Wilbur J. Cohen


by Wilbur J. Cohen

* Remarks by former HEW Secretary, Wilbur J. Cohen at the dedication of the Arthur J. Altmeyer Building at Social Security Administration Headquarters, Baltimore, Maryland on January 19, 1973.

I am particularly honored and privileged to be a participant in this dedication ceremony because of my long and close association with Arthur Altmeyer. Arthur Altmeyer was a great and a towering figure in the social security movement in this country. As a dedicated humanist he was ever concerned about human rights. In his own words, he saw social security as a goal--never a finished thing, because human aspirations are infinitely expandable just as human nature is infinitely perfectable.

Arthur Altmeyer influenced the lives of millions of people as an administrator- innovator, as a teacher, as an educator, and as an economist. He was reared in Wisconsin during the great Progressive Era of the La Follettes in a period when the Populist Movement was in "full bloom." He was trained under the distinguished institutional economist Professor John R. Commons. He, like Professor Witte, the Executive Director of the cabinet-level Committee on Economic Security and others of us who came from the University of Wisconsin believed in public service as an honorable and significant profession. To him a public office was indeed a public trust. With the help of many of you who are here, he initially implemented nationwide programs involving billions of dollars and did it with a scrupulous emphasis on honesty and economy, and without any taint of graft, fraud, scandal, or political intervention.

Currently we hear complaints about legislation and institutions which have not produced promised results. We also hear the word "establishment," in a context which clearly implies a lack of responsiveness to the felt needs of people. These complaints do not apply to the great institution of social security which Arthur Altmeyer helped to build. The number of persons presently below the poverty line would be increased by 50 percent if the social security program did not exist--a fact which the Brookings Institution fails to recall. Social security has improved and changed over the past 37 years, but its incremental growth and increasing contribution, both to the alleviation of present poverty and to the prevention of dependency, is a tribute to the long-range vision of Arthur Altmeyer.

Arthur believed strongly in the idea of contributory social insurance--the idea that the aged and disabled individuals, widows and orphans, and the unemployed should receive regular money payments based upon a statutory right which would enhance and strengthen their sense of independence and responsibility, contribute to self-care, and broaden their options. He also believed equally strongly in the need for a wide range of social services to meet the many social problems which human beings encountered, especially during periods of difficulty and distress. He was, from his background as a labor economist, keenly aware of the historical factors underlying social reform and social change.

From service first as a high school teacher and principal, then as an economist and statistician with the Wisconsin Tax Commission, and later with the Wisconsin Industrial Commission in the implementation of the first State workmen's compensation law, he was brought to Washington early in the New Deal days to serve as Chief of the Compliance Division of the National Recovery Administration. Later he served as Assistant Secretary of Labor and as Chief of the Technical Board of the Committee on Economic Security--appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934--to develop the specific proposals as guidelines for legislation for a very broad program of social security. From that time until 1953--as a member of the first Social Security Board, with John Winant as Chairman; then as Chairman of the Board; and finally as the first Commissioner for Social Security--his imagination and resourcefulness helped shape the social security system.

In my opinion, Arthur had the unusual ability to formulate social policy, technically and conceptually, and then to see that it was administered competently. The only other person I know who has filled this particular role has been Bob Ball.

Arthur could discuss basic concepts of the right to insurance and to assistance and services with social-workers. He could discuss the constitutional implications with lawyers--many times reversing their opinions and judgments. At the same time, he could explore with Bob Myers the intricacies of mathematical cost calculations of social insurance.

In an era of increasing specialization he demonstrated the importance, at the highest levels of Government, of a variety of competences and interdisciplinary abilities which were so vitally necessary to make such broad and diversified programs as those included in the Social Security Act of 1935 become living, working realities. During those years he also contributed generously to other organizations in this country and abroad. For example, he was President of the National Conference of Social Work; he was Executive Director of the War Manpower Commission in 1942; and he was Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Retirement Fund of the Coat and Suit Industry in the United States. At the international level he was a U.S. Representative to the International Labor Organization; U.S. Representative on the Social Commission of the United Nations; and Executive Director and organizer of the International Refugee Organization in 1947. I'm sure he will long be remembered throughout the Latin American countries for his singular service as Chairman of the Inter-American Committee on Social Security, where he worked closely with Nelson Rockefeller in the development and application of the good-neighbor policy in a realistic way by helping develop social security throughout the Americas.

