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Cohen, Wilbur J. : A Perspective

Wilbur J. Cohen: A Perspective

By Edward Berkowitz, Ph.D., George Washington University, Washington, D.C.


Wilbur Cohen bounded off the plane and down the jet way at Logan Airport. Unlike the other passengers, who were somewhat tentative as they faced the uncertainties of a new city, he did not measure his step. He walked, with determined energy, straight ahead.

A young man drove Cohen to a Boston hotel. Alone, Cohen took out a document and began to read. Cohen often worked at night or early in the morning. He owed his reputation as one of the country’s leading experts on social welfare policy to his ability to concentrate on the task at hand. And if that task involved writing, Cohen would simply sit down and write, often in a beautiful script that one of his friends compared to that of a high school teacher. Cohen seldom brooded. In public, he was invariably cheerful, even exuberant. On this particular evening in 1978, Cohen studied disability benefits, the topic of the moment in Washington.

The next morning Cohen got up early and ate a large breakfast. When a driver came to take him to the redbrick university at the south end of town, he was ready. He made a fetish of being on time. He was, as always, eager to face the task at hand.

In Boston on this April morning Cohen spoke to an undergraduate history class. The students paid little attention to the portly, balding Cohen. Instead, they riveted their attention on Eunice Shriver, the sister of President Kennedy, who entered the large lecture hall, dressed in a casual pants suit and an expensive fur coat, about ten minutes after the class had begun. A young instructor nervously discussed President Kennedy’s social legislation with Cohen and Shriver.

The students listened but were distracted. Everyone felt a little stiff, slightly intimidated. Young residents of working class Boston did not react neutrally to the presence of a Kennedy.

Cohen sat patiently through the discussion and the lunch to honor the dignitaries. Eunice Shriver ate her chicken salad impatiently and talked about plans for the John F. Kennedy Library, under construction at a site across from the University. Cohen savored the chicken salad. The young instructor and other university officials tried to make conversation with Mrs. Shriver, without success.

Wilbur Cohen, in contrast to nearly everyone else in the room, did not feel intimidated to be in Eunice Shriver’s presence. He had, after all, worked for her brother Jack when he was still a Massachusetts Senator. He had helped her secure support for the 1963 law that began the federal government’s involvement with the care of mentally retarded citizens. Cohen felt little of the distance that separated the others from Mrs. Shriver.

In a completely open manner, he proceeded to introduce a subject that to nearly everyone was taboo. He talked about his father, a Milwaukee grocer, and described him as an intensely competitive person who did not like to lose. “He was like your dad, Eunice,” he said, referring to Joseph P. Kennedy, whose presence, like that of her three dead brothers, lingered in the air about her, omnipresent but never explicitly mentioned. Even Eunice Shriver referred, in an impersonal way, to President Kennedy.

Cohen treated Eunice Kennedy Shriver much as he treated the young instructor. He put everyone on an equal footing. He believed his father in Milwaukee to be as worthy of mention as her father in Boston.

This easy amiability, combined with drive and energy and an unthreatening physical presence, enabled Wilbur J. Cohen to play a key role in social welfare politics between 1935 and 1985. He worked effectively with an extraordinarily wide range of people–with Mrs. Shriver and her husband, with southern Congressman like Senator Walter George and Representative Wilbur Mills, with academics of all types–in the creation, implementation, and maintenance of America’s major federal welfare programs.

His involvement began in the New Deal era and continued through the Great Society. Unlike younger liberals, he never lost faith in the incremental engine of progress or doubted its ability ultimately to expand federal protection to cover all of life’s hazards.

Cohen, born in 1913, possessed both a personal confidence and a generational sense of optimism that led him to believe that social problems could be solved. He relished the inner workings of congressional politics and enjoyed the quirks of the legislative process. He viewed the political system as slow, imperfect but ultimately benevolent. This fundamental approval of Congress made Cohen eager to engage in the haggling between policy entrepreneur and legislator. If Cohen’s father sold groceries, Cohen retailed legislative proposals. Like Willy Lowman, he was always ready with his shoeshine and his smile. Unlike Willy Lowman, Cohen’s life was not tragic because he never became disillusioned with the process.

Cohen entertained few doubts. As a long-time associate noted, Wilbur Cohen believed in social security deeply, “So he wasn’t going through this business that many people do of searching their souls about whether they should be getting into something that is more useful or more exciting. He found it very exciting.” Unlike younger men, Cohen lived in a world marked by long-run growth and progress. The passage of constructive legislation was only a matter of time. If national health insurance was not passed by President Truman, then it would be passed by President Kennedy, or President Johnson, or the reformist president who was virtually certain to occupy the White House in 1995. Although reform went in cycles, its general direction was forward. As Cohen put it, “a cycle governs society’s affairs that limits how much can be done at any one time and leaves important things for the next generation to do.”

