT FOR IDENTIFICATION.” This legend was removed as part of the design changes for the 18th version of the card, issued beginning in 1972. The legend has not been on any new cards issued since 1972.

Q22: Does the Social Security Number contain a code indicating the racial group to which the cardholder belongs?

A: No. This is a myth. The Social Security Number does contain a segment (the two middle numbers) known as “the group number.” But this refers only to the numerical groups 01-99. It has nothing to do with race.

More detailed information on the Group Number:

Apparently due to the fact that the middle digits of the SSN are referred to as the “group number,” some people have misconstrued this to mean that the “group number” refers to racial groupings. So a myth goes around from time-to-time that encoded in a person’s SSN is a key to their race. This simply is not true.

As should be clear from the explanation of the SSN numbering scheme, the “group number” refers only to the numerical groups 01-99. For filing purposes, the “area numbers” are broken down into these numerical subgroups. So, for example, for area numbers starting with 527 there would be 99 subgroups, one for every number starting with 527-01, and one for every number starting with 527-02, and so on. This was done back in 1936 because in that era there were no computers and all the records were stored in filing cabinets. The early program administrators needed some way to organize the filing cabinets into sub-groups, to make them more manageable, and this is the scheme they came up with.

So the “group number” has nothing whatever to do with race.

More detailed information on the Numbering Scheme:

Number Has Three Parts

The nine-digit SSN is composed of three parts:

  • The first set of three digits is called the Area Number
  • The second set of two digits is called the Group Number
  • The final set of four digits is the Serial Number

The Area Number

The Area Number is assigned by the geographical region. Prior to 1972, cards were issued in local Social Security offices around the country and the Area Number represented the State in which the card was issued. This did not necessarily have to be the State where the applicant lived, since a person could apply for their card in any Social Security office. Since 1972, when SSA began assigning SSNs and issuing cards centrally from Baltimore, the area number assigned has been based on the ZIP code in the mailing address provided on the application for the original Social Security card. The applicant’s mailing address does not have to be the same as their place of residence. Thus, the Area Number does not necessarily represent the State of residence of the applicant, either prior to 1972 or since.

Generally, numbers were assigned beginning in the northeast and moving westward. So people on the east coast have the lowest numbers and those on the west coast have the highest numbers.

Note: One should not make too much of the “geographical code.” It is not meant to be any kind of useable geographical information. The numbering scheme was designed in 1936 (before computers) to make it easier for SSA to store the applications in our files in Baltimore since the files were organized by regions as well as alphabetically. It was really just a bookkeeping device for our own internal use and was never intended to be anything more than that.

Group Number

Within each area, the group number (middle two (2) digits) range from 01 to 99 but are not assigned in consecutive order. For administrative reasons, group numbers issued first consist of the ODD numbers from 01 through 09 and then EVEN numbers from 10 through 98, within each area number allocated to a State. After all numbers in group 98 of a particular area have been issued, the EVEN Groups 02 through 08 are used, followed by ODD Groups 11 through 99.

Serial Number

Within each group, the serial numbers (last four (4) digits) run consecutively from 0001 through 9999.

Q23: Has Social Security ever been financed by general tax revenues?

A: Not to any significant extent.

Detailed explanation of the Design of the Original Social Security Act:

The new social insurance program the Committee on Economic Security (CES) was designing in 1934 was different than welfare in that it was a contributory program in which workers and their employers paid for the cost of the benefits–with the government’s role being that of the fund’s administrator, rather than its payer. This was very important to President Roosevelt who signaled early on that he did not want the federal government to subsidize the program–that it was to be “self-supporting.” He would eventually observe: “If I have anything to say about it, it will always be contributed, both on the part of the employer and the employee, on a sound actuarial basis. It means no money out of the Treasury.”

But some members of the CES did not understand “self-supporting” with quite the same purity as the President did. They saw no reason why general revenues could not be used– especially in the context of the overall approach to old-age security. FDR, and the members of the CES, believed that old-age assistance was a temporary stop-gap which would eventually completely disappear as social insurance became established. At a November 27, 1934 meeting the staff displayed a large wall-chart showing two trend lines, one for old-age assistance and one for the social insurance program. The line for old-age assistance was heading down while that for social insurance was heading up. At the point where they intersected, social insurance would have assumed the bulk of the burden of providing old-age security in America. Thus, general revenue expenses for old-age assistance would steadily diminish, thanks to Social Security. The staff reasoned that it was sensible to take a portion of this savings and use it to finance the Social Security program in the out-years–thus keeping payroll tax rates lower than they otherwise would have to be. Using this rationale, the CES proposal presented to FDR contained a tax schedule which financed the program by payroll taxes until 1965, at which point a general revenue subsidy would kick-in. Eventually, under the CES plan, general revenues would finance about one-third of the cost of the benefits.

The Committee’s report was late. It was due to Congress on January 1, 1935 but it was not finished and presented to the President until January 15th. Immediately upon receiving the report the President sent notice to Congress that he would be transmitting the report to them on the 17th, then he sat down to read the report. FDR very carefully went over the actuarial tables and discovered to his surprise that the program was not fully “self- supporting” as he had directed it should be. He summoned Secretary Perkins to the White House on the afternoon of the 16th to tell her that there must be some mistake in the actuarial tables because they showed a large federal subsidy beginning in 1965. When informed that this was no mistake, the President made it clear it was indeed a mistake, although of a different kind! He told the Secretary to get to work immediately to devise a fully self-sustaining old age insurance system. The report was transmitted to the Congress on the 17th as the President had promised, but the actuarial table in question was withdrawn until it could be reworked. Bob Myers, later to be SSA’s Chief Actuary, was given the assignment to rework the financing and the system finally devised projected a $47 billion surplus by 1980–with no general revenue financing.

Detailed explanation of the Beginning of Small General Revenue Subsidies:

And so, Social Security was from its first day of operation a fully self-supporting program, without any general revenue funding. But FDR’s sense of purity was ultimately left behind when Congress voted the first subsidy provisions to be added to Social Security. Ever since World War II it was recognized that there was a problem for people who entered the service of their country in the military. Immediately following World War II Congress passed a brief change to Social Security which provided some small general revenues to pay benefits to WWII veterans who had become disabled in the years immediately following the War and who did not qualify for a veterans benefit. From 1947-1951 a total of $16 million was transferred into the Trust Funds for this purpose.

