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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Wilbur J. Cohen

Wilbur Joseph Cohen is not a well-known public figure during the twenty-first century, but in his era, he was recognized in some quarters for his prowess as an expert public administrator. Nicknamed “the man who built Medicare” as well as “Mr. Social Security,” Cohen possessed enormous energy as well as a rare creativity that allowed him to overcome seemingly intractable problems in his quest to implement social welfare programs. He is a genuine unsung hero of the executive branch service. I profile Cohen in my upcoming book, Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”

Cohen was born on June 10, 1913, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His parents, Aaron and Bessie Cohen, were well-established Jewish merchants. Young Wilbur grew up in Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he studied economics.

While he was a student at the university, Cohen studied under two prominent professors, Edwin Witte, and Selig Perlman. Witte subsequently invited his former student to join him in Washington to work on legislation creating the Social Security program. At Wisconsin, Cohen encountered institutional economics, which focuses on the role that institutions play in influencing human motivations and behavior. Two well-known economists, Richard Ely and John R. Commons, pioneered the field. Cohen joined Commons at a series of “Friday nighters,” where the economist’s top students met informally to discuss salient issues. The brainstorming sessions were predicated on the idea that universities could play an integral role in designing and implementing government programs. Cohen’s career reflected this concept. Although he earned only a bachelor’s degree, he eventually became a full professor and academic dean, transitioning in and out of academe and into government agencies.

Cohen graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1934 and, like many young people, moved to Washington, D.C. Franklin Roosevelt was president, and he had directed his secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, to chair the Committee on Economic Security (CES). Perkins, in turn, appointed Edwin Witte executive director of the CES. Recalling his eager, bright student Wilbur Cohen, Witte brought his protégé to Washington to serve as his assistant. The committee was considering the creation of a system of social security for elderly Americans. This early position inside government provided Cohen with a front-row seat to history.

During the 1930s, the United States was the sole industrialized nation that lacked a system for protecting older citizens from economic ruination. A prominent physician and political activist from California, Francis Townsend, developed a plan to pay every person over the age 60 $200 a month with the proviso that the funds be spent quickly. Presumably, the proposal would provide a safety net for the elderly while also stimulating the economy. Although Townsend’s original plan did not win approval from Congress, it became the blueprint for that statute that eventually passed in 1935.

The final bill included an old-age provision funded by payroll taxes. Wage earners would contribute money to a fund that would be used to compensate elderly persons as a direct transfer payment. Over the course of a wage earner’s professional career, he or she would contribute to the fund through payroll deductions, earning work credits that allowed the worker to receive payments at retirement age. The act also featured an unemployment insurance program administered by the states as well as the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to assist families headed by single mothers. Cohen learned valuable lessons from his experience with the Social Security Act. Government could, and should, be a positive force for change in the lives of its citizens. He remained a true believer for the rest of his life.

After the statute was passed, administrators at the new Social Security Board hired Cohen as the agency’s first professional employee. Cohen became the chief assistant to the board’s chairman, Arthur J. Altmeyer. In this role, Cohen was Altmeyer’s liaison with members of Congress. He was young, but Cohen developed a natural talent for working with legislators behind the scenes. He wasn’t flashy or charismatic, but his powerful intellect and prodigious preparation impressed everyone who encountered him. He simply knew more about the Social Security system than virtually anyone else. Admirers and detractors alike recognized that Cohen exhibited extraordinary patience dealing with lawmakers. He was relentless in pursuing his goals, and he possessed a genial, sincere personality. It was a potent combination.

During the first two decades of the Social Security program, Altmeyer and Cohen were an effective team. The former was the public face of Social Security, the up-front policymaker who dealt directly with legislators, regulators, and anyone interested in the Social Security Board. Behind the scenes, Wilbur Cohen was the man to see to navigate through the program’s complexities.

By the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration desired a change in the Social Security agency. After Arthur Altmeyer was moved aside, Cohen realized that his influence was waning. He accepted a position as the director of the Bureau of Research and Statistics, the agency’s research branch, but he knew that his days were numbered.

