Social Security Pioneers

Bob Ball in 1973

"The man who runs the biggest retirement and insurance system in
the world is calm, helpful, friendly, caring, immensely competent and
virtually anonymous even to most of the Americans he helps."


IT IS TO ROBERT M. BALL'S "great credit that the Social Security Administration has, indeed, become a model for other government agencies in discharging its responsibilities to the American public."
This is how President Nixon appraised Commissioner Ball's record when he accepted his resignation as Commissioner of Social Security. The President went on to say that Mr. Ball has "every reason to be proud" of the broadened scope of social security and the "finest in administrative implementation" of legislative amendments which have taken place during his service as Commissioner. The President's encomiums add to the long line of those Mr. Ball has won over the years and continues to receive as he plans his new role in the development of national social policy.

Mr. Ball first became interested in the social security program in his senior year at Wesleyan, which was 1935. "The thing that has appealed to me most about the program, Mr. Ball once remarked, "is that it supplies a continuing income to groups who without it would be most susceptible to poverty, yet it does this through their own effort-the protection grows out of the work they do and contributions they make. I've always been glad I made the choice of career I did."

Rapid promotion to more and more responsible positions, both in the field and at headquarters, showed that Mr. Ball's strong interest in social security was matched by his abilities. Starting out practically at the bottom of the ladder, he has commented, was probably the best thing that could have happened to him: "I think I learned more about social security in those days of working at the grass roots than I could have learned in any other way."

Although he left the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (forerunner of the present Social Security Administration) for 3 years in the late 1940's, Mr. Ball continued to work in the social security field. A book which includes a chapter on Mr. Ball's career* (*Adventures in Public Service, New York, 1963.) mentions the opinion held by many people that his work as staff director for the 1949 Advisory Council on Social Security "was the best thing that could have happened for American social security."
Over the years, Commissioner Ball has been recognized for a number of qualities and abilities, such as: Tireless worker, inspiring leader of staff, persuasive champion of principles of social security, outstanding administrator, and dedicated humanitarian.

Tireless dedication to duty was one of the qualities recognized in the 1954 Distinguished Service Award of the Department of HEW, an award based on Mr. Ball's performance as Acting Director of the Bureau of OASI in the early months of the Eisenhower administration. His great capacity to endure, even thrive, under extreme work pressures and many long hours of exacting effort has been testified to over and over by the many SSA staff members who have worked with him and attempted to maintain his pace. The 1958 Career Service Award of the National Civil Service League cited both his standing as a distinguished authority on social security and his "notable ability to lead and inspire those who work with him."

Commissioner Ball is widely known, both in this country and abroad, as an eloquent, persuasive advocate of contributory social insurance. Among those conversant with the history of social security in the United States he is recognized as one of a handful of men most influential in the remarkably successful development of the social security idea into a working reality for the American family. His reputation was well established in his work with the 1949 Advisory Council on Social Security, whose recommendations marked a major turning point in the program's history. The 1950 amendments, which grew out of the Council's recommendations, firmly established the program's principles and were the starting point for the long series of progressive improvements that have continued through the 1972 amendments. There can be no doubt that Mr. Ball's influence was fundamental to the reaffirmation of program goals and direction that the Council's work and subsequent legislation represented.
Not long after his late-1949 return to BOASI, Mr. Ball served as a staff director for the National Planning Association's pioneering study, published in 1952 as Pensions in the United Stales. The report still serves as a basic reference source on the subject.

Soon after the 1952 elections, the new Administration appointed consultants from outside the Government to study the coverage of the social security program. As one account of the period said, "These consultants, after making a thorough study of the program, recommended still further extensions of coverage." As staff director for the study, Mr. Ball again played the lead role in stimulating confidence in both the principles and the administration of the program.

