Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Father of Social Security

Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Father of Social Security

Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Father of Social Security

Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Father of Social Security


Social Security has long been called the third rail of American politics--an unassailable institution for which we can thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Or can we?

Abraham Epstein was a major figure in American social reform during the first half of the twentieth century. His name and his theories appear in almost every book written on Social Security and the New Deal, but a full account of his life has never been made. Epstein's son, Pierre, now secures his legacy in this book that tells for the first time the story of his father's role in the conception and enactment of Social Security and sheds new light on the inner workings of the Roosevelt administration.

Combining memoir and intellectual history, Pierre Epstein takes readers behind the scenes of New Deal legislation to tell how his father's fast-moving career led him to become the real architect of Social Security--he even came up with those two words to explain his theories. A prolific journalist, founder of the American Association for Social Security, and author of numerous books, including "Insecurity: A Challenge to America," Abe Epstein fought desperately with FDR to remedy the failings of the original Social Security Act--only to be cast aside by political machinations. Nonetheless, the exclusion did not stop him from making significant contributions to the 1939 amendments that solidified Social Security for coming generations of Americans.

In this book readers will meet a colorful and tenacious player in the history of this critical piece of social insurance legislation--an obsessed reformer who mobilized support from the bottom up for his vision of Social Security. They will also meet his family and learn of the struggles and frustrations Abe Epstein faced in making his way in America as an immigrant Russian Jew.

This engaging book fills a major gap in the historical record, showing that Social Security is more than a technical subject about finance and actuarial statistics, that it is primarily a human idea with deep philosophical roots. In the face of today's privatization controversy, Abraham Epstein's theories have much to tell us about the current debate while Pierre Epstein's insightful narrative shows us the underlying importance of one man's indelible legacy.


In 1973 the University of Wisconsin had asked Henriette to tape her memories of the struggle for social security and the story of Abe Epstein’s life, and for several days she lived in glorious nostalgia for those exciting times. When she addressed the microphone she became the center of attention, in her mind the ultimate authority on the events she had witnessed and been part of. Her place in the sweep of the movement for social security was finally to be embedded in scholarly discourse. In all, she gave three different oral interviews for three different history projects, and was always ready to do a fourth if anyone happened to call. It was an easy way for her to write without the effort of putting pen to paper.

“My biography,” she would call those oral histories. “My biography is tucked away over there.” She would indicate a place on a bookshelf where it took a lucky streak to find anything among the overstuffed boxes and envelopes.

As she became more at ease in recording her memories, my mother determined that the world should hear her own story, not just the saga of her “humanitarian” husband. She made an attempt to explain her reasons for leaving the small towns of southern France, where she had grown up, to come to America in the roaring twenties. Unexpectedly, she once pulled the name of Gertrude Stein out of the air, like a newly blown-up balloon, and labeled herself a member of “The Lost Generation.” At other times she said that it was fashionable for young girls in France to be sent to school in England. But she never explained what it was that made her think England or even America had what she might be looking for. What-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.