Arthur J. Altmeyer
Social Security and the Human Touch
By Arthur J. Altmeyer
August 14, 1968
This speech, late in his life, finds Altmeyer reflecting on the New Deal and the continuing problem of poverty in America.
I want you to know that I have been brought here under false pretenses. I didn't know that this was going to be such a wonderful celebration in my honor. And all I can say is that I am tickled to death that Bob Ball got his just desserts for his part in this deception because he is just as surprised as I am at the award he received.
As I listened to these remarks, which had a high degree of hyperbole, I realized that whatever truth was in them lay in the fact that the Social Security Board had the good sense to try to get out of as much work as possible for ourselves by picking just a half dozen good, trained, dedicated, concerned people of integrity--integrity above all. We gave them a free hand--I think we did--to pick the people down the line so that all the way through the organization we might have an endless chain of integrity.
We started with a dedicated group of persons who were concerned, who had the common touch. I see them through the audience and on the platform here, and I am certainly proud of you all. I merely personify what you have done with your lives in promoting social security.
Now the clock ticks on and the people on the platform here, if not you, are getting fidgety. I guarantee you that my remarks are going to enable you to leave here before 12 o'clock. But you know they say that old bureaucrats like old soldiers never die; they simply fade away. Well I've thought that they probably ought to add a caveat that old bureaucrats, like children, should be seen but not heard, for the protection of you defenseless people in this audience and elsewhere, because old bureaucrats do love to dwell on the past.
I was born and raised in the North and I was told that all the battles that were won were won by the northerners and that the Rebs just ran at the first volley. But when I got down here in Washington, D.C., I was promptly informed by Frank Bane, our Executive Director, that it was exactly the opposite that had occurred. So, don't believe all that old soldiers or old bureaucrats tell you about the past. To tell the truth, their memory is quite faulty in describing the truth as they saw it.
Today marks another anniversary besides the signing of the Social Security Act. It's also the anniversary of the signing of what was known as the Atlantic Charter containing the four freedoms. The Atlantic Charter had specific reference to social security. And it came about in this way.
John Winant, the first chairman of the Social Security Board, was then Ambassador to Great Britain and he was on the ship that carried the President to that famous meeting with Churchill off Newfoundland. Harry Hopkins was on board that ship too. Harry was a member of the Cabinet Committee that developed the recommendations that became the Social Security Act. So we had two friends at court. They were able to induce the President and Churchill to incorporate this specific reference to social security. Another thing that helped a great deal was that Churchill, back in the days of Lloyd George in 1908, was a member of Lloyd George's cabinet. After one of Lloyd George's cabinet refused to take over the promotion of what we now call social security, Churchill took it on his own shoulders and almost single-handed put through the Employment Exchange Act, the Unemployment Insurance Act and the Sickness Insurance Act in Great Britain.
Another thing you may not recall was that this same Churchill had not lost his real concern for social security when he became the war leader of Great Britain and, of course, the leader of the Conservative Party. In 1941, when no one except Churchill knew whether Britain was going to win the war, he appointed a commission--a Royal Commission, as they're called. Churchill had Lord Beveridge, who was then Sir William Beveridge, put in charge of making the necessary investigations and analyses and making a report. This same William Beveridge was not even a "Sir" back in 1908 when Churchill first put through social security. But he remembered Beveridge and his contribution at that time. When the Beveridge report came out, Churchill announced that he supported it wholeheartedly. He said he wanted to be counted on the side of social security and opposed to the almshouse which had been tried for several hundred years and had failed. I think that is when I first heard the phrase, which I have used many times, that what motivates people and leads them to high endeavor is not fear but hope.
I won't bore you with all the birth pains of social security involved in its legislative history or in putting it into operation. But I want to remind you that the most unpopular feature of the Social Security Act, the feature we were told by Democratic members of the House Ways and Means Committee would kill the whole Act, was old-age insurance, then called old-age benefits. The Democratic members went to President Roosevelt and pleaded with him to drop that section of the bill if he wanted to get any legislation. But being a stubborn Dutchman, as well as very much concerned and aware of what social insurance was, he refused. He said that old-age benefits was the main feature of this Act. He insisted that it stay in and be put through. Incidentally, I want to pay tribute to these southerners that we sometimes think aren't as socially minded as some northerners. Actually, the person chiefly responsible for putting through the Social Security Act in the Senate and, therefore, in the Congress, was Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi. I've always thought, don't ever classify human beings according to where they are born any more than by their race, color or creed. Classify them as human beings.
We put these first half-dozen people who were hired --I see some of them right here in the audience--to work. The miracle of a half-dozen people being permitted to develop an organization all the way down the line is something that is a rare treat to anybody. We were a small organization and what helped us was that we knew each other. We didn't have to have an expert like John J. Corson draw up an elaborate organization chart with procedures all spelled out so that nobody would step on anybody else's toes. What we did was get on the phone or walk into someone else's office, discuss the common problem, agree upon a solution, and go ahead. Of course, I realize that now this is a large outfit. I am appalled when I go over to Baltimore and see how large you are. But I do believe you haven't lost the human touch. I know that I am right in saying that because when I walk into one of your local offices to make an inquiry, I know anyone I talk to, whether the little girl at the information desk or somebody to whom I am referred, all show the same concern and desire to tell me what I want to know. It makes all the difference in the world if you have people like that than if you have the reverse. That's why when we talk about the negative income tax, I'm wondering whether the tax collectors will be any more kindhearted and concerned and understanding than social workers who are damned today from all sides. I doubt it very much.
