History of SSA During the Johnson Administration 1963-1968



In late 1963, the Social Security Administration was about in the middle of the longest interval since 1950 without any major legislative changes in program. This was significant for its public information activities because frequent change and expansion of programs always has a major impact on what the people need to know--requiring revision of all information materials, re-direction towards the people, the groups and organizations that need information, and the resulting increase in administrative resources assigned to these efforts. It was not until mid-1965 that the most extensive program changes in 30 years radically changed the kinds and volume of public information.

Nevertheless, the years 1963 and 1964 were busy. SSA's continuing public information objective to "Let the people know about their rights and responsibilities under the program" was not being easily or adequately achieved. While millions of people were being informed, surveys and studies showed that many other millions did not understand the programs, nor were they all taking the necessary actions to obtain their rights and exercise their responsibilities.

SSA's general policy to use all the major mass communications media--since almost all the population had a personal stake in the programs--was coupled with efforts to improve the use of each of the media. And these efforts were carried out with continuing emphasis on the role of the social security district offices in working with the media and other communications channels in their local communities. Furthermore, these efforts required the adaptation of materials and activities to the diverse groups participating in the programs. For example, not only were there pamphlets appropriate for college graduates but the Social Security Administration in 1963 was pioneering among Government agencies in producing publications appropriate for use in adult literacy classes. Also, during 1964 and along with other agencies, the SSA completely reviewed all its publications as a part of the project which President Johnson initiated to reduce the volume and cost of publications and to improve their quality and effectiveness.

Two special events in 1964 are worth noting as examples of the widespread value of public information activities. The New York World's Fair opened in April, and at the last minute the SSA obtained space for an exhibit in the Federal Pavilion--the only Federal agency to be so privileged. In September in Washington, the International Social Security Association held its general assembly in the United States for the first time. SSA's Office of Information supported this meeting with special publications, press coverage, film showings, and a large interagency exhibit on United States social security programs. More significant in terms of world-wide recognition of public information in social security administration was the fact that for the first time in its history the international gathering had a session on public information. For this Roy L. Swift, SSA's Information Officer, prepared a discussion paper on "Public Information and Public Relations in the Field of Social Security." {2}

On the opening day of this assembly, a social security commemorative postal card was issued by the Post Office Department,{3} the first time such honor had been given to social security (the original proposal had been for a commemorative postage stamp).

With or without legislation, 1965 was expected to be an historic year for social security. Several events were given major attention in public information activities to dramatize the increasing importance of social security to the Nation and individuals. In January, 25 years of monthly benefit payments were completed, and special attention was given to individual beneficiaries in local communities who had received monthly benefits all those years, most notably Miss Ida Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont, social security's "first beneficiary." {4} In April, the program passed the 20-million mark of beneficiaries receiving payments each month. Mr. William J. Kappel of Fort Wayne, Indiana, was selected to represent the 20-millionth beneficiary, and President Johnson presented his first check to him at a White House ceremony.{5} August 1965 was the 30th anniversary of the original Social Security Act. Although this came after the enactment of the 1965 amendments on July 30, President Johnson issued an anniversary statement, and a special ceremony was held at Hyde Park, New York, in recognition of President Roosevelt's leadership in social security. {6}

While these historic events and the historic 1965 amendments provided the major themes for public information activities, there were many other influences on SSA's efforts in 1965. Televeision was and remains a major challenge in the ongoing "communications revolution", and after several years of planning the SSA completed for educational television a series of three half-hour programs for educational television, which had been produced and were broadcast in cooperation with the National Educational Television Center. {7} Early in 1965 President Johnson initiated a Government-wide project to "improve our public communications"--which is continuing under the broader title of "improving service to the public". In December1965, the new HEW Secretary, John W. Gardner, issued new policies {8} to "re-orient Department public information activities" which, among other things, decentralized to the Social Security Administration more authority and responsibility for its public information program--a change which had major benefits as SSA undertook the extensive and intensive activities required by the 1965 amendments. And as it embarked on these amendment challenges in August, the SSA contracted for the first time with a private public relations firm--T. J. Ross and Associates--to provide professional counsel.

The 1965 social security amendments created the largest number of public information tasks ever handed to the Social Security Administration, and top officials recognized that these were critical to efficient administration.{9} While there was much to tell the public about changes in the retirement, survivors, and disability insurance programs, the new two-part health insurance program for the aged had to be given the highest priority.

