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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Wis. Brain Trust Tackles Social Insecurity


Social Security reform is in the headlines again this week as policy makers debate its future. But did you know that the original system was designed by Wisconsin experts?

On March 9, 1933, the U.S. Congress began its first 100 days of enacting New Deal legislation. President Franklin Roosevelt's top priority was to alleviate the suffering caused by the worst economic disaster in anyone's memory. He appointed DePere native Arthur Altmeyer undersecretary of labor and told him to come up with a plan.

Altmeyer brought UW economist Edwin Witte to Washington to lead the research team, and Witte brought along his prize graduate student, Wilbur Cohen, as research assistant. All three men had been mentored by UW professor John R. Commons, a chief architect of Wisconsin's progressive-era reforms.

Witte's committee investigated poverty, unemployment, and solutions to them that had been attempted around the U.S. and in other countries. By early 1935 they had drafted a bill to create a Social Seurity system. The bill was signed into law later that year, and by 1937 American families impoverished by circumstances beyond their control were receiving help from their government. Altmeyer and Cohen stayed on in Washington to administer the program, the latter ending his career during the 1960s "War on Poverty."

Interviews, pictures, memoirs, and government reports about Wisconsin's role in Social Security are included in our online collection, Turning Points in Wisconsin History (just type "social security" in the search box).
:: Posted in Curiosities on March 9, 2005

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