A Salute to 25 Years of Social Security

By Cohen, Wilbur J. | Public Welfare, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

A Salute to 25 Years of Social Security


Cohen, Wilbur J., Public Welfare


Twenty-six years ago, in the depth of the worst business depression of American history, I was a student in the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin, in Professor Edwin E. Witte's freewheeling seminar on Wisconsin's economic problems. Under the helpful and guiding hand of Professor Witte, we students critically examined the provisions, the philosophy, and the objectives of the Wisconsin Unemployment Compensation Act recently enacted by the Wisconsin legislature. This was the first state unemployment insurance law adopted in the United States.

Little did I realize in December 1933 what importance this topic would have on my life and the lives of millions of Americans. I was indeed fortunate when Professor Witte took me as his research assistant when he became the executive director of President Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security in 1934 headed by Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor.

Rarely does a young man have the unusual opportunity I did to watch and participate in history in the making--as was the formulation of the Social Security Act. Now that social security is a large and complex institution, that sense of creativeness and responsibility for the development of new ideas in social security must continue to be encouraged during the next 25 years.

As the achievements of the past, the inadequacies of the present, and the potentialities for improvement in the future are pointed out here, some objectives for the future must be:

* the development and training of courageous and intelligent men and women who will become good administrators and, at the same time, recognize the importance of social action;

* the reaffirmation that good administration today is one of the essentials to future legislative improvements; and

* the continual sifting and winnowing of new ideas and the willingness to reappraise the applicability of old ideas in a new setting.

"Idle Dreamers" Went to Work

Looking backward, and with the wisdom of hind-sight, one can now say that the formulators of social security policy in 1934 were bold--but perhaps not as bold as they might have been, or as one now wishes they might have been. The breakthrough of the idea of a national social security program came because of a great economic and moral crisis--the depression. The American people were catapulted from the "normalcy" of the twenties into a world of insecurity and incomprehensible confusion. They demanded that their government take action--some action--any action. And where did the specific plan come from? It came from the economists, social reformers, social workers, professors, and the so-called idle dreamers who had been studying these proposals when they were "impractical" and "theoretical."

In a way, the social reformers, the social workers, the labor unions--the United States as a whole--were unprepared in the early thirties to fully exploit the historic opportunity. The lack of available administrative skills plagued the planners. The lack of clear constitutional authority created doubts. …

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