Frances Perkins

Remarks by Frances Perkins


at the 25th Anniversary Celebration of the Signing of the Social Security Act
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
August 15, 1960

Mr. Flemming, and all my friends here today, I cannot tell you what it means to me to meet you all on an occasion like this and to realize suddenly that I must have grown very old in these 25 years because I see on some of you whom I thought of as the working boys of the first staff of the enterprise that was attempting to bring forth the Social Security Act, I see some of you touched with grey. I even see Senator Carlson, now a Senator but in 1935 only a member of Congress, I see that he too has been touched with that terrible mark of the passage of time. So I know that there is something very real and important to the human race; something that is good for us to look back every now and then at the roots of our beginnings to see what they were, why they were, and who took the trouble and the enterprise to build up an institution which like this institution of social security in the U.S.A. became, as Franklin Roosevelt said, the cornerstone of his administration. For I think that nothing that was done during his day has brought so much credit to his day and to his wisdom as has this one thing, and this, of course, is due to the activity and the effort and the understanding and the planning of thousands of people, not only those who took a part in the original investigation and in the original survey of the possibilities, but to those who have administered this program down through the years and are still administering it.

I think too that as we stand here, and as we sit here and think about this precious child we want to see it grow. It has grown enormously in these years, it has improved, its administration has grown bigger and bigger as the imagination of those in charge have pointed out what could be done, but there is yet much that needs to be done and that I hope in God's good time will be done by bipartisan action as were the last amendments.

This, I think, is one of the things we need to remind ourselves about. I think too that we must remind ourselves of a few of the people who are not here today and who have gone to their last reward. In particular I think of Ed Witte, of Wisconsin, who did the heroic major work of writing in his own hand the results of the deliberations of committees and sub-committees and student research and who drove a high-powered team of volunteer workers who came to do the research work for those of us who had the responsibility of developing and proposing to the President, and by the President to the Congress, the Social Security Act. For this was a thrown-together team, as many of you remember. We had no money. It was a great misfortune. The Committee on Economic Security had been appointed, but nobody remembered to have the Congress pass an appropriation for us to work on. It was a little embarrassing and it seemed as though it couldn't be done, but by one device and another--it was all honest, everything we did was honest--(nearly fell into a trap didn't I). We borrowed the money from Harry Hopkins as a matter of fact--$125,000-- an enormous sum but that was what it needed and it was all that it took to get the social security investigations, and research, and proposals, and planning, and law-writing under way. Well, we borrowed it and that was all there was to it. We never paid any interest and I've never yet known whether we, ah ... but we employed unemployed stenographers and typewriters and college professors, people like that and that was why it was possible for Hopkins to lend us the money. We went to all the Government agencies for people who would be given by the head of the Department to somebody else. You know how easy that sort of thing is. The Labor Department, of course, we gave over almost bodily. I said this morning to someone, I think that 80% of the people who worked for the Labor Department were all working for the social security program because they were available, and Agriculture was nice and generous, and they gave us a good many, and they say the Treasury, who was also on the economic security committee which the President appointed, gave us just two, (very measly little things). The Attorney General's office gave us nobody, except Mr. Halstaff who was a thousand men in himself. He was so good; he's a judge now, I believe. I hope he is happy because he did an amazing amount of legal work for nothing for us.

But this was all that we had to work with. Then we got in this group of, we had of course, the great help of the Advisory Council who were really remarkable in what they were able to do and the support they were able to muster for the ideas and in their support behind the working staff. And then we borrowed the working staff from all over the country. I remember it was just a telegram saying "We have no money. We can pay your railroad fare and your expenses if you really need expenses while you are in Washington, but there is no salary. Will you come?" and we only had one refusal. And the people who knew the most about the existing security systems in other countries came and worked willingly and worked at high pressure all through a summer so different from this one as you can hardly believe it possible. This was a team of high-powered people, professors from all over the country whom Ed Witte had to drive and from whom he had to extract a program and to whom he had to break the news that this particular idealistic pattern which some professor had thought up wouldn't do because, you know, the Senate, the Congress, the Supreme Court, politics in general. It was not an easy thing to do.

But this was a different summer and I shouldn't talk more about the past because no one likes to hear the reminiscences of those who may be incorrect in a part of their reminiscence. But the summer was so different. I wish I could make it clear to you. In the first place it was hot, really hot. If any of you have looked at the newspaper pictures of the Congress assembled in that long, hot period, because they didn't adjourn and didn't adjourn -- it was still in session in August -- have looked at the pictures of the ceremony of signing the bill in President Roosevelt's office, have looked at the bedraggled state of the hair and the clothes of the people who were present, will realize it was a terrifically hot Washington summer and we worked all through that terrifically hot summer. Then again there was another difference. We were not yet out of the woods of the Great Depression and, of course, it was the Great Depression which we must never forget in this country, which was the approximate cause of this movement which was launched at that time -- this movement to write under the lives of the American people a basis of security which came to them out of the orderly and substantial, and regular, contributions to their future and to the future hazards. It would not have been done in that year, I am sure, except for the fact that the Great Depression was still staring us in the face and we were conscious of it whenever we walked on the streets of Washington. These were the different days. Today this is a very different world. You even have air conditioning, which we never heard of, you know. There wasn't an air conditioned spot in Washington in '34 and '35 and, as for how we were going to keep the records, you know, of the social security program once it was launched, was one of the great problems. The IBM hadn't been invented, the machines you all operate so easily. And I want you to realize that it took some courage, Mr. Secretary, to launch the program without the IBM machines. I would like to add that under any circumstances I was always a bit nervous about it, and I remember the day that Arthur Altmeyer, who was then First Assistant Secretary of Labor, walked into my office and said, "You know I think we found it." Because he had been talking about, you know, handwritten pieces of records and how they were to be organized and stacked up, "I think we've found it. These new IBM machines, I believe they can do it." And so out of that really inventive group, that worked in the IBM research group we found a way by which this could be done.

So I think in every step as the social security program has progressed from year to year, and year to year, and in the attitude of the people themselves toward the payment of the tax there has come the answers to many of the questions that we knew not how to solve when we began, but which we were determined we had to solve and I am thankful to say that I believe we did solve them. And I learned from your own speech, Mr. Secretary, that you too believe that problem has been solved and that we will go forward into the future a stronger nation because of the fact that we have this basic rock of security under all of our people.

Frances Perkins