Committee on Economic Security (CES)

Volume VI. Social Insurance

K. Miscellaneous Studies


by Wilber J. Cohen

Committee on Economic Security
August 31, 1934         

What is the meaning of the phrase “social insurance?” 

Dr. I. M. Rubinow, in his recent work The Quest For Security, devotes an entire chapter, “The Philosophy of Social Insurance,”(l) to this question, which is one of more than mere academic significance. It is a question which probes the purposes, techniques and probable results of a movement.

There have been other various terms describing "the quest for security" in addition to “social insurance. "(2)   But the latter term, Dr. Rubinow concludes, “describes a movement rather than an institution-- a purpose and an aspiration . . . a process. A social tendency ..."(3)

"... the term 'social' is extremely convenient. It is a handy word, and perhaps that is the real reason why the term 'social insurance' has gradually replaced all the earlier terms, until it is now used universally and almost exclusivley. "(4)

"The term is admittedly clever because of its very indefiniteness, for the word 'social,’ like 'sociology,' is something of a blanket term.” (5) In addition many writers have pointed out that "social insurance," strictly speaking, is not insurance at all. (6)

As Dr. Rubinow concludes: "But after all, words are only efforts at description of objects, situations, or relations. There can be no such thing as an absolutely accurate term for an involved social situation. There may only be an effort at a description. The important thing about the term 'social insurance' is not the degree of its absolute accuracy, but its usefulness for descriptive purposes."(7)

Dr. Rubinow's definition is the following: "Social insurance is insurance of the masses, encouraged and stimulated or established through the instrumentality of organized society for the purpose of combating the causes of destitution."(8)

Dr. Barbara Nachtrieb Armstrong defines the term as follows: "Social insurance signifies insurance participated in by the organized community against the contingencies that cut off the worker's earning power and threaten him with economic disaster . . . These contingencies are sickness (including maternity), accident, unemployment, invalidity, superannuation and premature death."(9)

Mr. Abraham Espstein's definition: "Social insurance may be described as a relatively inexpensive form of insurance, devised by the State to guarantee the wage earner and his dependents a minimum of income during periods when, through forces largely beyond his control, his earnings are impaired or cut off. It aims to secure the worker and his family against the economic emergencies resulting from the temporary or permanent loss of a job through unemployment, sickness, invalidity and old age and against those other emergencies which arise from the death of the breadwinner, the illness and burial of a member of a family, the birth of a child or the burden of supporting a large family."(10)

Dr. Rubinow's definition, which appeared in his work Social Insurance in 1915: "Social insurance is the policy of organized society to furnish that protection to one part of the population which some other part may need less, or if needing, is able to purchase voluntarily through private insurance."(11)


(1) Chap. XL, pp. 507-525

(2) For these see ibid., pp. 509-510      

(3) Ibid., p. 511   

(4) Ibid., p. 510

(5) Ibid., p. 511 (italics mine)

(6) Ibid., p. 516

(7) Ibid., p.511                                                   

(8) Ibid., p. 513

(9) Quoted in ibid., p. 508

(10) Quoted in ibid., p. 508         

(11) Quoted in ibid., p. 508

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