Arthur J. Altmeyer: Architect of the Social Security Administration and President of the National Conference on Social Work
by Larry W. DeWitt
Historian, U. S. Social Security Administration
Arthur J. Altmeyer was the man that president Franklin Roosevelt informally referred to as “Mr. Social Security,” and Altmeyer was the key policy and administrative figure in the founding era of the U.S. Social Security system.
Altmeyer was the Chairman of the Technical Board of the Roosevelt Administration’s Committee on Economic Security, which designed the Social Security program in 1934-35. He went on to be a founding member of the three-person Social Security Board created by Congress in 1935 to administer the new program, and he became permanent Chairman of the Board in 1937 and continued to serve as head of the agency responsible for the Social Security system until 1953. Virtually all of the early policies involving the Social Security program, and the entire institutional apparatus created to administer the program, were shaped by Altmeyer. In the founding era of Social Security in America, Arthur J. Altmeyer was the dominant figure.
Altmeyer was educated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he was a graduate assistant to the renowned labor economist John R. Commons. Tutored in the “Wisconsin Idea” of a partnership between universities and government, Altmeyer believed in the principle enunicated by Commons that “administration is legislation in action,” and hence his career always typified a dual-focus on policy making and administration.
Altmeyer’s first serious career job was as Chief Statistician to the Wisconsin State Industrial Commission, of which he would become the Secretary in 1922. As Secretary of the Commission, Altmeyer had the primary responsibility for administering the state’s pioneering Workman’s Compensation program, and he was also involved in helping craft Wisconsin’s first-in-the-nation unemployment insurance system.
As a principal state social welfare official, it fell to Altmeyer to represent Wisconsin’s interests in Washington in the early years of the Depression. Altmeyer had a particularly close working relationship with officials in the Department of Labor, especially with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. As Altmeyer would say of this period in his career, “I started coming down to Washington with my hat in one hand and a tin cup in the other.”
Early New Deal
In early 1933 Frances Perkins asked Altmeyer to come to Washington temporarily to help her with her initial reorganization of the Labor Department. As soon as this task was completed, Secretary Perkins persuaded him to stay on temporarily as the Labor Department’s representative with the National Recovery Administration. Officially, he was Assistant Compliance Officer, overseeing the enforcement of the various industry codes related to labor.
Expecting to return to Wisconsin after about six months of working in Washington, Altmeyer was induced to make a pivotal career change when Perkins offered him a permanent position as Second Assistant Secretary of Labor. Even before taking the oath as an Assistant Secretary at Labor, Altmeyer was doing other work for the Secretary, quite outside his NRA duties. He authored the June 1934 presidential message from FDR to the Congress in which the President promised to present a new proposal for economic security when the Congress returned from recess in January 1935. It was this message that led to the creation, by Executive Order, of the Committee on Economic Security, which would lead, in barely more than a year, to the Social Security Act.
Committee on Economic Security
The Committee on Economic Security (CES) was a five-member cabinet-level group created by President Roosevelt to craft his administration’s major social insurance proposals. The group was chaired by Frances Perkins, and Altmeyer and Perkins jointly set up the CES, including selecting the staff and the Executive Director (economist Edwin Witte, of the University of Wisconsin). The 100 or so federal experts assembled to do the research for the project were organized into a Technical Board, of which Altmeyer served as the Chairman.
The CES conducted extensive research on social insurance programs in European nations and undertook to document the need for similar programs in America. Its 10 volumes of unpublished studies, and the the post-legislation book summarizing them (see Social Security in America), were the intellectual case for the Social Security program. The CES’s Report and the attendent administration legislative proposal went to Congress in January 1935, where it served as the basis for the Social Security Act of 1935.
Establishing an Institution
The Social Security Act created a three-person Social Security Board to administer the new social insurance program we now call “Social Security,” as well as the new federal Unemployment Insurance program, and to exert federal policy oversight for various state welfare programs that received new forms of federal financial support under the Act. Altmeyer was chosen by the President to become one of three Board members, and he would become Acting Chairman in October 1936 and the permanent Chairman in February 1937.
Although not initially Chairman of the Board, Altmeyer was the real power within the organization. The other two members were former politicians, and Altmeyer was the only one of the group with either policy expertise or administrative experience with social welfare programs. Although policies and executive decisions were made by majority vote of the Board, it was often Altmeyer who took the lead on many issues.
Among the most important early administrative decisions involved the question of whether the new organization would be staffed on civil service merit principles or on the basis of political patronage. Altmeyer and the Board endured considerable political pressure on behalf of patronage appointments, but were able to make the Social Security Board one of the first federal agencies staffed fully under civil service merit rules.
