Mr. Social Security
The Life of Wilbur J. Cohen
Edward D. Berkowitz
JFK tagged him "Mr. Social Security." LBJ praised him as the "planner, architect, builder and repairman on every major piece of social legislation [since 1935]." The New York Times called him "one of the country's foremost technicians in public welfare." Time portrayed him as a man of "boundless energy, infectious enthusiasm, and a drive for action." His name was Wilbur Cohen.
For half a century from the New Deal through the Great Society, Cohen (1913-1987) was one of the key players in the creation and expansion of the American welfare state. From the Social Security Act of 1935 through the establishment of disability insurance in 1956 and the creation of Medicare in 1965, he was a leading articulator and advocate of an expanding Social Security system. He played that role so well that he prompted Senator Paul Douglas's wry comment that "an expert on Social Security is a person who knows Wilbur Cohen's telephone number."
“Berkowitz’s careful use of Cohen’s well kept, vast personal papers and his subject’s many interviews, position papers, and autobiographical accounts has made this a definitive study.”
“Berkowitz skillfully portrays the life and accomplishments of an important technician of American social policy. In the process, he reveals much about the inner workings of Washington politics and policy making.”
—Michigan Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“An excellent source of ideas and information for workers in fields such as social security and public assistance, for researchers and teachers on social welfare policy, and for all who are interested in the historical development of US social welfare and social work.”
“A clearly written, thoroughly documented, and important discussion of how one man spent his life improving the lives of millions of Americans.”
—Journal of American History
“Berkowitz has provided us with a fine perspective on the making of the welfare state in the twentieth century, and with the best biography we have had of a major architect of social insurance. Historians who wish to generalize about the effects and fate of New Deal liberalism need to reckon with Cohen’s career, and with Berkowitz’s book”
—Reviews in American History
“Mr. Social Security provides much material for the careful reader that should stimulate thought and discussion about the history of the American social policy process. Berkowitz has done us a real service in bringing together the details of this productive life.”
“A useful, if affectionate, biography and a sound study of public policy formation from the New Deal to the Great Society.”
“Wilbur Cohen was present and active at the defining points through which an initially fragile Social Security system became the central core of America’s welfare state. In this marvelously rich volume Berkowitz not only captures the complexities of Cohen’s personality, outlook, and administrative style but also uses him to illuminate the changing role of the bureaucratic consensus builder in America. A major achievement.”
—Ellis W. Hawley, author of The New Deal and the Problem of Monopoly
“The life of Wilbur Cohen, as Berkowitz admirably shows, provides a window on the entire process of statebuilding for Social Security in America. This is a major contribution to American political history.”
—Theda Skocpol, author of Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States
“A fascinating portrait of one of the giants of twentieth-century American public life. A triumph of sound and imaginative scholarship.”
—Theodore Marmor, author of Understanding Health Care Reform and The Politics of Medicare
“No one worked longer, harder, or more effectively to build the American welfare state than Wilbur Cohen. He is the perfect subject for giving policy history a human face.”
—Martha Derthick, author of Policymaking for Social Security
“Must reading for anyone who wants to understand our Social Security program by seeing how it developed from the start. An enchanting read about an intensely brilliant person.”
—Robert J. Myers, author of Social Security and former Chief Actuary, Social Security Administration
“Essential reading for those who wish to understand the incremental politics that characterized policymaking in the U.S. from the Progressive era through the Reagan years.”
—W. Andrew Achenbaum, author of Social Security: Visions and Revisions
“Will be as indispensable to those who applaud the collapse of liberalism as it will be to those who hope to revive the ideology that Cohen personified.”
—Louis Galambos, editor of The New American State: Federal Bureaucracies and Policies since World War IISee fewer reviews...
The son of Jewish immigrants, Cohen left his Milwaukee home in the early 1930s to attend the University of Wisconsin and never looked back. Filled with a great thirst for knowledge and wider horizons, he followed his mentors Edwin Witte and Arthur Altmeyer to Washington, D.C., and began a career that would eventually land him a top position in LBJ's cabinet as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Variously described as a practical visionary, an action intellectual, a consummate bureaucrat, and a relentless incrementalist, Cohen was a master behind-the-scenes player who turned legislative compromise into an art form. He inhabited a world in which the passage of legislation was the ultimate reward. Driven by his progressive vision, he time and again persuaded legislators on both sides of the aisle to introduce and support expansive social programs. Like a shuttle in a loom he moved invisibly back and forth, back and forth, until the finely woven legislative cloth emerged before the public's eye.
Nearly a decade after his death, Cohen and his legacy continue to shadow the debates over social welfare and health care reform. While Congress swings with the prevailing winds in these debates, Social Security's prominence in American life remains vitally intact. And Wilbur Cohen is largely responsible for that.