How the Amish Fought Social Security and Won

by Leslie on May 18, 2010

This weekend Ryan and I were listening to the radio and happened to stumble on The Derry Brownfield Show, and the Common Sense Coalition. What a fantastic program!
One of the stories of the day was about Social Security.
Derry actually remembers when Social Security was passed (he was 3 at the time) because of the jokes people told.

People used to think of out-of-place unfunny jokes and use Social Security as the punch line.  For example:  “What do you get when you mix a newpaper with a painted turtle? …… Social Security.  Since it didn’t make any sense, people would then say “I don’t get it.” which the reply would be, “Not until you’re 65!”

He also remembers when it was amended to first include farmers, which originally were not part of the program. This lead to the story of the Amish and their struggle with the IRS over Social Security.

You may not know this about the Amish community, but they do pay taxes. An Amish family pays income and property taxes just like any other American family. However, they do NOT pay social security or medicare. Why this is, and how they got out of it is a fascinating story I would like to share with you.

Here’s a time-line of events summed from Derry, AmishNews.com, and other sources:

1935: Social Security Act, including Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, is passed with the intention of helping to limit or reduce the risks of modern life when it comes to retirement and illness. Again summing up Derry: “The Amish believed in taking care of eachother and of their neighbors.” He said he used to remember when that was the philosophy in all of America.



1937: Payments were directly garnished from paychecks and distributed for the first time. Initially there were no conflicts because it did not include farmers, and almost all Amish are farmers. Originally it was far from all inclusive.

1950: From inception there was debate, but it wasn’t until 1950 that domestic labor (household employees working at least two days a week for the same person) were added. At the same time nonprofit workers and the self-employed began to be included as well.

1954: Hotel workers, laundry workers, all agricultural workers, and state and local government employees were added. Although not all states elected to be included. (Derry Brownfield recalls working for the state of Missouri and not contributing to Social Security because the state had its own program) This is the start of the problem the Amish had with the program. It was unclear with the wording of the act whether it was a tax or an insurance, and was described as both at various points in the bill. The Amish community decided that it would not take part in the benefits (not believing in insurance) and therefore should not have to pay the premiums.

According to Amish beliefs, insurance is not needed and is disrespectiful to God. They firmly believe in taking care of themselves, their neighbors, and the fact that God will provide.  When the Social Security Act was extended to include them (as farmers) in the 1950′s they immediately protested and refused to voluntarily pay. As a result of this protest the IRS began directly garnishing their bank accounts.

Well, the Amish community was not happy with this and sent a petition with 14,000 signatures asking to be released from paying. Many of them also closed their bank accounts to prevent direct removal of funds and began holding their own money instead. The IRS was not happy with this and decided to confiscate property – which meant they took working horses and other livestock from the farmers who needed them.

Derry mentions a particular man, Mr. Valentine Byler, who had three of his six horses confiscated and sold at public auction to pay his overdue social security payments. (He was able to borrow his neighbors horses the rest of the year)
From AmishNews.com:
The New York Herald Tribune, under the headline “Welfarism Gone Mad,” stated in part…

The majesty and might of the Federal government have now been marshaled against Valentine Y. Byler. His horses — which, since Amish rules forbid the use of tractors, represent his means of livelihood — have been seized and sold at auction. What kind of “welfare” is it that takes a farmer’s horses away at spring plowing time in order to dragoon a whole community into a ‘benefit’ scheme it neither needs nor wants, and which offends its deeply held religious scruples?And from the Ledger-Star in Norfolk, Virginia came this response from William H. Fitzpatrick…

…When the last Amish buggy has disappeared from the dusty by-road, or has been sold like Valentine Byler’s three plow horses, it will mark more than the passing of a sect who were overwhelmed by time and change. It will mark also a milestone in the passing of freedom — the freedom of people to live their lives undisturbed by their government so long as they lived disturbing no others. It was a freedom the country once thought important.The battle continued between the IRS and Amish community for close to a decade. Neither party fully giving up its battle, although there was somewhat of a moratorium of direct complaints.

1965: Further meetings and public reaction mainly in support of the Amish continued through the year 1964. And so it came to pass that in 1965, the Medicare bill was passed by Congress. As Wayne Fisher writes in The Amish in Court, “Tucked into the 138 page bill was a clause exempting the Old Order Amish, and any other religious sect who conscientiously objected to insurance, from paying Social Security payments, providing that sect had been in existence since December 31, 1950. After Senate approval in July, the signing of the bill by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 13, 1965, made it official and canceled tax accounts of some 15,000 Amish people amounting to nearly $250,000.”

This exemption continues to the present day, and although the Amish do pay other taxes they do not participate in any social programs the government offers or pay into them.

What a novel idea – relying on yourself, God, and your community to care for you rather than Uncle Sam.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua May 18, 2010 at 6:35 pm

What a great story. I did not know that the Amish were exempt from Social Security taxes, but I'm not surprised since they are a homogeneous group that take care of each other and their neighbors.

I'm surprised you don't see the direct parallel to Social Security. The Amish are required to help each other out and there are penalties when they don't. US citizens are required to help each other out (tax payments) and there are penalties when they don't.

Essentially, the Amish were saying "We are already running Social Security in our community, so we don't want to be taxed to contribute to your community's Social Security (because they see their community as separate)." However, they're happy to pay other taxes for things like roads, military, bank bailouts.

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Jerry May 21, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Absolutely fascinating post and I have family that are Brownfields so I wonder if they are related to Derry! I had no idea that the Amish didn't believe in insurance. I have a lot of respect for the Amish and their values are something that every other American could use a stiff dose of at times. I see their point that dependency breeds reliance and self-reliance is important. What a novel idea!
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Bankruptcy Ben June 11, 2010 at 6:33 am

Thanks for the timeline. Do you think that social security builds a sense of entitlement?

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MG Waddell January 11, 2012 at 8:38 pm

In the 1982 case of U.S. v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, the Supreme Court held that the exemption only applies to those Amish who are self-employed and have no other employees. The Court stated, “The state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest…Because the social security system is nationwide, the governmental interest is apparent…Because the broad public interest in maintaining a sound tax system is of such a high order, religious belief in conflict with the payment of taxes affords no basis for resisting the tax.”

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Pat February 28, 2013 at 5:48 am

I have just heard that although the Amish was exempt in paying Soc. Sec. & Medicare, that it is now becoming a practice for them to start paying into it at age 60 for 40 quarters and be able to get these benefits. Is this fact?

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