Edwin E. Witte ( 1887 – 1960 ) — Reformer, Teacher, Administrator and Father of Social Security
Edwin Witte’s career was approximately evenly divided between university teaching and serving as a State or Federal official. For him these areas of activity were closely related. He was a part of the “Wisconsin Idea” of public service in a period when staff members at the University of Wisconsin were pioneering in the investigation of controversial social problems and emphasizing the importance of the university in making a major contribution to public policy issues. His career included service as Secretary of the Industrial Commission of Wisconsin, as Chief of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Service, as head of the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin, as President of both the Industrial Relations Research Association and the American Economic Association, as secretary to a Wisconsin Congressman, as Executive Director and Secretary of the Committee on Economic Security, as a member of the first Advisory Council on Social Security, as a member of the Federal Advisory Council on Social Security, and as a member of the President’s Committee on Administrative Management.
Note: Below is a profile of Edwin E. Witte written by Wilbur J. Cohen. The source of this document is the On Line History of the Social Security Administration: www.ssa.gov/history/cohenwitte.html
This biography of Ed Witte was first published in 1973 as part of the SSA series “The Beginnings of Social Security.” Please note that both essays by Wilbur Cohen are from other copyrighted works and were published by SSA with the permission of the copyright holders.
EDWIN E. WITTE (1887-1960): FATHER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
by Wilbur J. Cohen
Reprinted with permission from the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Vol. 14, No.1, October 1960, Copyright C. 196O by Cornell University. All rights reserved.
Many people have referred to Professor Edwin E. Witte as “the father of the Social Security Act.” But, in his customary humility, Professor Witte noted that he merited “this title less than many others.” In commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the act, Professor Witte said in an address published in the Social Security Bulletin (October 1955):
“Social Security, like most other major social advances, has been the product of the endeavors and work of many people over a long period of time. The contributions made by any one person have been so commingled with those of many others that the end-product cannot be attributed to any individual or group of individuals.”
It is regrettable that Ed Witte did not live to participate in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the monumental program he helped to create. He died, at the ageof 73, on May 20, 1960 in Madison, Wisconsin, just a few weeks before the law’s silver anniversary. Although he had retired at the age of 70 from the university he loved, he worked diligently and consistently up to his final illness. Between periods of hospitalization and convalescence from several strokes, he was teaching, writing, speaking, arbitrating, attending meetings, and advising students. Ed Witte did not know how to retire and stop working. He left uncompleted a book on social security that he had planned for over twenty years and wanted so much to finish. It is ironical that the professor who played such an important role in the formulating of the social security program did not have time to publish a book on it in his lifetime.
To his former students and colleagues, Ed Witte was more than a man with a vast encyclopedic knowledge, more than a person with the unusual ability to draft single-handedly complex laws and reports on a wide range of labor, legal, social, and economic matters. He was a patient and helpful teacher, a man of humility, and a person of absolute integrity.
When Ed was named president of the American Economic Association in 1955, Merlyn Pitzele portrayed him in all his humaneness, generosity, and uniqueness in an unusual word and picture vignette in Business Week (November 26, 1955). Mel measured the man by noting that Witte, despite all his public service, remained a teacher, a man whose first and foremost interest was his students, and one who as an economist really taught ‘political economy’ now split so sharply among the social sciences.
Ed Witte was not a man who tried to impress anyone. He didn’t use five syllable words or fancy concepts so fashionable today in the social sciences. He wasn’t able to use mathematical formulas, and he did not invent any new vocabulary to describe prevailing ideas or to theorize about existing institutions. He didn’t try to win an argument or to hurt people by showing how much more he knew or how much more he had accomplished than someone else. But he was tenacious in clinging to opinions and principles in which he believed. He was a rare spirit and was admired by his students and colleagues.
Ed Witte was born on a farm near Watertown, Wisconsin– about 40 miles from Madison– on January 4, 1887. He received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1909 in history and his Ph.D. in economics in 1927. Almost all of Witte’s life was spent in Wisconsin, except for several brief periods of governmental service in Washington and, during World War II, in Detroit. He spent about half of his active life as a state or federal governmental official and the other half as a university professor. He was proud of his dual role as a public servant and a teacher.
