Jack S. Futterman
JACK S. FUTTERMANJack Futterman was Assistant Commissioner for Administration until he retired in 1972 after a 36-year career with the Social Security Administration. Previously he served as Executive Assistant to the Commissioner, Deputy Chief of the agency's program analysis and planning component, and, for several years, as the agency's Budget Officer.
Mine are not memories embracing all of the then Social Security's multi-faceted developmental activities but rather those I was able to make through my own small knothole observation point in the Candler Building in Baltimore starting in 1936.
Social Security was born in the depths of a great depression. It was a terrible time. A time of wide spread hunger, enormous deprivation and large scale, extensive, unemployment. It was a very bad time indeed, and yet, if one were free to select a time to staff and build a great social program like Social Security, it would have been difficult to conceive a better time than the early years of Social Security when the Nation was foundering in the depths of a historic depression.
It was a time when any job was eagerly sought and the millions of unemployed competed fiercely-- Ph.D.'s and holders of Master's Degrees fought to get the same jobs that those with a much more meager education sought--receiving and shipping clerk positions, waitress, or whatever position was being filled.
In this climate Social Security hired people, and I was fortunate to be one of them, to fill clerical positions from Civil Service Registers densely packed with the names of persons with qualifications far beyond the needs of the jobs for which they were eligible; people who in better times would have been in high demand to fill top generalist, specialist, and technical positions.
The Candler Building was by no means the location of the "all" of Social Security activity. It was just one of several different kinds of centers working to get the administration of the program launched. Yet I have no doubt that in respect to the character of their staffs and their influence there was little essential difference.
It was the assigned function of the Baltimore organization to establish the basic records that would be needed for Social Security to carry out its ultimate designed purpose to pay benefits when workers met the requirements. There was no master plan that laid out the detailed steps to get from A to Z. There had been no time to do that. What there was, was a very broad-gauged idea of what they wanted the social insurance program to accomplish and a brash confidence that those entrusted with running the program would somehow work out an acceptable means of getting there.
Despite the grave misgivings of some record-keeping experts that a system of basing the payment of benefits on an individual's record of lifetime earnings would prove to be an impossible task, this confidence that a way would be found to do the job, proved to be sound. Much of this was attributable to the staff from the lowest graded to the highest.
In hindsight the absence of a "map" of how to get there was beneficial; had one existed it would undoubtedly have stifled the sustained burst of creative and imaginative effort that resulted as responsibility for each part of the job was parcelled out, first at the top and then through the lowest levels. Lacking pre-developed detailed instructions each worker had considerable latitude to work out the most efficient way to get his task done. Out of this atmosphere, and stemming in good part from the high caliber of the staff there came the perpetual search for a better way that became a Social Security tradition and, for many years, a hallmark of the way SSA did its job.
One very simple example of this attitude helps recall the flavor of those days. Fifty years ago, record-keeping was a far cry from today. Much was done manually--some with the expenditure of much physical effort. For example, in the days before electronic da-a processing, the standard method of keeping a record was on paper. And it was so with the system that we began to set up in the late 1930's. Each of the many millions of covered workers would have an individual ledger sheet set up showing his name and account number and when his employers reported (semi-annually at first, later quarterly, and now for the most part, annually) the worker's ledger would be removed, the reported earnings posted, and the ledger returned to its place in file. Just like any small businessman might do, except perhaps hundreds of thousands of times larger!
Jobs that the small businessman took in stride looked very much more challenging when increased in size 50 million percent! One example out of a great many was this matter of the ledger sheet. The ledgers were purchased as pin-feed stock to facilitate the printing, on the ledgers, of the worker's name and account number. When this was done, the pin-feed had served its purpose. In fact, the perforated edge had to be stripped away and the sheets separated from each other before they could be used in operation.
Initially, human fingers seemed sufficiently well adapted for this purpose--at least for the first 100,000 or so! But soon the cuts, bruises, and sore fingers and hands made evident that a better way was needed. Pliers, not subject to the ills of flesh soon found their way into widespread use. But all pliers are not equal and this gave rise to the search for the perfect plier--bigger, stronger grip, . . . When the plier technology seemed to have reached its peak still falling short of the ideal, the emerging "technology" of the cutting machine had its day only to be followed, in turn, by a series of other creative and imaginative approaches.
The culmination of this early search for a better way was a high-speed machine invented by one of our fellow workers. It used a set of fixed knives and rollers on a motor driven device to produce a shearing action. The knives stripped the edges off a continuous stack of ledger sheets as they were fed through at high speed and the action of the rollers (which were at a small angle to each other) "burst" each ledger from the following one. The machine eliminated for all time the manual job of "stripping and bursting."
Looking back 50 years from the vantage point of today's exploding and ever increasing powerful high technology one is tempted to laugh at such crude goings-on in the name of record-keeping, yet the spirit that undergirded this search for a better way typified the spirit which accompanied getting the Social Security job done over the years and that made the Social Security record system in its formative years, a showpiece to business. Those familiar with the history of the development of modern data processing, telecommunications, and photographic equipment and techniques know well the debt due to the skill, competence, and insatiable appetite for new and better ways, of the people staffing Social Security. Without its pioneering efforts, working often in close relationship with the related industries, exemplified by such developments as the collating machine, which gave the impetus for the rapid rise of the business machine industry in the 1930's and 1940's, through microphotography, telecommunications, automatic scanning devices, and many other benchmark developments, the state of the art today might very well be less advanced.
The memory of the "early days" remains clear after nearly 50 years: a hard working inventive staff, highly motivated to make things work, ever searching for better, cheaper, faster ways to serve the public. Their legacy lives on today in the people they touched, who carry on after them.