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Cohen, Wilbur J.

in: People

Wilbur J. Cohen (June 13, 1913 – May 17, 1987) — Government Official, Educator, Social Welfare Expert

Wilbur J. Cohen
Wilbur J. Cohen
Photo: Social Security Administration

By Larry W. DeWitt, Historian, U. S. Social Security Administration

Introduction: Wilbur Cohen was one of the pioneers of the U.S. Social Security system, and a life-long expert on social insurance and social welfare programs. Interspersed among his various stints in government, was a second career as a university educator. The peak of his government service came during the Johnson Administration when he served as Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). At HEW, Cohen was instrumental in enactment of the Medicare program in 1965. In addition to being a government official and educator, Cohen was also a political and policy advocate, constantly working on behalf of expanded social welfare programs.

Cohen began his career as an enterprising young staff aid on Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security, helping to design what would become the Social Security Act of 1935. After passage of that landmark legislation, Cohen was hired as the first professional employee of the new Social Security Board. At the Board, Cohen became—despite his youth—the chief aid to Board Chairman Arthur J. Altmeyer. Altmeyer would become Cohen’s mentor and life-long friend. Cohen’s principal job at the Board was to serve as Altmeyer’s liaison on Capitol Hill, and much of the early Social Security legislation benefited from his skillful behind-the-scenes legislative diplomacy. Cohen made his mark by virtue of three traits which marked his professional life: patience and persistence in pursuit of his goals; an engaging and likeable personality; and an impressive expertise in the details of social welfare policy. Senator Paul Douglas of Michigan would quip that a Social Security expert was someone who knew Wilbur Cohen’s phone number!

Early Life and Work at Social Security

Cohen was born in Milwaukee, the first of two sons of Aaron and Bessie Cohen, who were long-time Jewish merchants in that city.

Cohen’s entree into the professional world came initially through his attendance at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he studied economics, and came under the tutelage of of Edwin Witte and Selig Perlman. It was Witte who would later bring Cohen to Washington to participate in the founding work of the Social Security program.

At Wisconsin, Cohen was schooled in the tradition of institutional economics pioneered there by Richard Ely and the famous economist John R. Commons. In his senior year at Wisconsin, Cohen became a member of Commons” informal “Friday nighters” group of his top students, who met each Friday evening at Commons’ home.

A central tenant of the “Wisconsin idea,” as taught by Ely and Commons, was that the university should be closely aligned with the practical administration of government programs, and Cohen”s career embodied this idea. Completing only an undergraduate degree in economics (in 1934), Cohen would nevertheless manage to become a full professor and an academic dean, on the strength of his career in government and the expertise he developed putting the “Wisconsin idea” into practice.

When Franklin Roosevelt appointed his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, to head the Committee on Economic Security (CES), Perkins appointed Edwin Witte Executive Director of the CES, and one of Witte’s first personnel decisions was to bring his bright young student, Wilbur Cohen, to Washington as his assistant. Thus Wilbur Cohen was an active participant in the creation of the Social Security Act of 1935.

A young Wilbur Cohen is shown here in the early days of Social Security with Maurine Mulliner who was the Executive Secretary to the Social Security Board
A young Wilbur Cohen is shown here in the early days of Social Security with Maurine Mulliner who was the Executive Secretary to the Social Security Board.
Photo: Social Security Administration

At the Social Security Board, Cohen served as Arthur Altmeyer’s assistant. Altmeyer relied heavily on Cohen as his emissary to Capitol Hill. Cohen”s intellectual mastery of the subject matter of social insurance, his ability to explain technical matters in understandable language, and especially his agreeable personality, made him a very effective legislative liaison. Much of Social Security policy in the first two decades of the program featured Altmeyer as the up-front policymaker and Cohen as the behind-the-scenes technician helping to get the Board”s proposals enacted into legislation.

With the coming to office of the Eisenhower Administration in 1953, Altmeyer was replaced and Cohen’s fortunes within the bureaucracy began to decline. He was reassigned to serve as the head of the agency’s research branch, but by 1956 he had decided to leave government, when he was offered an academic position at the University of Michigan.

Becoming an Educator

In 1956, Cohen was appointed a tenured Professor of Public Welfare Administration at the University of Michigan, despite his lack of advanced academic credentials. This new post opened new avenues of work and the opportunity to address broader subject matters, and it also freed him to become a more politically-active policy advocate.

