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Student Work

Social Security: Paper A

Historians agree that Social Security is at the heart of New Deal reform. Given that, what does Social Security tell us about the set of policies and programs called the New Deal?

Student A

Social Security, being at the heart of the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, tells us about how important it was to help people during the Great Depression[1]. . . .Whether it was a "program" or an "agency," it was designed to get the unemployed back on their feet, in a job, and being productive members of society.

A "social security" plan, called the Townsend Plan, was thought of long before[2] it ever became a New Deal program during the Roosevelt Administration. . . . Francis E. Townsend first thought of a plan to ensure that all people currently retired would have a continuous supply of income, so they wouldn’t have to rely solely on their savings, which at the time would have been very miniscule. The Townsend Plan called for much stricter guidelines than the Social Security Act does[3]. . . .

. . . .

  1. Here the student focuses on how both programs had similar purposes, but this is as far as his comparison will go.
  2. Here the student has successfully "sourced" the Townsend document and recognizes that this plan predates the Social Security Act.
  3. The student’s characterization of the Townsend plan as "much stricter," is accurate. Yet, his analysis would be more complete if he specified why this difference matters.


The Social Security inquiry asks students to consider the question: "Given that historians agree that Social Security is at the heart of New Deal reform, what does Social Security tell us about the set of policies and programs called the New Deal?" With background information on the New Deal and careful reading of the document set, students can draw comparisons between the Social Security Act and FDR’s New Deal. Both of these programs

  • heralded a new role for government in the U.S. economy;
  • faced criticism from the Right and the Left;
  • excluded groups of Americans from their protections and programs; and
  • responded to grass-roots movements calling for change.

Above is one of two examples of student work in response to the inquiry question. In both examples, the students make connections between the Social Security Act and the New Deal and use the "Townsend pamphlet" in their essay. Interestingly, Student A, above, succeeds at using the source, while Student B is more successful with his overall comparison. This demonstrates that students advance in their historical thinking skills unevenly and there can be analytic successes and mis-steps in the same piece of work.

Above, Student A sources the Townsend pamphlet correctly, recognizing that the Townsend plan predates the Social Security Act. In paper B, the student does not source the pamphlet and the similarities between Townsend’s proposal and the Social Security Act lead him to equate these two different plans. However, Student A above draws a more general connection between Social Security and the New Deal that is less grounded in the texts of the document set than Student B.