Altmeyer was also the one who defined and institutionalized the ethic of public service that characterizes the administration of the Social Security Act. From the earliest days of the program, the agency held to an explicit philosophy of service to the public, premised on Altmeyer’s core belief that the agency had an affirmative obligation to assist applicants in securing all the benefits to which they are entitled. This philosophy of service was revolutionary in its time and the Social Security Board was the first major federal agency to adopt such an approach to its duties.
Shaping Social Security
In 1939 the Social Security Act was amended by adding dependents and survivors benefits to the retirement program of the 1935 law. This changed the program in fundamental ways, by transforming it from an individual retirement program to a family-based social insurance benefit. This change was the result of a complex legislative process that began with the appointment of a Congressional Advisory Council on Social Security, and that proceeded through a series of complex legislative negotiations between the Congress and the Administration. Altmeyer–probably more than any other single person–was responsible for much of the policy development in the 1939 law.
Altmeyer also established the tradition of the Board becoming a major source of research on social insurance and, thereby, a major advocate for expansion of the program. Through periodic presidential statements (often ghost-written by Altmeyer) and through the Board’s Annual Reports, and other vehicles, the Board became a major player in the policy development of the Social Security program. Already in the early 1940s the Board was advocating expansions in coverage, and additional changes in the fundamental structure of the program by extending it to cover disabilities. Major expansions of coverage were achieved in the legislation of 1950 and 1952, and the ground-work was well in place by the time Altmeyer retired in 1953 for the eventual inclusion (in 1956) of cash disability benefits in the program.
In addition to helping create the Social Security program, establishing the institution to administer it, and guiding its policy development in its formative years, Altmeyer also played several other important roles in various aspects of government and social service.
During World War II, Altmeyer served in the War Manpower Commission, helping to guide federal policy in the use of labor resources for the war effort. After the War, he was instrumental in the establishment of the United Nation’s International Refugee Organization, which had the task of resettling the millions of displaced persons in Europe in the aftermath of the War.
For a decade, Altmeyer served as the Chairman of the Permanent Inter-American Committee on Social Security, an organization he helped found, and that was responsible for facilitating the adoption of modern Social Security programs throughout Latin America.
Altmeyer was an active member of the American Public Welfare Association, and frequently a featured speaker at their conferences. He was a charter member of the National Association of Social Workers and also a long-time member of the National Conference of Social Work, serving as that organization’s president in 1954-55.
Following the end of his government service in 1953, Altmeyer became a pension consultant to several union pension systems, including the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the United Auto Workers. His most long-standing role along these lines started in 1946 (while still heading the Social Security Administration) when he was appointed the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Retirement Fund of the Coat and Suit Industry (a pioneer labor organization.)
After his retirment, Altmeyer also consulted as a pension expert to many foreign governments, particularly in Latin America, but also in such countries as Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran. Over the years, Almeyer also served as a consultant to the International Labor Organization and to various agencies of the United Nations.
In his later years, he lectured widely on social insurance topics, including as a visiting fellow with the Salzburg Seminars in Austria.
Mr. Social Security
Although his interests in the general field of social welfare policy were broad and enduring, Altmeyer is certainly most closely identified with the creation and early development of the Social Security program. It would be fair to say that no other single individual exerted a more powerful shaping influence on the Social Security program in its formative first two decades. As Franklin Roosevelt cleverly observed, Arthur J. Altmeyer was “Mr. Social Security.”
Altmeyer, A.J. (1932). The Industrial Commission of Wisconsin: A case study in labor law administration. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Altmeyer, A.J., Myrdal, A. & Rusk, D. (1955). America’s role in international social welfare. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Altmeyer, A.J. & Ferrero, R. (1957). Estudio economico de la legislacion social Peruana y sugerencias para su mejoramiento. Lima, Peru.
Altmeyer, A.J. (1966). The formative years of Social Security: A chronicle of Social Security legislation and administration, 1934-1954. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
DeWitt, L. (2004). “Arthur J. Altmeyer.” In Encyclopedia of social welfare history in North America, pp. 29-30. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
U. S. Social Security Board (1937). Social Security in America: The factual background of the Social Security Act as summarized from staff reports to the Committee on Economic Security, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
For more information, visit the Social Security Administration’s website for a selection of Altmeyer’s speeches, articles and essays http://www.ssa.gov/history/collectalt.html
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): DeWitt, L.W. (2011). Arthur J. Altmeyer: Architect of the Social Security Administration and president of the National Conference on Social Work. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/altmeyer-arthur-j/