Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian's Office

Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian's Office

Research Note #24:
Origins of the Term "Social Security"
The term "social security" was not in widespread use in 1935 when it enshrined in the title of the Social Security Act. In fact, the original title of the Roosevelt Administration's bill was the Economic Security Act, and the title of the committee which drafted the legislative proposal was the Committee on Economic Security. It was during consideration of the Economic Security bill in the Congress that the name was changed to Social Security Act and that became the familiar term from that day forward.

How this change occurred is not entirely clear, as the matter was not formally documented. It appears to have occurred in an executive session of the House Ways and Means Committee. Who first made the suggestion is also open to some doubt. Three different individuals have been identified as the Congressman making the motion to change the name: Congressman Woodruff (R-MI), Congressman Frank Buck (D-CA) and Congressman Jere Cooper (??) . Edwin Witte, Chairman of the CES, and someone who was present at the event, remembers it being Congressman Woodruff. Thomas Eliot, who was also likely present at the executive session when the change was made, remembers it being Congressman Cooper. Research by SSA Historian Abe Bortz decided on Buck.

Here, then, are three, somewhat divergent, accounts of how the Social Security program got its name.
Professor Witte's Account:

(This is an excerpt from a 1955 interview with Professor Witte.)

Mr. Cohen: Speaking about drafting the bill, the first Economic Security bill--that is, the one carrying out the recommendations of the President and the Committee on Economic Security--was drafted by Tom Eliot, wasn't it?

Professor Witte: He was the Counsel of the Committee. He had been with the Solicitor's Office of the Department of Labor, and served as its counsel throughout the existence of the Committee. He drafted the Economic Security bill. The title of the Committee and of the bill at the time was "Economic Security." It was not until congressional consideration that the title "Social Security" came in, but it was the original measure in the Congress of the United States--particularly in the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill was changed considerably in appearance and also to some degree in content. It became the Social Security bill and ultimately the Social Security Act.

Mr. Cohen: The United States was the first country then to use and to spread the use of the term "social security," wasn't it?

Professor Witte: Social security had been used very slightly in this connection prior to the Social Security Act. I recall very well the Executive Committee meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee where it was decided to give the bill a new name. The Committee for many reasons wanted to change the bill from the original administration bill, and, after more important changes had been agreed upon, some members suggested that the title should be changed. Then there was a free-for-all discussion. What should be the title? Some members hit upon "social security" and that was the term. That term, following the enactment of the Social Security Act, was applied to everything that was in the Social Security Act and related programs in discussions in this country. It was not adopted on a world-wide basis until about 1940. In fact, it was not used other than in the United States. The terms used elsewhere were social insurance, social policy, and various other titles. In 1940 the International Labor Office issued an important report called "Approaches to Social Security" and after that the term became universal for the programs which we now designate by that term.

Mr. Cohen: Professor Witte, it is sometimes said that in the United States Abe Epstein's organization was the first to use the term it "social security." What is the story behind that?

Professor Witte: That is at least partially true. Abraham Epstein organized the American Association for Old Age Security in 1927 and he did very valuable work in promoting old-age assistance laws. In 1933 he was writing a book, in which he does not use the word "social security," and became very much interested in the controversy then in progress over the type of unemployment insurance law that should be enacted in the States. In 1933 Epstein broadened his organization also to cover unemployment insurance. At that time, as I know from having been a member of his executive council, he was looking for some broader title than old-age security. It is my understanding that Mr. Lee Frankel, who was then Commissioner of Welfare of the State of New Jersey, suggested the title "social security." Then the Association for Old Age Security became the Association for Social Security. But aside from this, "social security" was not used. Epstein himself did not use it except in the title of his organization. When the House Ways and Means Committee was looking for a title for its bill--different than the Economic Security Act--I think it was Mr. Woodruff of Michigan, a Republican member of the Committee, who may have known something about Epstein's association, suggested "social security." That was adopted by the committee without dissent and almost without discussion because it seemed to be very appropriate.

Thomas Eliot's Account:

(In 1964, Abe Bortz wrote to Mr. Eliot, who was at that time Chancellor of St. Louis University, asking for his recollection of this event. This is the letter Mr. Eliot wrote in response.)

masthead to Eliot letter
Mr. Abe Bortz
Division of Research and Statistics
Department of Heal th, Education, and Welfare
Social Security Administration
Baltimore, Maryland 21235

Dear Mr. Bortz:

My recollection about the change in the name of the Economic Security Bill to the "Social Security Bill" is not absolutely clear. I remember that the change was made during a meeting of the Ways and Means Committee, but I did not recall that Buck made the motion. For what it is worth, my slightly uncertain recollection is that the matter under discussion was the title of the Board, which, in the original draft, was called the "Social Insurance Board." Somebody indicated an objection to that name. Somebody else--and I would have guessed that it was either Cooper or Vinson--moved to change the name to "Social Security Board. " It was after this was done, I would guess, that somebody then said that the whole bill might as well have its name changed from "Economic Security" to "Social Security"; but, again, I have always associated Jere Cooper with this change, not Buck.

image of Eliot signature

Historian's Office
February 2001