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Edwin Witte, 1887-1960 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Edwin Witte, 1887-1960

Father of the Social Security Act

Edwin Witte, 1887-1960 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Often referred to as the "father of the Social Security Act," University of Wisconsin economist Edwin Witte (1887-1960) developed the original plan for Social Security while serving on President Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security in 1934. Spending half his life as a government official and the other half as a university professor, Witte was proud of his dual role as an educator and public servant.

Born in Watertown, Wisconsin, on January 4, 1887, Witte spent almost all of his life in Wisconsin with the exception of brief periods of government service in Washington, D.C., and Detroit. Witte received his bachelor's degree in history in 1909 from the University of Wisconsin, where his advisor, famed historian Frederick Jackson Turner, advised him to study under UW economist John R. Commons. Under Commons, Witte combined his interest in economic history with his practical interest in solving immediate economic and social problems, a notion of public service that was part and parcel of the Wisconsin Idea. Witte received his doctorate in economics in 1927.

As head of the Legislative Reference Library (1922-1933), Witte sent regular memos to Governor Philip La Follette recommending programs and policies to address the economic conditions created by the Great Depression. Witte played an instrumental role in the development of Wisconsin's Unemployment Compensation program, the first in the nation to offer benefits to people who had lost their jobs.

In 1934 President Roosevelt created the Committee on Economic Security to investigate and make recommendations for a national unemployment and pension program. As the executive director and research synthesizer for the committee, Witte wrote the entire committee report. He was also charged with defending the proposed legislation before Congress, helping to mold the legal and technical details of the legislation that became the Social Security Act of 1935. Witte devised a program that established a national retirement-age insurance system, federal-state unemployment insurance, and aid to dependent mothers and others unable to work. The final act extended protection to the aged, the unemployed and the disabled.

Witte returned to Wisconsin soon after the passage of the Social Security Act and became chairman of the Department of Economics at UW. Named president of the Industrial Relations Research Association in 1948 and of the American Economic Association in 1955, Witte continued to study and develop practical applications for economic issues. Witte died on May 20, 1960, just a few weeks short of Social Security's 25th anniversary.