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Social Security has roots in Wisconsin

By Matt Pommer

Social Security marks its 75th anniversary this week, but it almost didn’t happen, according to the Wisconsin citizen who played a key role in its development.

Passage was doubtful in the Senate Finance Committee “in part because there was no popular demand for old age insurance, or very little, and still more because there were grave doubts about constitutionality,” Edwin Witte said in a 1955 interview.

Witte, then a University of Wisconsin economist, was tapped in 1934 to be the executive director for the Committee on Economic Security, created by President Franklin Roosevelt to develop a program of old-age assistance. He was widely known as the “father of Social Security.”

“To say there was any great demand for this would be false,” Witte said at Social Security’s 20th anniversary. He said it had been “nip and tuck” in the House Ways and Means Committee.

In the final days of committee action in the U.S. Senate, defeat seemed to loom in the wings. If a vote would have been taken earlier, the bill would have died in committee, Witte said.

The final roll call votes for passage of the Social Security Act were 372 to 33 in the House and 77 to 6 in the Senate. But the closeness of the issue is better remembered in Witte’s comments and speeches preserved by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Social Security would be one of FDR’s singular achievements, even though some denounce it is a clear example of socialism, so dreaded by many these days.

Witte did much of the testifying before the Senate Labor Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee. It was in the House committee that the insurance program became known as “Social Security” rather than an “assistance” bill. The welfare commissioner of New Jersey had suggested the name, Witte said.

While there was no wild public support for Social Security, more than 1 million Americans older than 65 were on relief in 1935. Relief amounted to an average $15 per month at the time.

Witte, born near Watertown, studied at the University of Wisconsin under Frederick Jackson Turner and John Commons. Witte carried on the Progressive-era Wisconsin Idea that government and academic experts could work to help solve society’s problems

Witte was honored at the 20th anniversary celebration. Then Social Security Commissioner Charles Schottland said Social Security became reality through Witte’s “great conviction for protecting the American public against the hazards of economic insecurity.”

Witte died in 1960 at the age of 73.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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