Wilbur J. Cohen and the Expansion of Social Security

By Edward Berkowitz, Ph.D. , Professor of History and Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University, Washington, DC

We tend to think of the expansion of social security as something impersonal and bureaucratic. It is almost as if the program expanded by itself. The basic old-age insurance program never posed issues that defined the political or cultural character of an era. Yet we know that the process of social security’s growth was neither smooth nor straight forward. The 1940s, when the Democrats were in power, were years of great frustration for social security advocates. The 1950s, when the Republicans were in power, were years of relative triumph. We know that it was not the President who guided the crucial expansions of social security in 1950 and 1952. Instead, social security policy functioned at a subterranean level. Distinctive individuals in the bureaucracy made crucial decisions.

Wilbur Cohen was one of the people who guided the social security program. Joined by Robert Ball, Nelson Cruikshank, and Elizabeth Wickenden, he became an important figure in what Martha Derthick has called the policy making system for social security. Each of these individuals, who met one another in the 1940s, had a distinctive specialty. Robert Ball of the Social Security Administration explained social security to many different audiences and convinced key Republicans to support the program. Nelson Cruikshank of the American Federation of Labor directed the lobbying activities of organized labor and provided the political clout behind the program. Elizabeth Wickenden, the welfare expert who convened the group, interpreted the program to state welfare directors. Cohen, for his part, served as the program’s congressional liaison. He was, in effect, the principal link between the executive and legislative branches on social security policy. It was his job to suggest ways to meet the demands of key congressmen so as to release a bill from committee or gain its ultimate passage. In this connection, the Cohen compromise became an integral part of social security’s history.

Cohen’s job did not remain static. He acted as the program’s congressional liaison between 1939 and 1956, although never with that formal title. Between 1956 and 1961, he left the government, even though he remained in close touch with developments in social security legislation and played a central role in legislation passed in 1956, 1958, and 1960. During this retooling period in academia, Cohen’s command of social programs widened, and his reputation grew. When he re-entered the government in 1961 as an assistant secretary of HEW, his responsibilities increased to include education legislation as well as social security and welfare. As a result, he helped to direct first the Kennedy and then the Johnson administration’s legislative strategy for the passage of such seminal laws as the Social Security Act of 1965 (Medicare) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (federal aid to education).

Between 1956 and 1961 he also had an opportunity to rethink some of the basic intellectual assumptions that he had inherited from the founders of social security. That led him to change his views on the function of welfare. What he originally conceived of as a monetary pension, he began to view as a source of rehabilitation and renewal. Just as Cohen’s outlook on welfare changed, so the basic focus of social policy changed between the new deal and the great society. The new deal emphasized security and retirement; the programs of the great society stressed investment and opportunity. Cohen’s experiences shed light on these changes that, as a member of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he helped to carry out.

Cohen’s views, although not static, remained fixed on the notion that the basic retirement pensions of social security were part of an inter-generational compact whose terms could not be weakened. Simply put, social security benefits could not be cut in the same way that, for example, appropriations for education could be cut. On the one hand, Cohen was known for his strategic flexibility and ability to compromise. Programs, at their moment of creation, were infinitely divisible and malleable. On the other hand, Cohen also became famous for his intransigence on social security. This trait was manifest in his actions after 1969 and, in the late 1970s, led him to found and run an organization devoted to the defense of social security. For much of Cohen’s life, he practiced inside politics that was invisible to the general public. At the end of his life, he became, in effect, a conventional lobbyist trying to bring public pressure to bear on Congress.


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