Edwin E. Witte

The Beginnings of Social Security


by Wilbur J. Cohen

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.

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 age of 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.


by Wilbur J. Cohen

Biographic notes on Edwin E. Witte by Wilbur J. Cohen represent the foreword to Theron F. Schlabach's biography of Edwin E. Witte published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin under the title "Edwin E. Witte, Cautious Reformer." Copyright State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Professor Schlabach's biography of Edwin E. Witte is an excellent description of the life-time adventure of a remarkable man. Reading this book brought back fond and rewarding memories of my thirty year association with this truly fine man. He was my teacher, my colleague, and my friend.

I first met Ed Witte in 1933. He was one of the professors at the University of Wisconsin who guided me into my own life work. In those days, ideas and innovations were flourishing at the university. Witte was one of the leading advocates of the "Wisconsin Idea" of public service in a period when the university was pioneering in this field. With John R. Commons, Selig Perlman, the La Follettes, E. A. Ross, Arthur Altmeyer, and other distinguished people, he investigated controversial social problems. And he believed that the university should make major contributions to the clarification and resolution of public policy issues. The current debate about the university's role in the community would have been no problem for Witte; he firmly believed in the university's obligation to the community and was prepared to help meet that obligation.

Witte combined the values and experiences of a political scientist, social reformer, and historian. In his lectures he emphasized the importance of the diffusion of economic power. He was influenced by the La Follette progressive movement and worked closely with many of the progressive leaders and their legislators. His identification with the "little man," with the individual farmer and worker, and with the needs of individuals who were unemployed, sick, or aged, made him conscious of need for far-reaching social reforms.

He was often critical of the power and influence of large impersonal corporations, of private insurance companies, of Wall Street, and of professors from eastern universities in government, business, and labor. Yet he was never hostile or bitter towards those he disagreed with. He instilled in his students a sense of optimism, and a belief in human progress.

Professor Witte's greatest reward in life may have been his influence on and through his students. Although he was also a social reformer and a public servant, he was primarily a teacher, in and outside of the classroom. He gave unselfishly of his time and energy to his students.

After Ed left the university to become Executive Director of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Committee of Economic Security, he asked me if I would like to come to Washington as his research assistant. Although I had planned to go to graduate school, I accepted and arrived in Washington on August 14, 1934, one year before the enactment of the Social Security Act. Never have I regretted it. Working with and learning from Ed Witte during the next few months was one of the most rewarding periods of my life.

He was a human dynamo. In six months' time he compiled voluminous reports and drafted one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted in the nation's history. I doubt that anything like that could be accomplished today. Professor Schlabach has aptly described the task that confronted Witte: he started from scratch in setting up an organization; he had to balance the interplay of ideas and interests among many groups; there were violent differences of opinion, and petty jealousies. There were no statistics on which to base accurate reports. There were no demonstration projects from which to benefit. "It was," as Frances Perkins described it "like driving a team of high-strung unbroken horses" --and, I add, to do an impossible task.

Yet what resulted from his patience, his intelligence, levelheadedness, and ability was a monumental report and a set of recommendations for a plan that has proved viable and effective, yet amenable to amendments when needed over the past third of a century. His success as a mediator and his overriding drive and ability enabled him to accomplish in six months what would have taken any other human being much longer.

We worked long hours in those days. Ed had a zest for encyclopedic knowledge. He wanted to know everything there was to know about foreign social insurance systems. He gave close attention to detail, yet he was a master at sorting out the details, delineating the issues, evaluating alternatives, and analyzing and synthesizing ideas for practical application.

His task was not over, however, with completion of the report and the drafting of the bill. He found himself explaining and defending the proposed legislation before both the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Senate Committee on Finance. He sat in the executive sessions of both committees, on the floor of the Senate and in conference committees, helping to mold the technical and legal modifications and policy compromises. Here Witte practiced the art of combining economics, politics, and conciliation in the crucible of hard reality. This book gives a lively description of this period of Witte's life.

After he returned to Madison, I continued my association with Ed up until the time of his death in 1960. We met many times and carried on a voluminous correspondence. He continued his interest in social security, serving frequently as advisor and consultant to federal and state agencies, speaking to many groups, and writing often on the subject of social security. The high point of this period of his career was when he was elected president of the American Economic Association in 1956. His selection came as a surprise to him because he staunchly defended institutional economics at a time when the Keynesian and other new schools of economics were becoming more popular. He was an economist who taught political economy, a subject which became sharply split among the social sciences. He was not comfortable with the socio-scientific vocabulary. Nor did he express his theories in mathematical formulas. He had little time for micro-economics, for his concern was with the whole institution and how it related to society.

A complex but humble man, he always disclaimed fame for his many accomplishments. Although many people called him the Father of Social Security, he unhesitatingly gave the credit to others. He was an ordinary man in many ways, unimpressed by superficialities. He loved his family and his home. He was a man on whom you could depend. Regardless of the problem, his students, his friends, and associates knew that Ed Witte would find the time and energy to help find a solution. He was a source of great strength, a compassionate and kind man of absolute integrity.

In the pages that follow Professor Schlabach conveys to the reader the many Edwin E. Wittes: the reformer, the teacher, the mediator, and the administrator.