Cohen left Washington in 1956 to accept a position as tenured professor of public welfare at the University of Michigan. Although he had not earned advanced university degrees, Cohen’s expertise inside government made him a valuable academic. In addition to his interest in social welfare policies, he fashioned himself into an expert on education policy. Cohen viewed education and social welfare as important issues that improved the lives of citizens, especially when government programs were effectively tailored in these areas.

In 1961, the new president, John F. Kennedy, appointed Cohen to serve as the assistant security for legislation within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in recognition of Cohen’s mastery of the details of social welfare policy. Cohen left Ann Arbor and journeyed back to Washington for another stint in government service. Because he was known as a politically liberal proponent of social welfare programs, Cohen’s nomination proved to be controversial. He won Senate confirmation for his HEW position by a single vote.

Cohen was remarkably successful in the new role, shepherding 65 bills through the legislative process. He used his expertise to lobby for numerous initiatives during the New Frontier and the Great Society in a variety of areas, especially civil rights, education, and social welfare bills. His signature accomplishments included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the Medicare program of 1965.

Despite his success in promoting HEW’s legislation, Cohen was not a miracle worker. He could not garner support to enact Kennedy’s Medicare bill linking Social Security and medical care for the elderly. He also failed to secure enough votes for Kennedy’s education bill, which granted federal aid to elementary and secondary schools. It was only after Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 elections, which sent a record number of Democrats to Congress, that Cohen succeeded in securing support for those bills.

Some progressives thought that Social Security should be modified to include a universal health care provision, but Cohen understood that such a system would be politically unpopular. While Congress was working on legislation that would eventually become the Medicare program in 1965, Cohen insisted that the federal government work with private insurance companies to provide medical services to citizens. Cohen helped to ensure that Medicare would be enacted into law, yet the United States became the only highly industrialized nation lacking a universal health care system.

Cohen’s mastery of the details of health policy ensured that he would serve as the “real power” at HEW even before he became a cabinet secretary. He was also politically savvy, developing a relationship with President Lyndon B. Johnson following Kennedy’s assassination. In April 1965, President Johnson promoted Cohen to a position as an undersecretary at HEW. In May 1968, he became the HEW secretary after his predecessor, John W. Gardner, resigned. Cohen had a brief tenure of 249 days as the department head.

Cohen understood that a bureaucracy depends on the proper organization of resources and personnel to work effectively. Accordingly, he reorganized the public health division at HEW, requiring a new assistant secretary to assume the duties of the Public Health Service (PHS). Cohen also placed the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Library of Medicine inside a new HEW agency called the Health Services and Mental Health Administration.

When the Johnson administration ended in January 1969, Cohen accepted a position as dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. He remained in that position until 1977, when he stepped down to become a research professor at the university. Three years later, he joined the faculty of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. He remained at the LBJ School until his death in 1987. He died unexpectedly at age 73 while attending an international conference on aging and welfare in Seoul, South Korea.

Even after he left government service in 1969, Cohen remained well connected. Although he no longer enjoyed the imprimatur of government, he was not afraid to work his contacts to lobby for progressive policies. In 1979, he co-founded the interest group Save our Security (SOS) to advocate in favor of Social Security policies.

The year after Cohen died, a well-known Washington, D.C. building was renamed the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. Some observers were delighted to note that the building had been constructed in 1940 to provide offices for the Social Security Board. Although the Board never used the premises, the building had been called the Social Security Building for many years. It was appropriate that this edifice later bore Cohen’s name. In addition, the University of Michigan established the Wilbur J. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Social Work professorship in his name.

A Washington Post editorialist reflected on Wilbur Cohen’s legacy. “It is rare for someone to come to Washington at the age of 21, spend decades in the bureaucracy and rise to a position in the Cabinet,” the writer remarked. “It is even rarer for a high political appointee to be widely admired for his expertise and renowned for his amiable nature. This was Wilbur Cohen . . . Like his friend Hubert Humphrey, Wilbur Cohen cared not only about ‘the people,’ but about individual people. Through a lifetime of working to improve the lot of others, he never lost his enthusiasm or his largeness of spirit.”

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