This book marks an inquiry into Wilbur Cohen’s faith and into his method of operations, so as to gain a sense of the inner workings of America’s social welfare policy and to paint a portrait of a man who did much to create those policies. The book follows Cohen from his birthplace in Milwaukee, to his college years in Madison between 1930 and 1934, to his years in Washington between 1934 and 1955 working for the social security program, to his brief stint as an academic in Michigan, to his return to Washington in 1961 and his key role in the passage of education legislation and Medicare, and finally to his career as an academic at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas between 1969 and his death in 1987.

Through the eyes of an influential individual, this book details the development of American social welfare programs between 1935 and the 1980s. It follows the path of the social security program as it grew to become America’s largest and most influential social welfare program. As we shall see, Cohen was present at many of the key points of transition. This book also shows how Cohen and others in his generation made the change from the depression-oriented programs of the New Deal to the prosperity-centered programs of the Great Society. And finally the book narrates the painful transition from the optimism of the 1960s to the pessimism and confusion of subsequent decades.

A Rationale for the Inquiry

It is one of the ironies of social welfare history that Jane Addams died in 1935, the same year that the Social Security Act was passed. It is tempting to see that year as an important watershed.

Jane Addams, like other progressive reformers, was born in the country and moved to the city. She responded to the forces of urbanization and immigration in a deeply personal manner, attempting to mediate disputes between the rich and the poor. She and the cohort of reformers associated with the settlement house movement tended to see the government as an enforcer of standards, often legislated at the state and local levels, rather than as a direct provider of social services. Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and the other crusaders of the progressive era campaigned for factory inspection laws, child labor laws, minimum wages, and maximum hours for women, and workers’ compensation laws.

Wilbur Cohen, by way of contrast, was the child of an immigrant. He was born in the city and moved to the suburbs. If he had lived ninety miles to the south, he could have been one of Jane Addam’s wards, participating in the social programs at Hull House. Cohen’s entire career was spent working in and around the federal government.

In particular, he devoted most of his time to the program that began the year that Jane Addams died. If Jane Addams was a pioneering reformer who settled in Chicago at a time of urban growth, Wilbur Cohen exemplified a new type of reformer. He worked as a bureaucrat for the federal government at a time of the federal government’s great growth. Jane Addams petitioned the government from the outside. Wilbur Cohen worked from the inside.

Just as Jane Addams and her associates left behind a large body of social legislation that permanently altered working conditions, so Wilbur Cohen and his colleagues created social programs of enduring impact. In 1940, social security affected less than one percent of the nation’s elderly. In 1970, toward the end of the period of Cohen’s greatest influence, 88.3 percent of the nation’s elderly received social security benefits. Jane Addams and Florence Kelley never dreamed of achieving results of that magnitude.

Just as a large group of scholars has sought to understand the world that the progressive era social reformers made, so it is appropriate to inquire into the lives of the reformers whose influence was manifest through the expansion of social security. We tend to think of Jane Addams in personal terms. Founding Hull House helped her to find fulfillment; she herself dramatized her life through her autobiographies. And Jane Addams, like Florence Kelley, was close to the surface of the political and cultural life of her era. Her causes, such as world peace and feminism, have an enduring fascination and resonance. It would be impossible to envision the progressive era without her.

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 straightforward. 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 policymaking 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 retirements pensions of social security were part of an intergenerational 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.

Jane Addams’ motivation for founding Hull House is an established object of scholarly endeavor. This book inquires into the motivation for Cohen’s decision to come to Washington and begin working for the federal government.

Few would suggest that the leaders of the settlement house movement formed an undifferentiated mass. Few people, for example, would be likely to mistake Jane Addams for Florence Kelley. In a similar manner, this book analyzes the distinctive influence of individuals like Cohen and Robert Ball on the formation and development of modern social policy. The object is to people the now faceless bureaucracy, much as other scholars seek to describe the various residents of Hull House. If much of the work of a bureaucracy involves endlessly repeated routine processes, it is important to remember also that bureaucracies have leaders who exercise political discretion and have distinctive styles. Wilbur Cohen was one such leader, and his career, like that of Jane Addams, can tell us much about the era in which he lived.

In the end, this book rests on the claim that Wilbur Cohen had a privileged view of social security policy. He observed and participated in the expansion of social security, the creation of disability insurance in 1956, the passage of Medicare in 1965, and the long battle to enact a program of federal aid to education. In this book, Wilbur Cohen becomes a representative type of modern social reformer. In this connection, the book dwells on the development of modern social security, welfare, and education policies. Cohen also serves as an important actor in his own right, and for that reason book narrates the details of his life. Wilbur Cohen’s life illuminates the course of social policy from the era of Franklin Roosevelt, through the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and beyond.

Source Notes for Chapter One
It is important to mention that these, and the notes that will follow for the other chapters, are source notes for the chapter. In the final version of the book, I intend to include a bibliographic essay that will, for example, mention the books, such as those by Achenbaum, Myers, Maramor, and many others, that have helped me to understand social security policy. Similarly, I will discuss archival sources and previous biographical sketches of Cohen in that essay. The fact that a book is not cited in these source notes does not mean that I have not consulted it.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format). Berkowitz, E. (2011). Wilbur J. Cohen: A perspective. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from