During the legislative process, newspapers and other media began to use the term "Medicare" to describe the health insurance program. At first the Administration opposed the term because the legislative proposal was limited to hospital insurance. When the legislative package was enlarged by the House Ways and Means Committee to include the voluntary medical insurance(doctor bill) part, there was less objection to the comprehensive term of "Medicare". Also, by the time of enactment it was believed that most people were familiar with this term from the media coverage and might not understand the more "correct" title in the law. Advice from the President's Committee on Consumer Interests and use of the term "Medicare" by the President also persuaded the Administration to adopt the popular term.

The most novel public information challenge was in the voluntary medical insurance program. Never before had the SSA managed a "voluntary" program of this size, involving getting information about the choice to all people age 65 and over and getting a response by the March 31, 1966 deadline (later extended to May 31). The fact that over 90% of the aged elected this coverage was considered remarkable.

Another novel aspect of the Medicare program involved its administration, in part, by private organizations--fiscal intermediaries for hospital insurance and carriers for medical insurance to handle the bill-paying. The law also provided that these organizations serve as communications channels to the providers of health services--the hospitals, extended care facilities, home health agencies, physicians, etc. This created a new dimension to the public information program. This arrangement, as well as the audience of the entire health-care community, also enlarged the "professional relations" function, which had already existed to some degree in the disability insurance program, as a distinct and important part of the overall public information and public relations activities.

What President Johnson later called "a massive program" of public informatirn was well under way in the fall of 1965 and built up the start of the program on July 1, 1966. The details of this program have been described elsewhere.{l0} The volume of activity reached new highs for the SSA. More than 250 million copies of pamphlets were printed--5 to 6 times as many as in prior years. Also, in the fiscal year 1966, about 60 national press releases were issued--6 times the average of earlier years. The staff of the Office of Information about doubled, and its operating budget was three times any earlier year.

President Johnson and other top officials took an active interest in public information activities and often spoke on developments. On March 6, 1966, he issued a proclamation to make March National Medicare Enrollment Month. On April 7, 1966, the President asked a number of questions of the Secretary of HEW on the status of preparations for the start of Medicare, and his first question was: "Are persons covered by Medicare fully informed of their benefits?" On May 24 the Secretary replied that "A great deal of progress has been made toward this goal". The Commissioner of Social Security supplemented the Secretary's report, saying that "One of our most important jobs... was the job of informing people... Our information program has been of critical improtance... Of course, it will not be possible to fully inform everyone ahead of time about every possible facet of the program". And the President, in speaking to a June 15 meeting of medical and hospital leaders,reported:

In the past year, through a massive program, we have tried to reach virtually every American over 65 years of age with news about medical care. We may not have reached every one of them. But more than 90% of them--between 17 and 18 million have signed up for elective medical benefits.

The interest and concern of top officials reflected, in part, intensive coverage by the media of Medicare developments. Each step of the planning and preparations had been followed closely by newspapers, radio, television, and magazines. There were fears that the complex operations would not work well and that old people would besiege doctors and overcrowd hospitals.When July 1 came, however, observers, including the news media, reportedthat the start was unexpectedly smooth.{11}

This did not mean that the public information job was done: Beneficiaries needed their questions answered; explanations needed to be given of situations that; were not yet working as well as desired; and preparations continued for the start of the extended-care-facility benefits six months after the rest of the program, on January 1, 1967. Furthermore, after a year of giving Medicare the highest priority, it was essential to offer a more balanced public information program which covered the cash-benefit programs of retirement, survivors, and disability insurance.

Even before Medicare started, public interest in further social security changes remained high in 1966. Congress in the spring added a new program of special payments to people age 72 and over beginning in November, and partly due to the public information activities on this, almost twice as many as originally estimated eventually became entitled to benefits. Then, in October, President Johnson spoke at the annual Social Security Administration Awards Program in Baltimore and surprised many by making a major speech advocating significant increases in social security benefits. The proposals eventually resulted in the 1967 amendments.

Accompanying the new high level of Social Security Administration public information activities required to reach the larger number of people participating in social security programs came other adjustments:

  • In November 1966, representatives of Negro-oriented newspapers and radio stations met with SSA public information staff to provide advice on reaching their readers and audiences
  • During 1967, regional conferences were held with the professional relations and public relations officials of all Medicare's intermediaries and carriers to discuss their communications responsibilities and activities.
  • Early in 1967, the Social Security Administration issued a Public Information Handbook to provide a training and reference guide to field staffs
  • Late in 1967 public information responsibilities were assigned to a staff assistant to each of the Regional Commissioners to provide regional services and coordination.