In 1953, a subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee (which is responsible for social security legislation in the House of Representatives) began a searching and detailed inquiry both into the administrative practices and policies of social security and into the principles of the program. Mr. Ball was a key witness, answering a stream of detailed questions for several days. To him belongs a major part of the credit for a stout defense of the principles and policies of social security.

Mr. Ball had lead roles in the history of social security throughout the 1950's, the 1960's, and into the 1970's as the program continued to be extended and otherwise improved under four Presidents. Perhaps the most significant of the program extensions was Medicare. Mr. Ball appeared time after time as witness before congressional committees. These committees, as well as every Secretary of HEW, have cited him for his competence. The tributes Mr. Ball has received for performance as a witness consistently mention that he impressed Congressmen and Senators with his mastery of facts, figures and details, and with his clear, convincing, and patient presentations.

As an administrator, Commissioner Ball has also received much praise. The citation on the Arthur J. Altmeyer Award presented to him in 1968 reads: "His Leadership, Dedication, and Administrative Ability Have Brought Hope and Dignity to Millions of Americans." Mr. Ball was the first person to receive the Rockefeller Public Service Award for "distinguished service in the field of administration."

In a 1972 letter to Mr. Ball, President Nixon praised him for "reducing costs in the Social Security Administration without sacrificing the quality of services." The letter said that this achievement not only reflects your admirable concern for the public well-being but also testifies to your highly effective leadership."
Chairman Wilbur D. Mills of the House Ways and Means Committee was recently quoted as describing Mr. Ball as "a near genius in administration." And former HEW Secretary Wilbur J. Cohen told a reporter in 1966 that he thought of Mr. Ball as early as the 1940's as "a simply superb administrator." The same reporter gave this impression of the Commissioner: "The man who runs the biggest retirement and insurance system in the world is calm, helpful, friendly, caring, immensely competent and virtually anonymous even to most of the Americans he helps."

While Mr. Ball would be the first to say that the administrative success of social security is largely attributable to its dedicated and competent staff, the fact remains that be was at the helm. As the second in command for 10 years and the top man for 11 more, Mr. Ball had major responsibility on administrative policy questions, including the organization of SSA and selection and placement of key staff.

In the 1950's, Commissioner Ball carried the primary responsibility for dealing with committees appointed to investigate the administration of social security. In each case the committees concluded that the organization was, in fact, efficiently carrying out the provisions of the law. For example, the Secretary of HEW in 1957 appointed a consulting committee of businessmen, led by Reinhard A. Hohaus, vice-president of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, to investigate the administration of BOASI. The committee investigated for a year and reported to the Secretary that "The Bureau is carrying out its mission in a sound and vigorous manner. . . . The consultants were impressed with the effective and competent manner in which the staff of the Bureau appeared to be managing their responsibilities . . . with the way the Bureau personnel met and dealt with the public and with the impression of both efficiency and friendliness created by the typical OASI district office."

Commissioner Ball carried the primary responsibility for dealing with committees appointed to investigate the administration of social security. In each case, the committees concluded that the organization was efficiently carrying out the provisions of the law.

In 1959, a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee began an investigation into the administration of the disability program. The subcommittee was reported to believe that the program was being administered poorly. According to the account in the book, Adventures in Public Service, "Those who were present at the initial hearings still recall Ball's explanatory statement to the Committee as a model of clarity. Day after day, Robert Ball, Victor Cristgau, Arthur Hess, and others faced the investigating committee. . . . This went on for months." By the end of the hearings, the Committee had changed its tone: the subcommittee chairman said "We have some appreciation now . . . of what a tremendous task the Congress had imposed on you and the diligence and intelligence with which your Bureau and its officials have gone about in trying to carry it out. . . . On the whole, the program has been administered very fairly and with great capacity by excellent public officials. We are particularly grateful to Mr. Ball, who has demonstrated his great capacity and his dedication to performance of these services with his great ability."

