Remembering the Architects of the U.S. Social Insurance System: A Dream Sustained 1935-2009

Article excerpt

Lessons from a historian and activist, now in her 80s.

The initiation and development of our system of social insurance was nurtured by the collaboration over four decades of five remarkable people: Robert Ball (1914-2008), Wilbur Cohen (1913-1985), Nelson Cruikshank (1902-1986), Arthur Flemming (1905-1996), and Elizabeth Wickenden (1909-2001). Their effort included the development of important social innovations-Social Security, Medicare, disability insurance, occupational safety, and health and pension benefits as well as the Older Americans Act. They came together at a time when the nation faced an economic and social crisis greater than any they had previously seen. Drawn to each other by common values, they combined their diverse talents to advance a mutually held philosophy of social policy that became one of the pillars of the nation's response to the immense challenges at hand. Their achievements, and their commitment, pragmatism, and social philosophy, hold important lessons, large and small, especially for those today who- in spite of and perhaps because of today's economic crises- seek to strengthen the ideals and institutions that these five helped to build.

I write as a labor historian and activist, now in my 80s, privileged to have known them personally and been witness to the passion, steadfastness, and beliefs that drove these leaders, one of whom, Nelson Cruikshank, was my father. While they were not legislators- each of these individuals worked in his or her own sphere of influence- they nevertheless made an immense contribution to the shaping of the legislative proposals as they were enacted and as they were implemented. A short essay, with a few stories, cannot do justice to their extraordinary contributions, but I hope it will highlight and reinforce how much can be done when people work together to achieve a shared vision. Such lessons will be of value as the readers of Generations seek to advance policy, programs, and services that help maintain the economic security and dignity of Americans.

Noteworthy Contributions

Here are a few of their most noteworthy contributions. Wilbur Cohen was known as the Father of Medicare; Nelson Cruikshank as the person who helped position the labor movement in full support of Social Security and Medicare. Elizabeth Wickenden, or "Wicky," as she was known, in the 1950s launched an effective coalition of organizations that she kept informed and active on behalf of Social Security and healthcare. Bob Ball was the nation's preeminent social insurance expert, administrator, and progressive advocate of Social Security. Arthur Flemming was the more conservative advocate for both social programs and civil rights.

All five maintained a close friendship and worked together from roughly the late 1930s through the 1950s and early 1960s, to pass Medicare legislation, and into the mid 1980s as chief defenders of the institutions they had helped to build: Flemming carried the torch into the 1990s as cochair of the Save Our Security Coalition, initially spearheaded by Cohen, with Ball's and with Wickenden's assistance. In the mid 1980s and through the founding of the National Academy of Social Insurance, Ball worked with Cohen, Flemming, Wickenden, and Cruikshank to keep the flame alive by nurturing the next generation of social insurance leaders. Still active into his late 80s and early 90s, Ball helped defeat the efforts of President George W. Bush to privatize Social Security.

Unique Lives, Lifelong Collaboration

Here is a little more about their unique lives and lifelong collaboration. Wilbur Cohen, upon graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1934, was hired almost immediately to serve on the staff of President Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security, which planned the 1935 Social Security Act. Wilbur proceeded to make himself indispensable to Arthur Altmeyer, the assistant secretary of labor, by, among other things, spending every Sunday at the Library of Congress reading up on old-age pensions and unemployment insurance (Berkowitz, 1995). …