Since military wages were not covered employment until 1957, spending several years in the military would result in reduced Social Security benefits. Even after military service became a form of covered employment, the low cash wages paid to servicemen and women meant that military service was also a financial sacrifice. As a special benefit for members of the armed forces the Congress decided to grant special non-contributory wage credits for military service before 1957 and special deemed military wage credits to boost the amounts of credited contributions for service after 1956. These credits were paid out of general revenues as a subsidy to military personnel. So, each year since 1966 the Social Security Trust Funds have in fact received some relatively small transfers from the general revenues as bonuses for military personnel.

In 1965-66 Congress also identified another “disadvantaged” group: elderly individuals (age 72 before 1971) who had not been able to work long enough under Social Security to become insured for a benefit. People in this group were granted special Social Security benefits paid for entirely by the general revenues of the Treasury. These were known as Special Age 72, or Prouty, benefits. Over time, of course, these beneficiaries will disappear as Father Time claims members of the group.

Finally, as part of the 1983 Amendments, Social Security benefits became subject to federal income taxes for the first time, and the monies generated by this taxation are returned to the Trust Funds from general revenues–the third and last source of general revenue financing of Social Security.

All three of these general revenue streams are so small relative to the payroll tax funding that for most practical purposes we could still accurately describe the Social Security program as “self-supporting.”

Q24: How much has Social Security paid out since it started?

A: From 1937 (when the first payments were made) through 2009 the Social Security program has expended $11.3 trillion.

Q25: How much has Social Security taken in taxes and other income since it started?

A: From 1937 (when taxes were first collected) through 2009 the Social Security program has received $13.8 trillion in income.

Q26: Has Social Security always taken in more money each year than it needed to pay benefits?

A: No. So far there have been 11 years in which the Social Security program did not take enough in FICA taxes to pay the current year’s benefits. During these years, Trust Fund bonds in the amount of about $24 billion made up the difference.

Q27: Do the Social Security Trust Funds earn interest?

A: Yes they do. By law, the assets of the Social Security program must be invested in securities guaranteed as to both principal and interest. The Trust Funds hold a mix of short-term and long-term government bonds. The Trust Funds can hold both regular Treasury securities and “special obligation” securities issued only to federal trust funds. In practice, most of the securities in the Social Security Trust Funds are of the “special obligation” type. (See additional explanation from SSA’s Office of the Actuary.)

The Trust Funds earn interest which is set at the average market yield on long-term Treasury securities. Interest earnings on the invested assets of the combined OASI and DI Trust Funds were $55.5 billion in calendar year 1999. This represented an effective annual interest rate of 6.9 percent.

The Trust Funds have earned interest in every year since the program began. More detailed information on the Trust Fund investments can be found in the Annual Report of the Social Security Trustees and on the Actuary’s webpages concerning the Investment Transactions and Investment Holdings of the Trust Funds.

Q28: Did President Franklin Roosevelt make a set of promises about Social Security, which have now been violated?

A: This question generally refers to a set of misinformation that is propagated over the Internet (usually via email) from time to time.

More details about Myths:

Myth 1: President Roosevelt promised that participation in the program would be completely voluntary

Persons working in employment covered by Social Security are subject to the FICA payroll tax. Like all taxes, this has never been voluntary. From the first days of the program to the present, anyone working on a job covered by Social Security has been obligated to pay their payroll taxes.

In the early years of the program, however, only about half the jobs in the economy were covered by Social Security. Thus one could work in non-covered employment and not have to pay FICA taxes (and of course, one would not be eligible to collect a future Social Security benefit). In that indirect sense, participation in Social Security was voluntary. However, if a job was covered, or became covered by subsequent law, then if a person worked at that job, participation in Social Security was mandatory.

There have only been a handful of exceptions to this rule, generally involving persons working for state/local governments. Under certain conditions, employees of state/local governments have been able to voluntarily choose to have their employment covered or not covered.

Myth 2: President Roosevelt promised that the participants would only have to pay 1% of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the program

The tax rate in the original 1935 law was 1% each on the employer and the employee, on the first $3,000 of earnings. This rate was increased on a regular schedule in four steps so that by 1949 the rate would be 3% each on the first $3,000. The figure was never $,1400, and the rate was never fixed for all time at 1%.

(The text of the 1935 law and the tax rate schedule can be found here.)

Myth 3: President Roosevelt promised that the money the participants elected to put into the program would be deductible from their income for tax purposes each year

There was never any provision of law making the Social Security taxes paid by employees deductible for income tax purposes. In fact, the 1935 law expressly forbid this idea, in Section 803 of Title VIII.

(The text of Title VIII. can be found here.)

Myth 4: President Roosevelt promised that the money the participants paid would be put into the independent “Trust Fund,” rather than into the General operating fund, and therefore, would only be used to fund the Social Security Retirement program, and no other Government program

The idea here is basically correct. However, this statement is usually joined to a second statement to the effect that this principle was violated by subsequent Administrations. However, there has never been any change in the way the Social Security program is financed or the way that Social Security payroll taxes are used by the federal government.

The Social Security Trust Fund was created in 1939 as part of the Amendments enacted in that year. From its inception, the Trust Fund has always worked the same way. The Social Security Trust Fund has never been “put into the general fund of the government.”

Most likely this myth comes from a confusion between the financing of the Social Security program and the way the Social Security Trust Fund is treated in federal budget accounting. Starting in 1969 (due to action by the Johnson Administration in 1968) the transactions to the Trust Fund were included in what is known as the “unified budget.” This means that every function of the federal government is included in a single budget. This is sometimes described by saying that the Social Security Trust Funds are “on-budget.” This budget treatment of the Social Security Trust Fund continued until 1990 when the Trust Funds were again taken “off-budget.” This means only that they are shown as a separate account in the federal budget. But whether the Trust Funds are “on-budget” or “off-budget” is primarily a question of accounting practices–it has no affect on the actual operations of the Trust Fund itself.