After he left office, he maintained a deep and continuing interest in the social security programs. He continued to study them, to write about them, to support them, to criticize them, and recurrently to send to Bob Ball and myself letters telling us how we could do it better and differently than we were proposing.

At the time of his death he was a member of the National Committee of One Hundred working on a national health insurance program which would be based upon the social security program and contributory social security principles in order to achieve universal and nondiscriminatory coverage of everyone for comprehensive health protection.

On August 14, 1968, the 33d birthday of the Social Security Act, Mr. Altmeyer was honored by his Government with an award for distinguished public service in recognition of his singularly creative and courageous contributions in shaping the programs of the Social Security Act during their formative years. I had the privilege of establishing the Arthur J. Altmeyer Award at that time. And, of course, I was extremely happy and will always remain happy that it was my decision and my privilege to give the first award to Mr. Ball. His absolutely peerless administration of the social security system will, I think, be remembered as public service equal to that of Mr. Altmeyer in helping to keep this a nonpartisan, high-level, high-quality program.

Those who worked closely with Mr. Altmeyer knew that besides his superior intellectual and administrative abilities, he was also a man of sensitivity, of compassion, of integrity, and of stubbornness. When he felt that there was a principle to be applied, you could not budge him. Fedele Fauri, now a colleague at the University of Michigan, recounts one such instance. In 1950, in connection with the amendments, Fedele and I went to see Mr. Altmeyer about the possibility of making coverage of self-employed farmers voluntary. We saw no hope at that time of getting compulsory coverage, and we thought we'd just about exhausted the possibilities of negotiating anything with the Senate Finance Committee and Senator Walter George. We went in to see Mr. Altmeyer, and he "chewed us out" for even thinking of making any kind of social insurance coverage voluntary. And, of course, he was right. Although we dropped it then, the U.S. Congress came to accept his view. It only took 4 or 5 years for Congress to see that he was right.

Mr. Altmeyer was able to work with Presidents and other political leaders in a very close relationship. But as I think of him, I am also reminded he always thought of the individual and the family as central elements in social policy. Foreign governments sought his advice--before his death--in efforts to meet the needs of their citizens more adequately, particularly in Iran, Turkey, and several other countries.

His retirement years were also shared with faculty and students as a visiting professor at many universities, including the University of Utah, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of North Carolina, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of Chicago. He thought, as did Professor Witte and others of us who have been involved in this program, about the importance of bringing in younger people to carry on these great traditions. I recall Professor Witte telling me at one time that it was my responsibility to be sure that we always kept in mind the need to look for someone who could carry on the program with the same kinds of traditions as those who had founded it. I'm sure that was uppermost in Mr. Altmeyer's mind when he searched out and found Mr. Ball to promote him. Eventually Mr. Ball became the Commissioner.

Mr. Altmeyer wrote two significant books. The Industrial Commission of Wisconsin published in 1932, was his PH.D. thesis under John R. Commons. It was a singularly important piece of work because in it he developed not only the administrative competence to make a program work, but also because it formulated his concept of the legal rights to adjudication and to appeal, which were the essence of carrying out the concept of a statutory right to benefits. He wrote the second book, The Formative Years of Social Security, in 1965 and after his retirement. For those who wish to discover the trials and tribulations in implementing the social security program on a nonpartisan basis, the latter book will be a valuable source book, especially valuable for those who will be the leaders of social security in the future. The only criticism I have of that book is that in the usual humble way, so characteristic of Mr. Altmeyer, he put all of his discussions in what I would call an "inanimate tense." He did not tell about the trials and tribulations of Henry Aronson during the first year in handling our personnel problems with the Congress, or how Frank Bane's salary was cut by Senator Glass because the Board refused to put a field office in his home town, or of the innumerable other difficulties which one has in getting a great idea put into effect with human beings possessing likes and dislikes, and prejudices and attitudes and feelings about so many things. He discusses these problems in such an objective way that, to some extent, the blood, sweat, and tears are not adequately presented--at least as I knew them. I knew how he fretted and worried in the early days about getting the system started on the right foot. I think he believed like our good friend Professor Kulp, that the way an institution gets started has a great deal to do with how an institution works over the long run. I think those of us who have been connected with the program--it applies to unemployment insurance too--know that it's very difficult to make basic changes in a program over a long period of time if it doesn't get started on the right foot.