For all of 1967, public information activities continued on the numerous themes and messages of the existing programs. Nevertheless, {12} the 1967 year-long Congressional consideration of social security amendments caused some slackening of public information materials production--in order to avoid large supplies of obsolete informational materials. Usually, social security legislation had been enacted by late summer, but not this year. Recognition of the first year of Medicare received some attention in mid-year. In the fall there was concern over a critical article in the Reader's Digest, to which the then Under Secretary of HEW, Wilbur J. Cohen, replied.{l3} Although the Reader's Digest was incorrect and misleading, more responsible media and individuals were raising questions and making proposals affecting all "income maintenance" programs. An increasing need in public information was to explain program principles, philosophy, and issues. President Johnson had indicated early in 1967 that he would appoint a commission to examine all ideas, and he did so at the time he signed. the 1967 social security amendments (on January 2, 1968.)

The year 1968 started with one more peak of public information activity--to explain the 1967 amendments. About 24 million beneficiaries received larger payments early in March: This large number--they make up about one out of nine of the total population--and the 20 million Medicare beneficiaries suggest why public information activities for social security beneficiaries make up an increasing part of the total effort. At the same time, the increasing contributions which workers were paying--and particularly younger workers--caused a decision to give special attention to the value of survivors and disability insurance protections.

Early 1968 was also significant for public information because of the first general enrollment period for the voluntary medical insurance part of Medicare. Old people had until April 1 to enroll--or to "disenroll"--and there were large-scale activities to inform them of the reasons for enrolling and of their right to disenroll if they wish. As in the earlier enrollment efforts in 1965-66, direct-mail,methods of reaching this target audience had first priority--evidence of the increasing use of data-processing computers to reach large groups through mailings. Again, the enrollment activities were surprisingly successful. About 600,000 additional persons enrolled in Part B, bringing the total to about 18.6 million--or 95% of the total aged.

While the Medicare enrollment campaign illustrated the crucial role of public ihformation activities in informing people so that they can "act," the celebration of the 33rd anniversary of the Social Security Act on August 14 illustrated the objective to inform people about program principles, philosophy, accomplishments, and issues.

But the major shift in public information policy in 1968 was towards more effective public information for the poor and the disadvantaged. Reflecting the Nation's concern, the Social Security Administration was examining its efforts for the poor and developing new public information materials and activities, new relationships with other organizations and agencies, and a large commitment of administrative resources to reach the poor in the inner cities, in the rural areas, and wherever they lived and worked.

Footnotes (Footnote numbers not same as in the printed version)

{1} Details are described in the Annual Work Plans and Annual Work Plan Reports of the Office of Information for Fiscal Years 1964 through 1969. Further historical background is in an article on "A Quarter Century of Public Information" by Roy L. Swift in the September 1960, OASIS.

{2} "Public Information and Public Relations in the Field of Social Security," a discussion paper prepared by Roy L. Swift for a roundtable discussion at the 15th General Assembly of the International Social Security Association, September 1964, Washington, D.C.

{3} Post Office Department General Release No.163 for September 2, 1964 Papers

{4}SSA release (HEW-D86) for January 31, 1965

{5} Public Papers of the Presidents - Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Volume 1, page 544, may 5, 1965.

{6} Remarks were made by Under Secretary Wilbur J. Cohen, and Commissioner of Social Security Robert M. Ball, August 15, 1965. The President's statement on August 15 is in Public Papers of the Presidents - Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, Volume 2, page 88.

{7} "The Quest for Security" consisted of three programs: "The Dependent Child"; "Ready for Edna"; and "In Case".

{8} December 21, 1965 Memorandum from the Secretary on "Re-orientation of public information activities throughout the Department".

{9} Some reference to these activities was earlier discussed in the section on Medicare.

{10}During preparations, monthly reports were written on public information activities for Medicare. See also "Launching Medicare: the People Behind the Program" by Roy L. Swift, in the July-September 1967 Civil Service Journal.

{11} "Editorial and News Reaction to the Beginning of Medicare - July 6, 1966"was compiled by the Social Security Administration and sent to the White House and Members of Congress.

{12} Every six months the Social Security Administration issues a statement on public information themes. See Bureau of District Office Operations Memorandum No. 236 (161-66), "Public Information Themes for January-June 1967" and BDOO Memorandum No. 91 (56-67), "Public Information Themes for July-December 1967."

{13} Statement by Wilbur J. Cohen, Under Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, on Charles Stevenson's "How Secure is Your Social Security" in the October 1967 Reader's Digest.