Myth 5: President Roosevelt promised that the annuity payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income

Originally, Social Security benefits were not taxable income. This was not, however, a provision of the law, nor anything that President Roosevelt did or could have “promised.” It was the result of a series of administrative rulings issued by the Treasury Department in the early years of the program. (The Treasury rulings can be found here.)

In 1983 Congress changed the law by specifically authorizing the taxation of Social Security benefits. This was part of the 1983 Amendments, and this law overrode the earlier administrative rulings from the Treasury Department. (A detailed explanation of the 1983 Amendments can be found here.)

Q29: I have seen a set of questions and answers on the Internet concerning who started the taxing of Social Security benefits, and questions like that. Are the answers given correct?

A: There are many varieties of questions and answers of this form circulating on the Internet. One fairly widespread form of the questions is filled with misinformation. (See a detailed explanation here.) We recommend that Internet users refer to SSA’s official Questions and Answers section on our homepage for reliable information (go to www.socialsecurity.gov for the Q & A section.)

Immigration And Naturalization Law Through The Years

Americans encouraged relatively free and open immigration during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and rarely questioned that policy until the late 1800s. After certain states passed immigration laws following the Civil War, the Supreme Court in 1875 declared regulation of immigration a federal responsibility. Thus, as the number of immigrants rose in the 1880s and economic conditions in some areas worsened, Congress began to pass immigration legislation.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Alien Contract Labor laws of 1885 and 1887 prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the United States. The general Immigration Act of 1882 levied a head tax of fifty cents on each immigrant and blocked (or excluded) the entry of idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge.

These national immigration laws created the need for new federal enforcement authorities. In the 1880s, state boards or commissions enforced immigration law with direction from U.S. Treasury Department officials. At the Federal level, U.S. Customs Collectors at each port of entry collected the head tax from immigrants while “Chinese Inspectors” enforced the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Origins of the Federal Immigration Service

The federal government assumed direct control of inspecting, admitting, rejecting, and processing all immigrants seeking admission to the United States with the Immigration Act of 1891. The 1891 Act also expanded the list of excludable classes, barring the immigration of polygamists, persons convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, and those suffering loathsome or contagious diseases.

The national government’s new immigration obligations and its increasingly complex immigration laws required a dedicated federal enforcement agency to regulate immigration. Accordingly, the 1891 Immigration Act created the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration within the Treasury Department. The Superintendent oversaw a new corps of U.S. Immigrant Inspectors stationed at the country’s principal ports of entry.

Federal Immigration Stations – On January 2, 1892, the Immigration Service opened the U.S.’s best known immigration station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. The enormous station housed inspection facilities, hearing and detention rooms, hospitals, cafeterias, administrative offices, railroad ticket offices, and representatives of many immigrant aid societies. America’s largest and busiest port of entry for decades, Ellis Island station employed 119 of the Immigration Service’s entire staff of 180 in 1893.

The Service built additional immigrant stations at other principal ports of entry through the early 20th century. At New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other traditional ports of entry, the Immigration Service hired many Immigrant Inspectors who previously worked for state agencies. At other ports, both old and new, the Service built an Inspector corps by hiring former Customs Inspectors and Chinese Inspectors, and training recruits.

Implementing A National Immigration Policy – During its first decade, the Immigration Service formalized basic immigration procedures and made its first attempts to enforce a national immigration policy. The Immigration Service began collecting arrival manifests (also frequently called passenger lists or immigration arrival records) from each incoming ship, a former duty of the U.S. Customs Service since 1820. Inspectors then questioned arrivals about their admissibility and noted their admission or rejection on the manifest records.

Beginning in 1893, Inspectors also served on Boards of Special Inquiry that closely reviewed each exclusion case. Inspectors often initially excluded aliens who were likely to become public charges because they lacked funds or had no friends or relatives nearby. In these cases, the Board of Special Inquiry usually admitted the alien if someone could post bond or one of the immigrant aid societies would accept responsibility for the alien.

Detention guards and matrons cared for detained persons pending decisions in their cases or, if the decision was negative, awaiting deportation. The Immigration Service deported aliens denied admission by the Board of Special Inquiry at the expense of the transportation company that brought them to the port.

Enhanced Responsibilities – Congress continued to exert Federal control over immigration with the Act of March 2, 1895, which promoted the Office of Immigration to the Bureau of Immigration and changed the agency head’s title from Superintendent to Commissioner-General of Immigration. The Act of June 6, 1900, consolidated immigration enforcement by assigning enforcement of both Alien Contract Labor laws and Chinese Exclusion laws to the Commissioner-General.

Because most immigration laws of the time sought to protect American workers and wages, an Act of February 14, 1903, transferred the Bureau of Immigration from the Treasury Department to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. An “immigrant fund” created from collection of immigrants’ head tax financed the Immigration Service until 1909, when Congress replaced the fund with an annual appropriation.

Origins of the Federal Naturalization Service

At the beginning of the 20th century, federal attention next turned to standardizing naturalization procedures nationwide. Congress previously delegated its constitutional authority to establish “an uniform Rule of Naturalization” to the judiciary for over a century. Under the decentralized system established by the Naturalization Act of 1802, “any court of record” – Federal, state, county, or municipal – could naturalize a new American citizen. In 1905, a commission charged with investigating naturalization practice reported an alarming lack of uniformity among the nation’s more than 5,000 naturalization courts. Individual courts exercised naturalization authority without central supervision and with little guidance from Congress concerning the proper interpretation of its naturalization laws. Each court determined its own naturalization requirements, set its own fees, followed its own naturalization procedures, and issued its own naturalization certificate. This absence of uniformity made confirming a person’s citizenship status very difficult, resulting in widespread naturalization fraud. The naturalization of large groups of aliens before elections caused particular concern.

Standardizing Naturalization Nationwide – Congress enacted the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 to restore dignity and uniformity to the naturalization process. The 1906 law framed the fundamental rules that governed naturalization for most of the 20th century. That legislation also created the Federal Naturalization Service to oversee the nation’s naturalization courts. Congress placed this new agency in the Bureau of Immigration, expanding it into the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.

To normalize naturalization procedures, the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 required standard naturalization forms and encouraged state and local courts to give up their naturalization jurisdiction to federal courts. To prevent fraud, the new federal Naturalization Service collected copies of every naturalization record issued by every naturalization court across the country. Bureau officials also checked immigration records to verify each applicant’s legal admission into the United States.