As I came to this building today, I recalled so many experiences. They rushed into my mind in an emotional way, and there are many that I could tell you about. I recall, on one occasion, opening the door between my office and Mr. Winant's office when Mr. Winant was Chairman of the Board. My little office adjoined both his and Mr. Altmeyer's. I opened the door--this was 1936--and I found Mr. Winant and Mr. Altmeyer down on the floor on their hands and knees with little 3 x 5 cards spread on the rug. On the cards were the names of all the people they were considering for appointment as the first field office managers of this great program. They had these cards down on the floor and were sorting them out.

Ladies and gentlemen, nobody was appointed to a field office manager"s job in 1936-37 but what Mr. Altmeyer and Mr. Winant had looked him over bit by bit. They knew every person. They knew their backgrounds. They chose every one of those people to start the program out, because, as far as they were concerned, they knew that the essence of getting this program started well was selecting men and women of integrity and ability. At no time--much to the concern of members of Congress and particularly people like Congressman Vinson, later a Supreme Court Justice, and Senator Glass, and others--did they allow political factors to intervene in their choice of the key people who started this program. And may I say, in conclusion, that it is my hope that this principle will always remain inviolate, and that the men and women who administer this program will always be selected on the basis of competence and vision, and that their promotion and their development to positions of leadership will always be based on the high ideals that Arthur J. Altmeyer set for this program when it was first developed.

As we dedicate this building in his name, I hope that the building will always be an ever-present testimonial to the contributions of this great and good man. His ideals and his accomplishments will always remain a beacon light in the continued expansion and development of a social security program operating in the interests of all of the American people. Thank you very much.

Selected Readings on The Beginnings of Social Security

1. Abbott, Grace, From Relief to Social Security: The Development of the New Public Welfare Services and Their Administration, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1941, 388 Pp.

2. Altmeyer, Arthur J., The Formative Years of Social Security, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1966, 314 PP.

3. Epstein, Abraham, Insecurity: A Challenge To America: A Study of Social Insurance an the United States and Abroad (3rd revised edition), Random House, New York, 1936, 821 pp.

4. Haber, William, and Cohen, Wilbur J., (ed.) Readings in Social Security, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New York, 1948, 643 pp.

5. Lubove, Roy, The Struggle for Social Security, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1968, 276 pp.

6. McKinley, Charles, and Frase, Robert W., Launching Social Security: A Capture-And-Record Account 1935-1937, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1970, 519 PP.

7. Mitchell, Broadus, The Economic History of the United States, Vol. IX, "Depression Decade: From New Era Through New Deal, 1929-1941," Rinehart and Co., New York, 1955, 463 PP.

8. Perkins, Frances, The Roosevelt I Knew, Harper and Row, New York, 1964 (paperback edition), 409 PP.

9. Rubinow, I. M., The Quest For Security, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1934, 683 pp.

10. Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr., The Age of Roosevelt-The Coming of the New Deal, Houghton-Mifflin Co., Boston, 1958, 669 pp.

11. Social Security In America: The Factual Background of the Social Security Act as Summarized From Staff Reports to the Committee on Economic Security, Social Security Board Publication No. 20, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1937, 592 pp.

12. Witte, Edwin E., The Development of the Social Security Act. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1962, 220 pp.


About 10 publications are expected to be printed in the series captioned "The Beginnings of Social Security." This publication is in that series. In addition, the selected, annotated bibliography entitled Basic Readings In Social Security, published by SSA's Office of Research and Statistics, contains many additional readings relating to the beginnings of social security.