Frances Perkins: The Force Behind Social Security

By Bryce Covert |

We may not have our social safety net if it weren’t for her tireless work.

Social Security is, rightly, thought of as one of the major accomplishments of FDR’s presidency. But he wasn’t alone in the fight, and the whole project may have failed if not for the passion of Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor. Indeed, Perkins sometimes had to fight against FDR’s whims to secure a package that would ensure a better future for American citizens.

Perkins was born to middle class parents who were very supportive of her education, sending her to Mount Holyoke College for undergraduate studies. Later in her life, what was likely bipolar disorder left her husband, economist Paul C. Wilson, unable to continue his career and act as breadwinner. This may have propelled Perkins into pursuing her own career, to which she devoted all of her energy.

Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 first-hand, and it galvanized her crusade to protect American workers. After studying economics and sociology at Columbia and Wharton, she worked at settlement houses and then as a factory inspector for New York State. She later became Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York under Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would go on to invite her to be his Secretary of Labor as president. Before taking the position, she brought a laundry list of ideas to FDR as collateral for her acceptance. He accepted them, and she went on to hold the position for 12 years. FDR would eventually name her to 18 separate committees. She worked for reforms in favor of workers and to combat the Great Depression. But her crowning achievement may very well have been the Social Security Act.

During the Great Depression, 6.5 million people were sixty-five or over and few had money set aside for old age — and those who had set money aside saw it disappear in the economic crash. Only about 300,000 had public pensions, 150,000 had pensions from private employers or unions, and 700,000 had federal relief. The rest were on their own.

FDR had drawn up ideas to tackle these issues when he got into office, but officials were too busy to deal with them. A year into his presidency, Perkins decided the time was right, notes biographer Kirstin Downey in “The Woman Behind the New Deal.” “She nagged the president to get it started. ‘It is probably our only chance in twenty-five years to get a bill like this,’ she told Roosevelt.” She knew that the dire conditions of the Great Depression were the only hope for passing something so radical: “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into social security except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression,” Perkins later said.

With rampant joblessness, Perkins went after unemployment first. But as unemployment insurance seemed ready to sail through passage, FDR decided instead to focus on a bundle of programs under the label ‘economic security.’ The whole thing would have to wait. Downey gives us the subsequent scene: Perkins “hit the roof. ‘That man, that man!’ she muttered. She ripped over to the White House. The next day, FDR told the press conference that he was ‘tremendously’ for the bill.” The two worked together for an “expansive version of an ‘economic security’ package that would cover people from cradle to grave,” Downey writes:

The concept included not only unemployment insurance, which would tide over the jobless workers who were the primary source of support to children and old people, but also old-age pensions, which Frances was eager to promote; health insurance, so people would have medical care, even when they had no money; and financial assistance for the handicapped and for widowed women with children. Many women earned so little money that losing their husbands meant that they must put their youngsters to work or place them in orphanages.

The package would provide “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” in FDR’s words.

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FDR named Perkins chair of the committee on economic security, set to craft the legislation. And she wanted to hold people firmly to the mission of the program. “In a meeting with Roosevelt present, she went around the table and extracted from each of the major members of her committee a pledge to support the program being prepared by the committee. Publicly obligated, they could not back down later,” Downey describes. But she couldn’t always keep the fickle Roosevelt to it, and after making his initial announcement to create the committee he neglected to allot money to it. That didn’t stop Perkins, though. “Frances went hat in hand to raise money and borrow staff from other departments,” reports Downey.

The process was rough going, with worries over court challenges to the final legislation, internal struggles within the committee, and even FDR himself publicly doubting whether it was the right time to deal with old age security. Details were hard to resolve and they were close to bumping up against the arbitrary Christmas deadline FDR had set. On December 22 or 23, Frances called committee leaders to her home, “led them into the dining room, placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told them no one would leave until the work was done,” Downey writes. They met the deadline.

Troubles for the bill continued. Treasury Department conservatives raised fears that it risked “alarming business,” while liberals worried the provisions were so weak as to have “little value.” (Sound familiar?) Opposition to the bill became so heavy that a New York Times March 30, 1935 headline declared “Hopes Are Fading for Security Bill.” But Perkins toiled on, determined. She secured 50 signatures from prominent people to a letter urging passage, and “the tide began to turn,” notes Downey. The House passed the bill, and then it passed the Senate, but not before a caveat was inserted that made the Social Security Board entirely independent of Perkins’ department. She would not run the Board, but no matter what her personal disappointment may have been, she helped push the bill through.

Perkins’ tireless, selfless work paid off in the end, and FDR signed the bill into law on August 14, 1935. On the day of the signing, Perkins said it was “one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation in the interest of wage earners.” By 1936, 1 million people were receiving benefits, made up of nearly 750,000 elderly, 184,000 dependent children, and 18,000 blind.

We owe much to FDR’s vision as a progressive president, but we also owe a great deal to the passion and perseverance of Frances Perkins. Without her, it is very likely that the social programs included in the Social Security Act would never have come to be. Charles Wyzanski later said that she “virtually forced the President to have a Social Security program.” Indeed, Maurine Mulliner, an assistant to Senator Robert Wagner, said, “The one person, in my opinion, above all others who was responsible for there being a Social Security program in the early 30s was Frances Perkins.” The program lives on, her gift to the American people.

**For more information on Frances Perkins, visit the Frances Perkins Center.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

Bryce Covert is the former Editor of Next New Deal and current Economics Editor of ThinkProgress.