I was thinking of saying to Mr. Cohen, I know that this will shock Mr. Ball no end, that if you are going to have something like a guaranteed annual income, why not put the Social Security Administration in charge of administering it. After all they have prestige, if you're concerned about the image of the poor welfare departments throughout the States, and may I say the poor image of that beautiful word "welfare" is a tragedy, because of the way it has been distorted. There is your answer. Just put the Social Security Administration in charge and it would make anything work, even the negative income tax. And I agree with the Secretary of Labor that what we're looking for now really is a terminology to describe what we want to do, in terms people will accept and want as a part of the American way of life.
Before I get off of the early days I want to say another thing--an important thing many people forget. Important as the Social Security Act was, it was only part of the New Deal. We recognized it as largely an income maintenance program. But we had all kinds of work and education programs going. For example, the National Youth Administration. It financed not only vocational schools, but made grants to the colleges, secondary schools, and primary schools. People have forgotten that that was a part of the picture. We had the work programs--PWA, WPA and CCC.
Today I run across people who went to those CCC camps. They are proud of what they did in those days. They go and visit--when they have their vacations-- the places where they planted trees, or what not, to show their children, their grandchildren, what they did for their country.
The tragedy is that the first war on poverty that I think that FDR had in mind--Harry Hopkins had in mind--Josephine Roche had in mind--and others who were in the Administration at that time--died at birth largely because of the oncoming war taking the attention of the President and the American people. You remember he announced that "Doctor New Deal" was fired and "Doctor Win the War" was taking his place. Even before he had made that announcement you could not get his attention on domestic matters as you could a year or two previously. Then, in the war and postwar period everybody wanted to get back to normal. They had no more started getting back to normalcy than we had another war, in Korea. And then we had a change in administration which always makes a difference. I'm not undertaking to pass judgment, you understand, between the two administrations. But change of administration does slow down things a bit. It was not until 1960 that we really picked up where we left off more than 25 years ago--a quarter of a century lost so far as moving toward the goal of the social security program.
I want to tell you why I think old-age, survivors, and disability insurance is so popular and public assistance so unpopular. You are really wonderful people. But also, you from the Social Security Administration I think are very fortunate in having the kind of Act with the sort of principles written into it that enable you to become the fair-haired boys and girls. Because, after all, people recognize there are differentials in wages. So when you pass a law that says you will receive your benefits when you start losing your wages in accordance with what you have been earning before that is part of our American way of life. Also, it is self-financing. You don't have to go back to Congress and argue with Congress every year. In contrast, we have public assistance based on need but with no Federal standard as to what is meant by need. We tried to get a standard in the original law, "reasonable subsistence compatible with decency and health." A senator whom I shall not name kept poor Mr. Witte on the grill for several days. Finally, they threw out all reference to any standard, however general. And we haven't a standard today. So we have a variation in the amount of assistance provided a child in one State from $.30 a day to assistance provided in another State to a child with the same amount of need of $2.00 a day. For a family of four, $50 in one State, $250 in another State with the same need.
First, the people who apply for assistance are required to demonstrate their needs. Secondly, if they can demonstrate need, they're given a pittance in many States. Two-thirds of the States do not provide assistance sufficient to cover the need as determined by the States themselves. Of course, the taxpayers are angry about the rising costs. And the stereotype has been developed of three-generation families on relief. Actually families stay on welfare rolls about 2 , years on the average. I happen to know about one member of a former welfare family who is now a United States Senator. And there may be others too. But there is the stereotype. Illegitimate children--we can't stand for that. Actually only one-eighth of the illegitimate children born in this country are receiving public assistance. The rate of illegitimacy for nonwhite women is going down while the rate for white women is going up.
Well, I won't spend time telling you how I think social insurance, social security including unemployment insurance, if you don't mind my saying so, should be improved. I think they both need improvement, unemployment insurance more so than old-age, survivors, and disability insurance. But you know the answers better than I do. For public assistance, of course, the answer really is simple. Have Federal standards. Have a simple declaration of income. Have the Federal Government finance the aggregate cost above a certain percentage of the total personal incomes in a particular State. That would put the whole thing on a different basis. And include work incentives, that is, permit people to work and receive at least 50 percent credit for their earnings, not take out dollar for dollar.
In conclusion let me say that I think we mustn't forget that in trying to develop a more perfect income maintenance system, we should not forget we have to tackle the root causes of poverty in the sense of dependency. If we merely introduce another income maintenance system, we are just replacing one type of dependency for another type. The most important cause of dependency is a lack of jobs at adequate wages. So we must work toward full employment. We must have a permanent, long-range, nationwide public works program. We must abolish discrimination on account of race or creed, in our hearts as well as in the law. And we must provide adequate education and training to hold a job.
I am sure that this Nation of ours will win this war on poverty because we are fortunate that we do have the economic resources. All we need, really, is the will and the determination to perfect our social organization to take full advantage of these resources. I know that you who are charged with the duty of administering the Social Security Act will never forget that you are members of a social agency charged with the responsibility of realizing the great social purpose embodied in that Act. So I bid you adieu again and wish you well.