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My Dad, a father of Social Security

February 16, 2007|Pierre Epstein | PIERRE EPSTEIN is the author of the new book "Abraham Epstein: The Forgotten Father of Social Security" (University of Missouri Press).

IT WAS THE ROARING '20S, the Jazz Age, the era of Calvin Coolidge -- a decade that had, in the words of one historian, "the Lorelei of possibility": an obsessive vision of limitless prosperity. But, for most Americans, the truth was sadly different. An average wage earner got $26 for a 50-hour week, and he would work as many years as he was able. As historian David Kennedy put it, "Retirement was an elusive fantasy for the average American worker."

That reality was abundantly clear to my father, Abraham Epstein, a poor, Jewish immigrant from Russia who became one of the primary architects of Social Security. He came to America in 1910 because he wanted an education. To get it, he worked in a garment factory, taught Hebrew, talked his way into a private high school, won a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and graduated with a master's degree in economics in 1917.

So, although the land of opportunity had served him well, Abe also saw firsthand how the elderly, unemployed and sick were being left by the wayside. In 1918, there was almost no old-age insurance, private pensions or retirement plans. The prevailing wisdom was that it was your own fault if you hadn't saved for life's vicissitudes.

Abe was an intense little man with a high-pitched voice, heavy accent and thick spectacles. His first job was with the Pennsylvania Commission on Old Age Pensions, which did the earliest studies on the problem. He did pioneering research, visiting private charity homes, the indigent scraping by at home and, the worst off, those in county poorhouses. He knew then that if the government was going to help the poor, it had to start with the most vulnerable, the indigent aged.

In addition to state reports, in 1922 he published a book, "Facing Old Age." But Pennsylvania didn't move fast enough for the fiery and impatient Abe. When the state's Supreme Court threw out the old-age insurance law that he'd help craft, he was fed up. He went out on his own.

He founded an advocacy group, the American Assn. for Old Age Security, and on July 22, 1927, he set off in his new car, his wife in tow, to cross the United States. He wanted to tour the land like Johnny Appleseed and sow the seeds of old-age security. Always obstreperous, he fired off letters, set up meetings and made speeches wherever he could. He consulted with reformer Jane Addams in Chicago and harangued old cowboys in South Dakota. In Montana, he barged into a county commissioner's meeting to demand that they utilize the state's optional old-age pension plan.

It was when he got to California that he realized how acute the old-age poverty crisis was. The Golden State had lured multitudes west, and by the 1920s, the number of people over 65 in the state was twice the national average. California was ripe for change. In fact, plenty of crackpot schemes to help the aged surfaced here in the 1930s: activist-novelist Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California program, the $30-every-Thursday "Ham and Eggs" Plan and the most popular, the bank-breaking $200-a-month Townsend Plan promoted by a doctor in Long Beach.

On his return to New York, Abe made his report to his new association. "Why only old-age security? I think everyone in this hall would stand with you and say, 'Well, if we can have everything, let us have everything.' I think none is limiting himself to old-age security. We are emphasizing it because old-age security -- and that is the strange but true history of every European country -- is always the first step in social insurance. In the United States, old-age insurance will come ahead of health insurance and unemployment insurance."

His vision was set far into the future. In 1933, he changed the name of his group to the American Assn. for Social Security (he was the first to use those words) to explain his concept of social insurance that would include old-age, unemployment and medical help. The Roosevelt administration called its version of this the Economic Security Act in the New Deal legislation of 1935. But before passing it, congressmen who had heard Abe testify many times renamed it the Social Security Act.

Now, as California prepares to join Massachusetts in passing a sweeping health insurance law, it is wise to remember another of Abe Epstein's major insights: The states have to act before the federal government will do anything.

In 1927, only two states had some minimal form of old-age pension. By the time of the Social Security Act, every state but one had an old-age security law on the books.

With California on the move, it is only a matter of time until other states join in, and the federal government will be forced to create a national health insurance plan. Just as in 1935.

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