The Independent Bureau of Naturalization – In 1913, the Naturalization Service began its two decades as an independent Bureau. That year saw the Department of Commerce and Labor divided into separate cabinet departments and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization split into the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization. The two bureaus coexisted separately within the new Department of Labor until reunited as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1933.

Encouraging Citizenship – A grassroots Americanization movement popular before World War I influenced developments in the Naturalization Bureau during the 1920s. The Bureau published its first Federal Textbook on Citizenship in 1918 to prepare naturalization applicants. Its Education for Citizenship program distributed the textbooks to public schools offering citizenship education classes and notified eligible aliens of available education opportunities.

Increasing Oversight of Naturalization Courts – Legislation of 1926 established the designated examiner system which assigned a Naturalization Examiner to each federal naturalization court. The Naturalization Examiners interviewed applicants, made recommendations to judges, and monitored proceedings. This direct interaction with the courts further advanced the fairness and uniformity of the naturalization process nationwide.

Mass Immigration and WWI

The Immigration Service continued evolving as the United States experienced rising immigration during the early years of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1920 the nation admitted over 14.5 million immigrants.

Concerns mass immigration and its impact on the country began to change Americans’ historically open attitude toward immigration. Congress strengthened national immigration law with new legislation in 1903 and 1907. Meanwhile, a Presidential Commission investigated the causes of massive emigration out of Southern and Eastern Europe and the Congressional Dillingham Commission studied conditions among immigrants in the United States. These commissions’ reports influenced the writing and passage of the Immigration Act of 1917.

Among its other provisions, the 1917 Act required that immigrants be able to read and write in their native language, obligating the Immigration Service to begin administering literacy tests. Another change, the introduction of pre-inspection and more-rigorous medical examinations at the point of departure saved time for people passing through some American ports of entry and reduced the number of excluded immigrants.

Wartime Challenges – The outbreak of World War I greatly reduced immigration from Europe but also imposed new duties on the Immigration Service. Internment of enemy aliens (primarily seamen who worked on captured enemy ships) became a Service responsibility. Passport requirements imposed by a 1918 Presidential Proclamation increased agency paperwork during immigrant inspection and deportation activities. The passport requirement also disrupted routine traffic across United States’ land borders with Canada and Mexico. Consequently, the Immigration Service began to issue Border Crossing Cards.

Era of Restriction

Mass immigration resumed after the First World War. Congress responded with a new immigration policy, the national origins quota system. Established by Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, the national origins system numerically limited immigration for the first time in United States history. Each nationality received a quota based on its representation in past United States census figures. The State Department distributed a limited number of visas each year through U.S. Embassies abroad and the Immigration Service only admitted immigrants who arrived with a valid visa.

Birth of the Border Patrol and Board of Review – Severely restricted immigration often results increased illegal immigration. In response to rising numbers of illegal entries and alien smuggling, especially along land borders, in 1924 Congress created the U.S. Border Patrol within the Immigration Service.

The strict new immigration policy coupled with Border Patrol successes shifted more agency staff and resources to deportation activity. Rigorous enforcement of immigration law at ports of entry also increased appeals under the law. This led to creation of the Immigration Board of Review within the Immigration Bureau in the mid-1920s. (The Board of Review became the Board of Immigration Appeals after moving to the Justice Department in the 1940s, and since 1983 has been known as the Executive Office of Immigration Review (EOIR).)

United Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) – Executive Order 6166 of June 10, 1933, reunited the Bureau of Immigration and Bureau of Naturalization into one agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Consolidation resulted in significant reduction of the agency’s workforce achieved through merit testing and application of Civil Service examination procedures.

The agency’s focus shifted towards law enforcement as immigration volume dropped significantly during the Great Depression. Through the 1930s, INS dedicated more resources to investigation, exclusion, prevention of illegal entries, deportation of criminal and subversive aliens, and cooperating closely with the Department of Justice’s United States Attorneys and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in prosecuting violations of immigration and nationality laws.

World War II

The threat of war in Europe, and a growing view of immigration as a national security rather than an economic issue, reshaped the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) mission. In 1940, Presidential Reorganization Plan Number V moved the INS from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice.

The United States’ entry into World War II brought additional change as many Service personnel enlisted in the Armed Forces. This left INS short of experienced staff. At the same time, INS Headquarters temporarily moved to Philadelphia for the course of the war.

Aiding the War Effort – New national security duties led to the INS’ rapid growth through World War II. The agency’s workforce doubled from approximately 4,000 to 8,000 employees as INS instituted the following programs in support of the war effort:

  • Recording and fingerprinting every alien in the United States through the Alien Registration Program;
  • Organizing and operating internment camps and detention facilities for enemy aliens;
  • Increased Border Patrol operations;
  • Record checks related to security clearances for immigrant defense workers; and
  • Administration of a program to import agricultural laborers to harvest the crops left behind by American workers who went to war.

During the war the INS was relieved the responsibility of enforcing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which Congress repealed in 1943. Other war-time developments included conversion to a new record-keeping system and implementation of the Nationality Act of 1940.

Post-War Years

Immigration remained relatively low following World War II because the numerical limitations imposed by the 1920s national origins system remained in place. However, humanitarian crises spawned by the conflict and United States burgeoning international presence in the post-war world brought new challenges for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Providing Humanitarian Relief – Many INS programs in the 1940s and 1950s addressed individuals affected by conditions in postwar Europe. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 and Refugee Relief Act of 1953 allowed for admission of many refugees displaced by the war and unable to come to the United States under regular immigration procedures. With the onset of the Cold War, the Hungarian Refugee Act of 1956, Refugee Escapee Act of 1957, and Cuban Adjustment Program of the 1960s served the same purpose for “escapees” from communist countries. Other post-war INS programs facilitated family reunification. The War Brides Act of 1945 and the Fiancées Act of 1946 eased admission of the spouses and families of returning American soldiers.

The Bracero Program – The World War II temporary worker program continued after the war under a 1951 formal agreement between Mexico and the United States. Like its wartime predecessor the Mexican Agricultural Labor Program (“MALP”), commonly called the “Bracero Program,” matched seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico with approved American employers. Between 1951 and 1968, hundreds of thousands of braceros entered the country each year as non-immigrant laborers.

