Charity for all

Daily Reading for May 14 • Frances Perkins, Public Servant and Prophetic Witness, 1965 (transferred)

When I asked what I was to speak about today, the suggestion was made I talk about the roots, or beginnings, of the Social Security Act. So I have thought about the roots. I suppose the roots—the idea that we ought to have a systematic method of taking care of the material needs of the aged—really springs from that deep well of charitableness which resides in the American people, and the efforts and the struggles of charity workers and social workers to handle the problems of people who were growing old and had no adequate means of support. Out of this impulse to be kind to the poor sprang, I suppose, a mulling of ideas about social insurance for the aged. But those people who were doing it didn’t know that it was social insurance. They just kept thinking that something definite, something that people could look forward to, would be a great asset and a great assistance to them in their work. Even De Tocqueville, in his memoirs of his visit to America, mentioned he thought was a unique state of mind of the American people: That they were so honestly concerned about their poor and did so much for them personally. It was not an organization; it was not a national action; it was not a State action; it was not Government. It was personal action that De Tocqueville mentioned as being characteristic of the American people. They were so generous, so kind, so charitably disposed.

Well, I don’t know anything about the times in which De Tocqueville visited America. That was long ago, and I know little about the psychological state of mind of the people of this country at that time. But I do know that at the time I came into the field of social work, these feelings were real. It was surprising what we were able to do through volunteer work—by the volunteer support of organizations who help the poor; and particularly the aged poor. Just look over the country at the old ladies’ homes and the old couples’ homes and the old members’ homes that sprang up because aged people had necessities that had to be met. In each case, somebody got money together and established these homes. And life went on for the aged, after a fashion, as recipients of a kind of charity. These things have been going on for years. . . .

Since 1929 we had experienced the short, sudden drop of everything. The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. A banking crisis followed it. A manufacturing crisis followed it. Everybody felt it. In less than a year it was a terror. People were so alarmed that all through the rest of 1929, 1930, and 1931, the specter of unemployment—of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes, of the families separated while somebody went out to look for work—stalked everywhere. . . .

Before I was appointed, I had a little conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn’t want me to be the Secretary of Labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance. I remember he looked so startled, and he said, “Well, do you think it can be done?” I said, “I don’t know.”

He said, “Well, there are constitutional problems, aren’t there?”

“Yes, very severe constitutional problems,” I said. “But what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems? Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn’t be solved.”

“Well,” he said, “do you think you can do it?”

“I don’t know,” I said, but I wanted to try. “I want to know if I have your authorization. I won’t ask you to promise anything.” He looked at me and nodded wisely. “All right,” he said, “I will authorize you to try, and if you succeed, that’s fine.”

“Well,” I said, “that is all I want. I don’t want you to put any blocks in my way. We’ll see what we can do. There are plenty of people,” I said, “who want it badly and will work for it.”

This was the way it all began.

From a speech on “The Roots of Social Security” given by Frances Perkins in Baltimore, October 23, 1962; found at

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