It is important to note that Witte, although growing up on a farm and coming from a rural middle western background, was with Commons, Slichter, Perlman, and others part of a small group of Wisconsin liberal economists who interpreted and defended the trade union when such defense was dangerous. Witte was also a staunch advocate of social security and public health insurance despite attacks on these measures as leading to the ‘welfare-state’ or ‘socialized medicine.’ Witte saw himself as both a radical and a conservative; radical in espousing reforms and challenging the status quo; conservative in that these reforms, by moderating abuses, preserved the free-enterprise economic system, the federal-state political structure, and the democratic political process.
He entered the University of Wisconsin in 1905 where he majored in history under Frederick Jackson Turner, the author of the famous frontier hypothesis as an explanation of the unique economic, political and social development in the United States. It was Turner who, on leaving Wisconsin in 1910 for Harvard, advised Witte to study with Commons. Under Commons, Witte combined his interest in economic history with a pragmatic interest in understanding and solving immediate economic and social problems. It was Commons who guided and directed Witte into his life’s work.
Witte was part and parcel of the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ of public service in a period when the University of Wisconsin was pioneering in this field. With Commons, Perlman, the La Follettes, E. A. Ross, the sociologist, Altmeyer, and a number of other distinguished people, he investigated controversial social problems at firsthand and emphasized the importance of the university in making a major contribution to public policy issues.Witte combined the values and experience of a political economist, social reformer, and historian. He believed in the diffusion of economic and political power. He was influenced strongly by the La Follette progressive movement and worked closely with many of the Progressive leaders and legislators. He identified with the ‘little man,’ the individual farmer and worker, and the needs of individuals who were unemployed, sick, or aged.
He was often critical of the power of the large impersonal corporation, the political influence of private insurance companies, the control of ‘Wall Street,’ and the influence of professors from eastern universities in government, business, and labor. Yet Witte was never hostile or bitter to those who were critical of him. He was an optimist and he believed in ‘progress.’ He saw social and economic institutions in a continual process of change.
The respect for his integrity and humanity was demonstrated by his selection as the first president of the Industrial Relations Research Association (1948) and as president of the American Economic Association (1956). His abilities as a conciliator and mediator among men with strong opinions led him to be used extensively in labor mediation boards. This same quality was instrumental in his being selected to be chairman of the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin from 1936-1941 and 1946-1957. Witte’s whole approach was to find the area of agreement in economic, labor, and social questions.
Witte was also strongly influenced by his experience with legislators and with drafting legislation and getting legislation enacted into law. As chief of the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Service (1922-1933), he aided countless state legislators on a wide range of legislation. As a secretary (1912-1914) to Congressman John M. Nelson, he had the opportunity to get to know the congressional mentality and the legislative processes in Congress. This intimacy with both the state and federal legislative mind and machinery led him to respect the process of political democracy and to be wary of grandiose schemes which would be impossible of legislative acceptance. In addition to his contribution to drafting the Social Security program, he was also instrumental in drafting the Norris-La Guardia anti-injunction act.
As the executive director and research synthesizer for the President’s Committee on Economic Security in 1934, Witte undertook the major responsibility for writing the entire report of the Committee on Economic Security to President Roosevelt and also for explaining and defending the proposed legislation before both the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committee in 1935. He sat in the executive sessions of both committees, on the floor of the Senate and in the conference committee, helping to mould the technical and legal modifications and policy compromises. Here Witte was exercising the highest art of combining economics, politics, and conciliation in the crucible of hard reality. It is to be hoped that Witte’s unpublished manuscript on, “The Development of the Social Security Act,” which he wrote in 1936, will soon be published. It presents an accurate insight into the entire legislative process and should become a major reference source for all students of social security.
Although Witte was a prolific writer of articles and speeches, he published only one major book in his lifetime: The Government in Labor Disputes (1932). Social Security in America (1937) represents a summary of the studies and staff reports prepared under his direction as executive director of the Committee on Economic Security. Witte preferred to allocate his energies to the current labor and social issues of the day rather than writing systematic volumes. He gave unselfishly in time and energy to students and to his colleagues. He wrote extensive letters to his students and to anyone who inquired of him. He was conscientious in his administrative and teaching responsibilities and his many advisory roles, which resulted in his constantly postponing the text on social security he hoped so much to publish.
Witte admired and respected Commons and Perlman and was proud of being a member of the institutional school of economists.
In a ringing defense of institutional economics in 1954, Witte defended and explained his approach and his objectives. “All or most of the institutional economists have been pragmatists, studying facts, not for their own sake, but to solve problems and to make this a better world to live in.”
Ed Witte is gone, but he made a significant contribution to the labor and social legislation of the nation and to teaching these subjects to students he hoped would carry on the work he loved.