Enforcing Immigration Laws – By the mid-1950s, INS enforcement activities focused on two areas of national concern. Public alarm over illegal aliens resident and working in the United States caused the Service to strengthen border controls and launch targeted deportation programs including the controversial “Operation Wetback,” a 1954 Mexican Border enforcement initiative. Additional worry over criminal aliens within the country prompted INS investigation and deportation of communists, subversives, and organized crime figures.

Reforming Immigration Policy – Congress re-codified and combined all previous immigration and naturalization law into the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952. The 1952 law removed all racial barriers to immigration and naturalization and granted the same preference to husbands as it did to wives of American citizens. However, the INA retained the national origins quotas.

In 1965 amendments to the 1952 immigration law, Congress replaced the national origins system with a preference system designed to reunite immigrant families and attract skilled immigrants to the United States. This change to national policy responded to changes in the sources of immigration since 1924. By the mid-20th century, the majority of applicants for immigration visas came from Asia and Central and South America rather than Europe. The preference system continued to limit the number of immigration visas available each year, however, and Congress still responded to refugees with special legislation, as it did for Indochinese refugees in the 1970s. Not until the Refugee Act of 1980 did the United States have a general policy governing the admission of refugees.

Late 20th Century

As in the past, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) adapted to new challenges which emerged during the 1980s and 90s. Changes in world migration patterns, the ease of modern international travel, and a growing emphasis on controlling illegal immigration all shaped the development of INS through the closing decades of the 20th century.

Adopting New Approaches to Immigration Law Enforcement – INS’s responsibilities expanded under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. IRCA charged the INS with enforcing sanctions against United States employers who hired undocumented aliens. Carrying out employer sanction duties involved investigating, prosecuting, and levying fines against corporate and individual employers, as well as deportation of those found to be working illegally. The 1986 law also allowed certain aliens illegally in the U.S. to legalize their residence. INS administered that legalization program.

The Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT 90) retooled the immigrant selection system once again. IMMACT 90 increased the number of available immigrant visas and revised the preference categories governing permanent legal immigration. Immigrant visas were divided into 3 separate categories: family-sponsored, employment-based, and “diversity” immigrants selected by lottery from countries with low immigration volumes.

The 1990 Act also established an administrative procedure for naturalization and ended judicial naturalization. Under the act, authorized INS administrative officials could grant or deny naturalization petitions.

Dawning of a New Millennium – The INS workforce, which numbered approximately 8,000 from World War II through the late 1970s, increased to more than 30,000 employees in thirty-six INS districts at home and abroad by turn of the 21st century. The original force of Immigrant Inspectors evolved into a corps of specialist officers focused on individual elements of the agency’s mission. As it entered its second century, INS employees:

  • Enforced laws providing for selective immigration and controlled entry of tourists, business travelers, and other temporary visitors;
  • Inspected and admitted arrivals at land, sea, and air ports of entry;
  • Administered benefits such as naturalization and permanent resident status;
  • Granted asylum to refugees;
  • Patrolled the nation’s borders; and
  • Apprehended and removed aliens who entered illegally, violated the requirements of their stay, or threatened the safety of the people of the United States.


The events of September 11, 2001, injected new urgency into INS’ mission and initiated another shift in the United States’ immigration policy. The emphasis of American immigration law enforcement became border security and removing criminal aliens to protect the nation from terrorist attacks. At the same time the United States retained its commitment to welcoming lawful immigrants and supporting their integration and participation in American civic culture.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 disbanded INS on March 1, 2003. Its constituent parts contributed to 3 new federal agencies serving under the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS):

  1. Customs and Border Protection (CBP),
  2. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and
  3. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

CBP prevents drugs, weapons, and terrorists and other inadmissible persons from entering the country. ICE enforces criminal and civil laws governing border control, customs, trade, and immigration. USCIS oversees lawful immigration to the United States and naturalization of new American citizens. Although now separate, these agencies continue to cooperate, benefitting from and building upon the legacy of INS.

Reparatory Justice

Good afternoon,

I am grateful to Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, Representative of Venezuela to the Organization of American States (OAS), for inviting me to address representatives of the OAS’s member nations to implore you to action on Reparatory Justice as a human rights policy and as a moral democratic imperative.

I thank all of you for the opportunity given this afternoon by the Organization of American States to present my thoughts on the issue of Reparatory Justice.

As I sit among the ambassadors of sovereign states of the Americas the memory of my Mother is with me. Her Paternal grandmother was born in 1853 and was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in the U.S. in 1863. I have every reason to feel they would view this occasion to represent Reparatory Justice at the OAS as very important! As a young actor in San Francisco, California trying to find my voice and make a living in my chosen profession, I would often stop by mother’s work place. She worked hard at her Job for the United States postal Office for more than thirty years. But the warmth of her generous smile and faith was always encouraging. Of course she would want me to meet her fellow workers, for no other reason than to tell them that, “my son is an “Actor”, which she took great pride in stating. When asked what I had done, which had been very little at the time, she would say: “he hasn’t done anything yet, but one day he will do something important!” I believe that as she smiles on me today, my presence here speaking before the distinguished members of the OAS, qualifies as an example of what she meant by ‘important’.

When Ambassador Alvarez first requested that I speak to the OAS about Reparatory Justice, I recalled many fruitful exchanges that I had with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez about the historical plight of Afro Descendants in our hemisphere. We talked about the heroism and invaluable contributions made by people of African descent to the founding and development of Republics throughout the Americas. Shortly after we began our first meeting, President Chavez spoke about his own African ancestry. Without prompting, he reflected critically that racial equity had not been as central to Venezuela’s affirmative action policy considerations as it should have been in its 1999 Constitution; that Afro-Venezuelans had been largely excluded from its various initiatives. As he addressed the TransAfrica Forum Board members who accompanied me, he looked to his staff and, without hesitation,  concluded that Venezuela needed to rectify its failure to spefificallyaddress race in public policy and to earnestly collaborate with Afro-Venezuelans to improve their lives and to advance their capacities to contribute to national development. Political leaders across our continent should be moved as he was to initiate projects of reparatory justice with their citizens of African descent.

