Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Robert M. Ball: A Life Dedicated to Social Security

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

Robert M. Ball: A Life Dedicated to Social Security

Article excerpt

With the death of Robert Myers Ball at age? 93 on January 29, 2008, the Social Security program lost one of its most committed supporters. Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue (2008)stated, "Bob Ball left an indelible mark on the Social Security program and the Agency in that he played a critical role in the establishment of Medicare. His commitment to Social Security was unequaled, and he will be remembered as a great leader." Ball's biographer, historian Edward D. Berkowitz (2001), described Ball as "the major non-Congressional player in the history of Social Security in the period between 1950 and the present."

Bob Ball had a long and distinguished career with the Social Security Administration (SSA). In a 1973 interview, he said that he first became interested in the Social Security program in his senior year at Wesleyan University in 1935. "The thing that has appealed to me most about the program," he remarked, "is that it supplies a continuing income to groups who without it would be most susceptible to poverty, yet it does this through their own effort-the protection grows out of the work they do and contributions they make. I've always been glad I made the choice of career I did" (SSA 1973, 18).

Ball's influence in the sphere of social insurance is perhaps partially explained by the longevity of his career; he continued to be active in the field as a prolific writer and accomplished speaker until the time of his death. Beyond sheer longevity, his effectiveness in shaping social insurance policy is largely attributable to the fact that he excelled in three roles: as a social policy expert, as an inspiring leader and administrator, and as a master negotiator and legislative tactician.

Social Policy Expert

Bob Ball was very influential in shaping Social Security policy, both during his tenure at SSA and afterward. Throughout his long involvement in setting policy, he was guided consistently by the philosophy that a successful social insurance program must provide an adequate level of benefits, have near universal coverage, and maintain benefit rates related to the level of an individual's earnings so that payments are an earned, not just a statutory, right. He was also careful to say that Social Security alone was insufficient for an individual's economic security and that private pensions and savings are required (Ball 1973, 5). He was a consistent supporter of these "essentials" but flexible on the means of getting there. For example, while he supported a benefit computation formula weighted in favor of low earners, he recognized that "it is important to retain the support of higher-paid workers for Social Security, and it is a matter of delicate balance to determine just how far it is wise to go in pursuing income redistribution through this program. It seems to me that we now have it about right" (Ball and Bethell 1998, 15).

Robert Ball was born in Manhattan on March 28, 1914. He graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in English in 1935 and a master's degree in labor economics in 1936. In the summer of 1937, he took a job as assistant editor of the People's Press, a New Jersey labor newspaper. His early experience with the labor movement later influenced his support of union representation at SSA.

In January 1939, just 4? years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, Bob Ball joined the Social Security Board's Bureau of Old-Age Insurance (precursor of the Social Security Administration) as a field assistant in the Newark, New Jersey field office, and afterwards served as manager of the Bayonne, New Jersey District Office. In 1942, he moved to the Bureau's headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, becoming the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance's chief staff expert on expanding coverage in its Division of Program Analysis. He subsequently served in the training office.

Ball left the Agency from 1945 to 1949. During this period, he served as Assistant Director of the American Council on Education's Committee on Education and Social Security. …

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