Skip to main content

Charles H. Houston and the New Deal Exclusion

Charles H. Houston was the lawyer that challenged Congress to amend the exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the retirement benefits and unemployment insurance provided by the Social Security Act of 1935.

Charles H. Houston and the New Deal Exclusion 

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 as part of New Deal reform. Social Security was included as a significant portion (often called the “cornerstone”) of this bill that would pave the way to ensure income security and insurance for older persons, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. However, the Social Security Act of 1935, as with other components of the New Deal, omitted large categories of workers of color from retirement benefits and unemployment insurance. In 1935, Congressional hearings supported the exemption of agricultural and domestic workers that disproportionately excluded African American workers. Lawyer and first general counsel of the NAACP, Charles H. Houston, warned Congress that the bill would exclude "Negro sharecroppers and Negro cash tenants, who are just about at the bottom of the economic scale," and challenged the bill’s racial inequity.(1)

Although most recognized for his pivotal role in the fight against school segregation by unmasking the falsehood that African Americans were “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education, Charles H. Houston was the lawyer that challenged Congress to amend the exclusion that would deny workers of color from retirement benefits and unemployment insurance. Despite the opposition presented by Charles H. Houston (representing the NAACP), the Social Security Act passed with these exemptions intact. As a result, 65 percent of African Americans throughout the country were ineligible for benefits, with an even higher percentage of African Americans in the South excluded from the program. Charles Hamilton Houston described the law as a "sieve with the holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through." The exemptions were finally repealed in the 1950s, but the 15 plus year exclusion of African American workers worsened the economic gap between African American and White citizens back then and currently.  

Why is this important to SOAR?

Research, produced by Social Security (2010), holds that the decision to exclude coverage for agricultural and domestic workers (equal to about half the workers of the American economy at the time) – a large percentage of whom were African American, was not based on racial bias by policymakers of 1935.(2) However, regardless of the basis of the decision, we recognize that New Deal exclusions helped to strengthen the racial inequality gap. Today, this inequity is demonstrated in the dependence of Social Security benefits for many African Americans that have had access to fewer resources and become disabled at higher rates. Inequitable laws, like the exclusions of the New Deal, have helped to contribute to the disparities that we see today: 

  • African Americans are less likely than the overall population to be SSDI beneficiaries and more likely to be SSI recipients 
  • Older African Americans (especially African American women) with lower lifetime earnings and fewer pension benefits are more dependent upon Social Security.(3)
  • African Americans experience a higher incidence of chronic diseases that can lead to disabling conditions and higher eligibility for Social Security disability benefits programs 
  • Differences in mortality reflect some of these health disparities, making Survivor’s benefits for many African American families and children a vital component of economic resiliency after the death of a family member.  

As we SOAR forward 

Although there is no mention of Charles H. Houston’s efforts on SSA’s historical page(4), we encourage you to take a moment to celebrate his courage to challenge inequity with his voice and through his action. We hope that understanding the history and implications of laws that currently impact the people we serve, will help service providers consider the importance of implementing diverse, equitable and inclusive practices in SOAR service delivery with your voice and through your actions as we all do our best to address the barriers associated with racism and inequity in our SOAR work.  

 *Houston was posthumously awarded the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1950 and the main building of the Howard University School of Law was named Charles Hamilton Houston Hall in 1958. Harvard Law School named a professorship after him and in 2005, opened the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice

 

(1)  https://www.ssa.gov/history/pdf/hr35houston.pdf 

and https://historicalthinkingmatters.org/socialsecurity/0/inquiry/main/resources/34/index.html

(2) https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html

(3)  https://www.nasi.org/learn/social-security/social-security-and-people-of-color 

(4) https://www.ssa.gov/history/briefhistory3.html  and https://www.ssa.gov/history/1930.html