I have had similar positive exchanges with several global political leaders about the crimes against humanity committed against Africans during the European-Atlantic Slave Trade, and about the subsequent institutionalization of racism against Afro Descendants that persists to the present. Included among the political leaders with whom I have discussed the imperative of achieving restorative justice for people of African descent are the late South African President Nelson Mandela, former Brazilian President Lula Da Silva, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, an eloquent and persuasive advocate for Reparatory Justice, and Congressman John Conyers, author of U.S. Congressional House of Representative Bill H.R. 40 for a Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans. In November 2016, I also met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Havana to discuss the U.N. International Decade for People of African Descent.

Reflecting on those past positive encounters, I am especially heartened by the recent establishment of the U.S. National African American Commission (NAARC) and I support its call for President Obama to appoint a John Hope Franklin Commission on Reparatory Justice before he leaves office. I note with satisfaction the emergence of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, chaired by the Caribbean’s most eminent public intellectual, Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles, and I applaud CARICOM’s call on the former European slaveholding nations to step up and help repair the devastation wrought on the Caribbean region by hundreds of years of slavery and colonialism. Moreover, I applaud the strong support for CARICOM’s claims that have been voiced unanimously by the member nations of CELAC and ALBA and I call on the OAS to add its influential voice in support of CARICOM’s reparatory justice program. Latin America, Canada, and the United States must now take the next step in continent wide Human Rights and justice policies and initiate reparatory justice discussions and policies with their citizens of African descent.

This is a momentous occasion for me and for hundreds of millions of Afro Descendants to address an august body that represents all of the countries of the Americas. Of the nearly one billion citizens of the Americas, approximately 200 million are Afro Descendants, the progeny of enslaved Africans who were forced, without compensation, to contribute their intellectual and physical labor for the enrichment of European settler colonies. For centuries, the nations those colonies produced physically and psychologically exploited Afro Descendants and Native peoples through the brutal inhumanity of rape, incarceration, and murder. This uncomfortable shared history of Afro Descendants in the Americas belongs to all of us as citizens of American Continental Republics. It has unfolded over the centuries and, despite heroic democratic advances, has given rise to structural, economic, social, and cultural racism, leaving behind a legacy of broad discrimination against Afro Descendants in the Americas for the 21st century. This discrimination often takes the forms of disproportionate poverty, disease, lack of educational opportunity, massive incarceration, rampant sexual exploitation, and inadequate participation in political decision-making.

Through my travels and ongoing communication with people of African descent throughout the hemisphere, I am aware that some nations have been more progressive and productive than others in acknowledging slavery as a crime against humanity and in implementing public policies to eradicate the scourge of injustice of persistent racism and discrimination in our societies. Nevertheless, we are still confronted by the harsh realities of life for Afro Descendants in the Americas, the majority of whom live among the culturally diverse populations in the Caribbean and Latin America, comprising 30% or more of that region’s population yet accounting for more than half of its identified poor.

In my country, the United States of America, which is the richest and arguably most developed country of the world, there are forty-million Afro Descendants, many of Caribbean and Latin American heritage. On a daily basis, U.S. news is inundated with disturbing and saddening stories of Black women and men, particularly the young, being killed by law enforcement officers and vigilantes or being incarcerated; of young black people facing high rates of under and unemployment, poverty, lack of access to education and health care, and consequently succumbing to high rates of illness and death. The current state of democracy, justice, and socio-economic development for Afro Descendants in the United States is disappointing and tragic. Sadly, these negative social and political indicators characterize and link the lives and justice struggles of the majority of people of African descent throughout the Americas despite significant national, cultural, linguistic, political, ideological, religious, and economic differences.

Rich and diverse historical legacies of struggles for freedom, justice, equality, and development have propelled Afro Descendants over the centuries to act in solidarity across national identities. I am but one Afro Descendant within a long and continuous historical tradition of advocacy for people of African descent who have sought to enlist the support of national and multilateral policy organizations to achieve reparatory justice.

Those of you who are students of history will know that news of the 1804 Haitian Revolution, a successful revolt against slavery and oppression by French colonialists, spread widely among enslaved Afro Descendant populations throughout the Americas, highlighting their common plight against the terror and the inhumanity of colonialism, enslavement and racism, You would be among the educated few who know that Haiti not only represented a victorious organic revolt from the lowest sectors of society, but that it also inspired subsequent struggles in Latin America that gave rise to a group of new independent Caribbean and Latin American nations that emerged by ousting their European colonizers. The Haitian Revolution was a watershed moment in history that many citizens in the Americas have not always celebrated, and it harkens to a history of Africans rebelling against slavery in the Americas that continues until today.

The historical recognition, cultural affinity, and political development projects of people of African descent in the Americas achieved a major victory toward democratic inclusion by planning, coordinating, and organizing their attendance and participation at the 2001 United Nations World Conference against Racism, Intolerance and Other Forms of Discrimination in Durban, South Africa. In fact, the term “Afro Descendant” was formulated and gained widespread currency in policymaking circles at the 2000 Preparatory conference for Durban which was held in Santiago, Chile. Hundreds of people of African descent from across the Americas gathered in Santiago, speaking Spanish, English, Creoles, French, practitioners of various African religions as well as of Christianity, to advocate for diverse ideals that encompassed Pan Africanism, capitalism, and socialism. Diverse in their nationalities and their cultural expressions, but still united in a common struggle for human rights, they recognized their shared interest in counteracting the structural racism and discrimination that began with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and that produced populations now called Afro Brazilians, Palenqueros and Raizales of Colombia, Haitians, Afro Cubans, mulattos, and a host of other identity designations. The planning delegates in Santiago coined the term Afro Descendant to give form to their policy proposals and demands to State-government representatives who would convene the following year at the United Nation Durban World Conference against Racism.

This, honorable lady and gentlemen representatives of the Organization of American States, is “Our America.” An America that far too many of our citizens and policy makers, including heads of State, refuse to fully acknowledge and fail to engage with as a democratic mandate to deliver justice, equality, and equitable national and regional development.

