Abraham Epstein (1892-1942): Economist, Advocate for Social Justice and Founder of an Influential Organization Advocating for Social Insurance: the American Association for Old Age Insurance.
Introduction: Abraham Epstein was an economist who was devoted to the causes of social justice and social insurance. He was a national leader in the social welfare movement in the first half of the 20th century. While nationally recognized as an expert on the topic, he was not consulted to help in the development of the Social Security Act of 1935 and he vocally opposed many of its provisions. Nevertheless, Epstein is generally recognized as the person introducing the phrase “social security,”
Early Years: Epstein was born in Luban, Russia, to Leon and Bessie Levowitz Epstein. He immigrated to New York City in 1910. He found immediate employment in factories. A friend with connections got Epstein a teaching job in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, teaching Hebrew. On somewhat of a fluke, Epstein took the entrance exam at East Liberty Academy, an exclusive boys’ school. He did so well that not only did he gain admission but he was granted a full scholarship as well. In 1917, he won another scholarship to attend the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated in 1917 with a B.S. from the School of Business Administration. He also became a naturalized U.S. citizen that year. He also engaged in graduate work at Columbia University in between 1929 and 1931.
He had married. His wife’s name was Henriette. They had one son, Pierre Leon Epstein. (Note: Pierre L. Epstein wrote the book “Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Author of Social Security.”)
Professional Career: Epstein followed his undergraduate with graduate work researching the employment and housing conditions of Pittsburgh’s black population. This research was published in 1918 as The “Negro Migrant in Pittsburgh” and earned him many offers from prestigious graduate schools. He rejected these however and accepted the position of director of research at the Pennsylvania Commission on Old Age Pensions. He was a principal drafter of Pennsylvania’s old age pension bill introduced in 1921. This bill was passed in 1923 but faced stiff opposition from the state’s business community who were able to get the law declared unconstitutional in 1924, one year after its passage. The opposition was also successful in forcing the state legislature to disband the Commission. Following the termination of the Commission, Epstein continued to work for the state until 1925.
Also during 1920 and 1921, Epstein founded the Workers Education Bureau of America and served for a while as its secretary-treasurer.
While working for Pennsylvania, Epstein had published many books on aging and became an expert on social insurance on the lecture circuit. He left state employment in 1927 to organize the American Association for Old Age Insurance that was one of the two most influential organizations advocating social insurance during the 1930s. He served as the executive secretary of the organization (which changed the name to American Association for Social Security in 1933) until his death. He was also the editor of “Social Security,” the official publication of the association.
Between 1934 and 1937, Epstein served as an American representative of the social insurance committee of the International Labor office of the League of Nations
His views on social insurance by this time were in favor of a state-funded program of wealth redistribution along with a state program of care for the poor. In the 1930’s, this version of social insurance came to be called a “European Plan.” Epstein was able to persuade politicians and social welfare advocates in New York to adopt the plan, which the state did in 1935.
Because of his vocal opposition to a federalized plan and his demand that a social welfare program be state-funded, Epstein was at odds with President Roosevelt’s emerging New Deal social welfare program that was employer and employee funded and left many social insurance options to the states. Because of his opposition to their plan the New Dealers ignored Epstein.
Once the Social Security bill was drafted, Epstein became a outspoken critic of it. He criticized the bill for being funded by employer and employee contributions and not from the general tax fund. This option would have been more in line with his ideas for wealth redistribution. In the New Deal law, employees paid for many of their benefits instead of wealthy taxpayers. Epstein also despised the bill for leaving unemployment compensation to the states and he disliked the reserve fund idea.
He remained a vocal critic of the Social Security Act of 1935 for the next five years, becoming a consulting economist to Congress on the matter. Many of his views regarding social welfare insurance were adopted when Congress revised the Social Security Act in 1939.
Epstein died on May 2, 1942, of pneumonia, in a New York City hospital.
References: Obituary: New York Times, May 3, 1942, p. 43.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project (2011). Abraham epstein (1892-1942): Economist, advocate for social justice and founder of an influential organization advocating for social insurance: The American Association for Old Age Insurance. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/epstein-abraham-2/
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