During these years, in addition to developing expertise in education policy, he worked with his many friends in government on behalf of expansions of the nation’s social welfare programs. This led, in 1961, to President Kennedy inviting Cohen to return to government as an Assistant Secretary in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW). Cohen would thus have a second career in government, culminating in becoming Secretary of HEW in 1968.

Leaving government a second time at the end of the Johnson Administration, Cohen was appointed Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan, a post he held until 1977, when he retired to a position as Research Professor at the university.

In 1980, the always restless Cohen, received an invitation to become a faculty member of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He left Michigan to become a Professor at the LBJ School—a post he held until his death in 1987.

He was a very popular professor with students, both at Michigan and at Texas. One of his students at Texas, Audrey Wright, remembered Cohen for his accessibility and his friendliness toward his young students. “You would expect the former Secretary of HEW to be stern and unapproachable,” she recalled, “and Wilbur was never that.”

Return to Government

Wilbur Cohen with President Kennedy in Miami Beach in 1963
Wilbur Cohen with President Kennedy in Miami Beach in 1963. Also pictured, HEW Secretary Anthony Celebrezze and Francis Keppel, Commissioner of Education in HEW.
Photo: Social Security Administration

In 1961 President Kennedy asked Cohen to resume his government service, to serve as Assistant Secretary for Legislation in HEW. In effect, Cohen was reprising the same role he had played decades earlier for Arthur Altmeyer—although this time at a higher level of government. Due to his well-earned reputation as a liberal social reformer, a sharply divided Senate barely confirmed his nomination in 1961 by a single vote. He was initially the Assistant Secretary for Legislation; then in 1965 President Johnson appointed him Under Secretary of the Department; and finally he was elevated to the Secretary’s job in 1968.

During this period, Cohen was credited with having a hand in 65 major pieces of legislation. As the Washington Post reported of him: “When the civil rights laws were discussed, he was there. When legislation to protect farm workers was considered, his views were sought. He shaped training programs, child welfare standards and policies to aid the aging and the handicapped. He supported federal aid to education, health insurance and medical research.”

Cohen helped secure the passage of numerous New Frontier and Great Society programs in the areas of civil rights, aid to education, and Social Security expansion. Probably the most important legislation in which Cohen played a major role were the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Medicare program, also in 1965.

Wilbur Cohen being sworn in as Secretary of HEW. Looking on are President Johnson (r), Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and Cohen's wife and three sons
Wilbur Cohen being sworn in as Secretary of HEW. Looking on are President Johnson (r), Vice-President Hubert Humphrey (l) and Cohen’s wife and three sons.
Photo: Social Security Administration

Among his mementos of this period of government service, Cohen was the proud owner of Presidential signing pens from more than a dozen major bill signings, including: The Public Welfare Amendments of 1962; the bill creating the Administration on Aging; the Public Health Service Act amendments of 1965; the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration amendments of 1965; eight bills from 1966, including the Higher Education Amendments and the Model Cities Act; the Mental Health Amendments of 1967; and bills in 1967 and 1968 to amend the Higher Education Act.

In 1988, an historic Washington federal building located at 4th and Independence was renamed the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building in his honor. The historical irony was that this building had been built in 1940 to house the Social Security Board, and this was the building’s name for many years (even though the Board never used the facility).

Policy Advocate

Wilbur Cohen is shown here at the White House during the Johnson Administration with (l) Arthur Altmeyer and (r) Robert M. Ball.
Wilbur Cohen is shown here at the White House during the Johnson Administration with (l) Arthur Altmeyer and (r) Robert M. Ball.
Photo: Social Security Administration

During his career Cohen was involved in many areas of social welfare policy, frequently testifying before Congress and advocating for social welfare programs. And when he left government, he continued to teach, and to serve on countless congressional panels, presidential task forces and social welfare advisory commissions.

Outside of government, Cohen used his enormous network of political and policy acquaintances to lobby for progressive public policies. Among other activities, in 1979 he co-founded the Social Security advocacy group SOS (Save Our Security), which was a coalition of dozens of senior citizen, labor, and civil rights organizations.

Much of the key social welfare legislation of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s reflects Cohen’s influence. After the coming to office of the Reagan Administration in 1981, Cohen’s impact on public policy considerably lessened, although he remained active to the end, advocating for the social welfare programs he had spent a lifetime serving. Indeed, Cohen died in 1987—at the age of 73—while on an international trip to attend a conference on aging and welfare.

