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Jane Addams and Wilbur J. Cohen

Jane Addams and Wilbur J. Cohen: A Contrast of Social Reformers

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


Jane Addams
Jane Addams
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3a15774

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, maximum hours for women, and workers’ compensation laws.

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

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.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Berkowitz, E. (2011). Jane Addams and Wilbur J. Cohen: A contrast of social reformers. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from