The Committee on Economic Security




picture of Frances Perkins with CES

Picture of Henry Morgenthau with CES

Picture of Homer Cummings with CES

Frances Perkins
Secretary of Labor
Chair of CES

Henry Morgenthau, Jr.
Secretary of the Treasury

(additional photo)

Homer Cummings
Attorney General

Picture of Henry Wallace with CES

Picture of Harry Hopkins with CES

picture of Witte

Henry Wallace
Secretary of Agriculture

Harry Hopkins
Administrator of FERA

Professor Edwin Witte
Executive Staff Director

A Complex Structure

The Committee on Economic Security (CES) actually had four parts: an executive leadership group (called the CES); an Advisory Council; a Technical Board; and an Executive Director.

The executive group was the ultimate decisionmaking authority on the CES. It consisted of five of President Roosevelt's cabinet-level officials: the Chairwoman was Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor; the other members were Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau Jr.; Attorney General Homer S. Cummings; Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace; and Harry L. Hopkins, the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator and President Roosevelt's closest adviser.

The Executive Director was an economics professor from the University of Wisconsin, Edwin Witte. Witte had worked in state government in Wisconsin and he was a former student of Professor John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin. Witte was one of the nation's leading experts in social insurance and was an active member of the American Association for Labor Legislation.

One of the first staffers Witte would hire was a young student fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, Wilbur Cohen. Cohen was also a former student of John R. Commons, and of Witte himself. Wilbur Cohen would become the first employee of the Social Security Board and would go on to play a prominent role in Social Security for more than fifty years, including a brief tenure as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

The Advisory Council was a group of 23 civic leaders from outside the Roosevelt Administration who had an interest in some fashion in the legislation to be developed.

(Three of the members of the Advisory Council would have continued importance to Social Security. Marion Folsom would go on to become Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare in the Eisenhower Administration and John Winant and Mary Dewson would become members of the Social Security Board.)

The Technical Board members were an additional 21 officials from the Federal agencies, but below the cabinet level. Staff was also hired to serve the three groups and the Executive Director. At its peak about 100 people worked on the staff.

The most important member of the Technical Board was Arthur J. Altmeyer who was the Chairman of the Technical Board. Altmeyer was an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Labor, and he would go on to become a member of the first Social Security Board and SSA's first Commissioner.

Breakneck Pace

One of the most remarkable facets of the story of the CES is how little time it had to do its work. The CES was created in June 1934, Witte did report until the end of July, most of the staff did not start work until the end of August, and the CES was required to issue its report to the President in December 1934. Six months to create an American social insurance program! The CES spent a total of $145,000 and delivered its product only a few weeks late.

Altmeyer, Committee Counsel Thomas Eliot, Perkins and Witte met with President Roosevelt late in August to get his first-hand direction. Witte reported the meeting this way:

"He [the President] felt committed to both unemployment insurance and provisions for old age security and alwo wanted the committee to explore thoroughly the possibilities of a unified (package) social insurance system affording protection against all major personal hazards which lead to poverty and dependency. . .He also stated that all forms of social insurance must be self-supporting, without subsidies from general tax sources . . .[but] he understood that assistance from general tax revenues would have to be given to people already old and without means. . .he still held the view. . . that the only long-time solution of the problem of olad age security lies in a compulsory old age insurance system."

In the light of the President's directions, the CES adopted a statement of objectives at its August 13, 1934 meeting:

"The field of study to which the committee should devote its major attention is that of the protection of the individual against dependency and distress. This includes all forms of social insurance (accident insurance, health insurance, invalidity insurance, unemployment insurance, retirement annuities, survivors' insurance, family endowment, and maternity benefits) . . ."

To organize its work, Witte and Altmeyer designated four working groups:

  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Public Employment and Relief
  • Medical Care
  • Old Age Security

It is clear that the CES intended to produce a complete system of social insurance, in the broadest possible meaning of the term. It was to include workers' compensation, health insurance, disability insurance, unemployment compensation, old-age benefits, survivors' benefits and various types of family and maternity benefits. This was to prove an illusive challenge. When the dust settled, health insurance, disability insurance and survivors' benefits would be absent from the Administration's proposal. They would eventually become part of Social Security, one almost immediately, one not for 20 years, and one not for another 30 years. And even those parts of the "unified package social insurance system" that made it into the CES proposal were not without controversy and the whole undertaking was never a sure thing.

Report of the Committee on Economic Security