Upon his death, the Washington Post editorialized about his life in these words:

Wilbur Cohen at the 50th Anniversary of Social Security ceremony at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland—August 1985.
Wilbur Cohen at the 50th Anniversary of Social Security ceremony at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland—August 1985.
Photo: Social Security Administration

It is rare for someone to come to Washington at the age of 21, spend decades in the bureaucracy and rise to a position in the Cabinet. It is even rarer for a high political appointee to be widely admired for his expertise and renowned for his amiable nature. This was Wilbur Cohen . . . Like his friend Hubert Humphrey, Wilbur Cohen cared not only about “the people,” but about individual people. Through a lifetime of working to improve the lot of others, he never lost his enthusiasm or his largeness of spirit.

Chronology of Cohen’s Career
6/10/13 Born, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
1931-1934 Studied economics at the University of Wisconsin
1934-35 Staffer on the Committee on Economic Security
1935-1956 Key employee of the Social Security Board/Social Security Administration
1950-1952 Chairman of the Wage Stabilization Board’s Committee on Health, Welfare and Pensions
1956-1961 Professor of Public Welfare Administration at the University of Michigan
1960 Chairman, President-elect Kennedy’s Task Force on Health and Social Security
1961 Assistant Secretary for Legislation at HEW
1965 Under Secretary of HEW
1967 Received the Rockefeller Public Service Award
1968 Secretary of HEW
1968 Chairman, President’s Commission on Mental Retardation
1969-1970 President of the National Conference on Social Welfare
1969-1977 Dean, School of Education, University of Michigan
1969-1976 Chairman of the Institute of Gerontology at University of Michigan-Wayne State University
1975-1976 President of the American Public Welfare Association
1977-1980 Research Professor, University of Michigan
1978-1980 Chairman, National Commission on Unemployment Compensation
1979 Co-founded the SOS advocacy organization
1979-1981 Member, National Commission on Social Security
1980 Appointed Sid W. Richardson Professor of Public Affairs in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin
5/17/87 Died in Seoul, South Korea


Berkowitz, Edward D., Mr. Social Security: The Life of Wilbur J. Cohen, (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1995).

Cohen, W. J., Retirement Policies under Social Security, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).

Cohen, W. J. and Friedman, M., Social Security: Universal or Selective?, (Washington: Institute for Public Policy Research, 1972).

Cohen, W. J., “The Advent of Social Security,” in Louchein, Katie (ed.), The Making of the New Deal: The Insiders Speak, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983): 150-159.

Cohen, W. J., “Social Security in 1995: The Future as a Reflection of the Past ,” in Berkowitz, Edward D. (ed.), Social Security After Fifty: Success and Failures, (New York, Greenwood Press, 1987): 141-152.

Cohen, W. J. (ed.), The Roosevelt New Deal: A Program Assessment Fifty Years After, (Austin: LBJ School of Public Affairs, 1986).

DeWitt, Larry, “Mr. Social Security: Review of the Edward Berkowitz Biography of Wilbur Cohen,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 1, Spring 1996: 91-92. Available online at:

DeWitt, Larry, “Cohen, Wilbur J.,” encyclopedia entry, Encyclopedia of Social Welfare History in North America, (Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publishers, 2004): 60-61.

DeWitt, Larry, “Cohen, Wilbur J.,” encyclopedia entry, Biographical Dictionary of American Economists , (London, Thoemmes Continuum, 2006).

Haber, W. and Cohen, W. J., (eds.), Readings in Social Security, (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1948).

Haber, W. and Cohen, W. J., (eds.), Social Security: Programs, Problems and Policies, (Homewood: Richard D. Irwin, 1960).

Levitan, S., Cohen, W. J. and Lampman, R. J., (eds.), Towards Freedom from Want, (Madison: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1968).

Marmor, Theodore R., “Entrepreneurship in Public Management: Wilbur Cohen and Robert Ball,” in Doig, Jameson W. and Erwin C. Hargrove, Leadership and Innovation, (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

Morgan, J. N., Martin, D. H., Cohen, W. J. and Brazer, H. E., Income and Welfare in the United States, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962).

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): DeWitt, L. (2011). Wilbur J. Cohen (June 13,1913 – May 17, 1987) — Government official, educator, social welfare expert. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

More information on Cohen can be found online on the Social Security Administration’s website at:

Wilbur Cohen’s papers are in the Wisconsin State Historical Society (a guide to these papers is online here).

An additional smaller set of Cohen papers, including Edward Berkowitz’s notes for his Cohen biography, are in the History Archives of the Social Security Administration (a guide to these papers is online here).