Investigating committees have not been the only bodies before which Mr. Ball has testified. Year after year he has had to present and defend the SSA administrative budget before HEW officials, Office of Management and Budget hearings, and the Appropriations Committees of the Congress. He has frequently testified on various aspects of social security operations before other congressional committees, such as Government operations and the Senate Committee on Aging. And he has maintained a high reputation with Department officials for his competent presentations of SSA administrative policy recommendations to the Secretary.

One of the factors sometimes cited in analysis of the success of social security administrative policies is the existence of a clearly defined set of objectives for the entire agency-originally known as the "Statement of Bureau Objectives" and now entitled "The Objectives of the Social Security Administration." Mr. Ball devoted much time and attention to the formulation of this expression of administrative goals and principles. As HEW Secretary, Arthur S. Flemming (now Consultant on Aging to President Nixon) said after reading the pamphlet, "This is the finest statement of its kind by a government agency that it has been my privilege to read."
When the implementation of the Medicare program got underway, the agency's objectives and administrative capacities were tested to what then seemed to be their limits. President Johnson described setting up Medicare as the most massive administrative operation in peace time. Today, Medicare is a well-established program, paying out last year about $8.8 billion to help meet the health costs of older people.

Many other landmarks in social security history could be cited to illustrate that SSA has met challenge after challenge in making social security one of the most widely approved of all Government programs. Commissioner Ball has consistently emphasized that the success social security has achieved is due in large measure to the dedicated men and women who have worked as employees of SSA. It was with gratitude and considerable good feeling toward all those employees, past and present, that Mr. Ball recently wrote, "I believe, Mr. President, that the social security program and the organization that administers it are in excellent shape."

During a recent television interview, the Commissioner said that the test of whether he has been a good administrator will be in whether the Social Security Administration can perform well without him. In a message to SSA employees on January 5 he said, "The Social Security Administration will be faced with a very considerable challenge in putting into operation the major social advances contained in H.R. 1, but I have every confidence that the organization will perform well; we have always been at our best under pressure."

Mr. Ball now plans to devote himself to study and writing to help in the development of long-range national policy in health insurance, social security, welfare, and the organization of government for dealing with social programs. It is clear that he is already searching out new challenges. And this was predictable. As one observer of current events and of Mr. Ball has written, ". . . there are always men with a great capacity for self-renewal, continuing growth, and adaptability to altered circumstances and problems. Such men not only can meet new challenges, but have a way of searching them out."

Robert Myers Ball was born March 28, 1914, in New York City. Raised in the New York City area, he received a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1935 and an M.A. in economics from Wesleyan in 1936. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

He joined the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (predecessor to the present Social Security Administration) in 1939 as a field assistant, grade 3, in the Newark, N.J. District Office. Mr. Ball worked in other Social Security field jobs, including manager of the Bayonne, N.J. District Office, before coming to the central office in 1942. His early service in the central office included that of training specialist and unit chief in the Analysis Division (forerunner of today's Office of Program Evaluation and Planning).

In 1946 he left Government service and became Assistant Director of the American Council on Education's Committee on Education and Social Security. In 1947 and 1948 he served as staff director of the Advisory Council on Social Security established by the Senate Finance Committee.

Mr. Ball returned to the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance in 1949 as an Assistant Director of the Bureau, responsible for what was then called the Division of Program Analysis. He became Deputy Director of BOASI in 1952, and in 1962, upon nomination by President Kennedy and confirmation by the United States Senate, he became Commissioner of Social Security.

He is the author of many published reports in the field of social security and social welfare and has served in top positions of the American Public Welfare Association, the International Social Security Association, The National Council on Aging, and other professional organizations. His awards include the HEW Distinguished Service Award (1954), the National Civil Service League's Career Service Award (1958), the Rockefeller Public Service Award (1961), and the Arthur J. Altmeyer Award (1968).
Mr. Ball is married, has two children, and lives in Baltimore County near the Woodlawn headquarters of the Social Security Administration.

February 1973 OASIS