You might reasonably inquire, why I, Danny Glover, wellknown citizen-artist of the United States, have come to speak to the OAS about Reparatory Justice. I come to you today with full and proud recognition and embrace of the fact that I am a descendant of enslaved Africans who were transported, against their will, to the so called “New World.” That unprecedented global project of European colonial expansion through the pillage, rape, and genocide of Native Peoples shaped the nations and humanity we have become today. My maternal grandmother…..From that family history and Legacy of resistance and transformation, I am one of the not so many Afro Descendants who have been relatively successful out of the roughly 200 million Afro Descendants in our American hemisphere, who, with the help of less fortunate Afro Descendant family members and communities were educated about the histories and cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora in the creation of American colonies and American Republics. Through this education, I was guided to form connections with my Afro Descendants sisters and brothers across this continent, from Canada to Uruguay and everywhere in between. I am also happily married to an Afro Brazilian woman.

It is true that some Afro Descendants have like me been relatively successful against great historical odds and the contemporary challenges of structural racism, which casts a long shadow across class lines and individual achievement for most people of African descent. I have been fortunate to be counseled and supported by women and men of African Descent across the U.S., Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Europe who today continue to live their lives as social-individuals, connected to the cultural legacies and daily life struggles and accomplishments of ordinary citizens. So I am one of the public messengers of those histories of struggle and of current demands to you today for Reparatory Justice for Afro Descendants. I speak to you in the spirit of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, the great 20th Century Afro Descendant Father of U.S. sociology, Pan-African social justice activism, and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:

“I am bone of bone and flesh of flesh of them that live within the Veil”.

“Living within the Veil” is a haunting metaphor that speaks to the partitioned and concealed world of black-skinned humanity; a humanity lived by hundreds of millions of Afro Descendants in our hemisphere, 40 million in the U.S. alone, that is invisible and inaudible to so many but that is vibrant and complex for us who, with pride and dignity, proclaim universal human rights and justice for all. At the national level, we generally fall far short of public apology and provision of just recompense to the millions of Afro descendants still hemmed in by structural racism and systemic economic inequality, – descendants of enslaved ancestors who built great towns, cities, countries, and provided luxuries that so many of us enjoy today.

A 2016 article published by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, “Forging Equitable Communities: Creating Structures of Opportunity”, by Gary L. Cunningham, President and CEO of Metropolitan Economic Development Association of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota concluded that, “the majority of African-American people still live wrapped up, largely out of sight, in the vicissitudes of poverty.” He goes on to say that, “When the fundamental opportunity structures go unchallenged, the living conditions of low-income African-American people remain the same.” My direct experience with Afro Descendant and indigenous communities within the United States and with communities throughout this hemisphere, without exception, is that Cunningham’s description of the U.S. holds true for all of our continent. The majority of Afro Descendants and Indigenous peoples still live wrapped up, largely out of sight, in the vicissitudes of poverty and the opportunity structures in our societies have not been sufficiently or consistently responsive.

I speak to you as one of many social-individuals who works in collaboration with, not for, the millions who are still behind the contemporary veils of poverty, exclusion, incarceration, discrimination, and of official displacement and violence. I call upon you today as policy representatives and socially conscious citizens and as public servants of our countries who are guided by personal ethics, religious faith, and official oath of office, to avow a commitment to democracy, justice, equality, and human rights.

The call today for Reparatory Justice for Afro Descendants is an imperative for expanded democracy and spiritual and material wellbeing. It is a test-case of human decency that conforms to accepted standards of morality. The call for Reparatory Justice is a marker of the outstanding balance on atonement, and adjudication of our past wrongs and current barriers against fellow citizens who continue to be shut out, marginalized, and discriminated against. The negative consequences of inattention or of insufficient attention to the legitimate demands of Afro Descendants in all of our societies for official national apologies for recognition of enslavement of Africans as a historically significant Crime against Humanity requires serious reflection and emotional, psychological, and material repair. The case of Reparatory Justice must be formulated and implemented in collaboration with Afro Descendants as they proactively envision and construct their futures as full citizens with both self-interests and common interests with other citizens, not as immobilized, pitiful victims.

Official recognition by public policy makers of the absence or inadequacy of policies to overcome inhumane negative racialized circumstances in which most of Afro Descendants live today is a major step towards positive public ownership, not guilt for the past. It is a pathway to lifting the veil of ignorance, frustration, intolerance, and inaction that divides so many among all of our communities.

I speak to you today as a citizen-artist of the United States and as an official Ambassador of Good Will for the United Nations International Decade for Afro Descendants. The justification for the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice, Development issued by the global community of nations succinctly states:

“In proclaiming this Decade, the international community is recognizing that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected. Around 200 million people identifying themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside the African continent.”

I highlight the phrase recognizing that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected, not to separate them from fellow citizens of other racial, cultural, or ethnic backgrounds. I highlight that phrase to draw special attention to the distinct concerns of Afro Descendants and of Indigenous peoples who have and continue to suffer racial and skin-color discrimination as well as the related cultural and economic inequities in our societies and governance systems. My colleague, James Early, a long time participant in social justice struggles with Afro Descendants across our Americas, has criticized some representatives in the Americas for, “cavalierly rejecting the terminology Afro Descendant” positing in confutation that, “we all are Afro Descendants because Africa is the cradle of civilization.” I agree that such responses are, to say the least, inconsiderate of the widespread color coded racial discrimination documented both by historical claims by Afro Descendants across our hemisphere in all countries, and in stark contrast to current official documentation done by multilateral bodies like the United Nations and the OAS.

In regards to the significance of Reparatory Justice as a foundational element of public and regional policy in the Americas, I especially recommend to members of the OAS the guidanceexpressed by United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon who says:

“We must remember that people of African descent are among those most affected by racism. Too often, they face denial of basic rights such as access to quality health services and education”.

Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s declaration about the negative human consequences of current racism and its connection to the denial of basic human rights speaks to a blight on all of our democracies that necessitates special policy attention and dedicated human and budget resources. Most importantly, the pernicious racism and discrimination in our societies against Afro Descendants and Indigenous peoples and communities requires leadership to productively guide our societies toward acknowledging and apologizing for the past. Apologizing for slavery is an act of honesty, courage, and contrition that can and will strengthen us as citizens to draw upon the virtues our nations have relied upon to make significant and, at times, great contributions to humanity.

