Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian's Office

Research Note #8:
The Special Role of the University of Wisconsin in the History of Social Security

The state of Wisconsin has a long and distinguished progressive political tradition, dating back into the 19th century. The organized social insurance movement in America really started when the legendary Professor John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin, and a handful of other progressive leaders, founded the American Association for Labor Legislation in 1906.

Wisconsin was the first state to enact unemployment compensation benefits for its citizens, in 1932. And the Wisconsin system, designed in large measure by Professor Commons, was the starting point for the federal unemployment insurance program that became part of the Social Security Act in 1935.

The University of Wisconsin also had a close and important connection to the Social Security program, from its very beginnings. Professor Edwin Witte, who taught in the Department of Economics, was the Executive Director of the Presidential Committee on Economic Security (CES) that designed the Social Security program in the summer and fall of 1934.

Another Wisconsin alumnus, Arthur Altmeyer, was one of the three executives appointed by President Roosevelt to constitute the original Social Security Board, which was the organization created to carry out the Social Security Act. Altmeyer was Chairman of the Social Security Board from 1937 through 1945--when the Board was replaced by the current Social Security Administration. Altmeyer immediately the first Commissioner of SSA, and he served in this capacity until his retirement in 1953. Altogether, Arthur Altmeyer headed the Social Security program for 16 years--longer than anyone else in the program's history.

One of Professor Witte's students, Wilbur Cohen, came with Witte to work on the CES in 1934, and stayed on to become the Social Security Board's first professional employee. Cohen was a key figure in the development of the Social Security program; and he went on to become a member of President Johnson's cabinet, as Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare. Cohen was also one of the two or three people most responsible for the creation of the Medicare program.

Because of Wisconsin's long connection to the Social Security program, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, to this day, is one of the leading repositories for records relating to the history of Social Security.

Larry DeWitt
SSA Historian's Office
July 2000