Within the call for Reparatory Justice for Afro Descendants and Indigenous communities and nations is a complex five century narrative that can not be rewritten in a decade, or a few decades. In fact, our distinct national histories are replete with starts and terminations of well intended and at times small and significant gains. What is obvious about the negative life conditions and strong, continuous demands of Afro Descendant and Indigenous communities in all of our nations is the urgent need to make a major, long term commitment of human will and budget resources to work with these communities to repair the damage done to them. The U.N International Decade for Afro Descendants is an invitation, a call, and a demand that we rededicate ourselves to righting this

historical wrong, which continues to plague and impede humanistic and material development for our citizens and nations today. To affirmatively embrace and actively support Reparatory Justice is in all of our best interests.

The progress that has been achieved in our respective nations in terms of the three elements of the Decade – Respect, Justice, Development – is not difficult to build upon. However, it is imperative that we exercise leadership and will-power in being forthright, creative, and collaborative with Afro Descendants and all other sectors of our societies to utilize this Decade to simultaneously evaluate the state of the fundamental problems that give rise to social, cultural, and economic structures of racism and discrimination, and at the same time evaluate existing policies in order to be more effective. Taking this approach, we must judiciously set forth new realistic and achievable projects while being especially cognizant of synergies that can be obtained by integrating public policy approaches designed for each of our nations and regions. As an example of this integrated policy approach that I am proposing, Reparatory Justice could be a special affirmative framework for implementing the extended U.N. Millennium Goals Project, which has been shown to be successful in lowering poverty.

Furthermore, there are additional recommendations about basic orientation points and frameworks that could lead to a productive integration of the three U.N. themes for the Afro Descendants Decade: Respect, Justice, Development that I would also like to share.


Respect for Afro Descendants is not mere formal expression of a mea culpa for the inhumanity of slavery and colonization; its not simply personal atonement for the intentionally inflicted exploitation and misery of the past; nor is it rhetorical public self-criticism. None of us living today were architects of past crimes against humanity. We were not there. Our racial, cultural or ethnic bloodlines do not speak, or act, although they may convey cultural and material inherences that we, in the present and entering the future, should assume responsibility for re-inscribing with respect, justice, and mutual benefit. The respect of which I speak is a necessary societal-proclamation, especially through the voices and policy actions of government leaders and public policy makers at national and regional levels. The Organization of American States should be a model of productive engagement with Afro Descendants toward highlighting their intrinsic human worth demonstrated by their qualities and achievements. In doing so, the sins and crimes against humanity committed in the past are not eradicated or forgotten; however, the consequent burdens of shame, hatred, division, and socio-economic inequality we have inherited are honestly and straightforwardly confronted and addressed with consistent and effective policies. Only then can Afro Descendants fully actualize their creativity and develop sustainable self-sufficient lives to become more deeply engaged citizens contributing to the whole of their societies and nations. Respect, in words and deeds, can uplift us all through due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, and traditions of Afro Descendants and their human rights.


The U.N. call for justice for Afro Descendants requires more than the now common constitutional and legal proclamations of virtually all nations to be fair, inclusive, and equal in treatment and opportunities for all citizens. Justice must be restorative. It must be evidenced in fair and equitable treatment of Afro Descendants and verified not in philosophical declarations, but in empirically documentable public policy indicators that illustrate sustained progress in the quality of life and participation of Afro Descendants. Justice must also reflect sociological engagement with Afro Descendant cultural, social, and economic proposals and initiatives to improve the quality of their lives and to advance and deepen their citizen participation in the direction and development of their nations. But justice must also include discarding institutional practices that discriminate and punishment for those individuals, civic organizations, business and corporations, and government institutions who continue to discriminate.

The U.N. International Decade for Afro Descendants is an opportunity to establish a justice-index in our countries to straight forwardly identify our national strengths and weaknesses with respect to Afro Descendant citizens. Justice linked with Respect for Afro Descendents is a rubric to discard ineffetive ideas and policies, to reinforce policies that work, and to carefully outline and implement new national and regional policies that can lead to repair for the crimes of history and current forms of discrimination.


Development must encompass the preceding two themes of respect and justice because without recognition or respect of the importance on any social group, people of African descent in this case, we fail to understand, embrace, and advance the benefit to the whole of society to our citizen, nations, and humanity as a whole. Development and justice must go hand in hand as the humanistic or philosophical underpinning of our common code of civility, legal protection, and punitive response to violations of all of our basic human rights.

Development must mean more than social and economic statistics about quantitative growth and cross-sector comparisons among our diverse populations along the road to national growth. We know all too well that mathematical indicators of development do not automatically translate into quality of life improvement for the most vulnerable in our nations, nor to an advancement of our common humanity. Thus, development must encompass improved material quality of life and respect for all lives, and fairness and equality, or justice for all. The poor quality of life for Afro Descendants and the impediments of racism and discrimination on their self-determination and ability to advance their own individual and collective interests is evidence that restorative respect, restorative justice, and restorative development must be integrated across policy sectors. The United Nations is clear in its guidance to nations and multilateral policy bodies. It asserts that:

“Consistent with the Declaration on the Right to Development, States should adopt measures aimed at guaranteeing active, free and meaningful participation by all individuals, including people of African descent in development and decision-making related thereto and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.” The U.N. also outlines development categories to include affirmative attention to people of African descent with respect to poverty, education, employment, health and housing.”

I urge you to add the category of Participatory Democracy, which places people of African descent in a catalytic and proactive role and avoids treating them as hapless victims or helpless subjects requiring the sympathy or charity offerings of others, no matter their good intentions. We need a radically new approach to and substantial outcome from development projects. 21st Century development for people of African descent and all sectors of our nations must be a full, respectful, and human endeavor. Its achievement must include the imagination, creativity, and productions of people of African descent in their many cultural and national identities across the whole of the Americas.

In conclusion, I recommend that development in the first and final analysis must be understood and undertaken by Afro Descendants and by other committed citizens and their stewards. They must be the architects of public policy that respects the human rights of all people and be social and economic justice-engineers in a holistic transnational project that requires repairs and restitution for the damage done to Afro Descendants. This is indispensable nourishment for the health and stability of our common work and for full, consistent, and universal human rights.

Thank you.
Danny Glover