Today marks the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act, and no doubt President Franklin D. Roosevelt will be celebrated as a visionary leader who helped spare millions of working Americans from poverty in their old age.
We should also pay tribute to Frances Perkins, a largely forgotten heroine of the FDR era, who was the first female cabinet member, serving as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Perkins guided the concept of a retirement security program from the kernel of an idea to execution of one of the most important and popular programs the federal government ever established.
These accomplishments alone are enough to warrant inclusion in the history books. But Perkins’ legacy encompasses a broad swath of the social justice landscape. As the driving force behind the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation and the abolition of child labor, Perkins arguably did more to improve the conditions for working Americans than any cabinet member in our history.
“I had already had a conviction, a ‘concern,’ as the Quakers say, about social justice,” Perkins wrote in her book The Roosevelt I Knew. “And it was clear in my own mind that the promotion of social justice could be made to work practically.”
Perkins was an anomaly, overcoming the prejudices of her day to graduate from college with a degree in physics, earn a Master’s degree in sociology and study further at the Wharton School. She provided the sole support for her family and was the highest-ranking woman in government—both at the state and federal levels—driving hard bargains to reform the abysmal employment conditions that came hand-in-hand with rapid industrialization.
Perkins developed an interest in the working class and the working poor as an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College after taking a course on the growth of industrialism in America. Her professor required students to visit local factories and mills to observe working conditions. The experience profoundly shaped Perkins’ life.
“From the time I was in college I was horrified at the work that many women and children had to do in factories,” Perkins said later. “There were absolutely no effective laws that regulated the number of hours they were permitted to work. There were no provisions which guarded their health nor adequately looked after their compensation in case of injury. Those things seemed very wrong. I was young and was inspired with the idea of reforming, or at least doing what I could, to help change those abuses.”’
She worked in settlement houses in Chicago and to improve the working and living conditions of young women in Philadelphia who were often preyed upon by thieves and con men.
But the galvanizing event in her life took place in 1911 when, having tea nearby, she heard fire engines and arrived at the scene to witness the horrific Triangle Shirt Waist Company fire, which killed 146 women, many of whom were engulfed in flames on the upper floors of the factory while others leapt to their deaths to avoid the fire. Perkins later said that was the day “the New Deal began.”
During the 1918 New York gubernatorial election—the first in which that state’s women were allowed to vote—Perkins organized them into a potent political force for reform. Just over 10 years later, in 1929, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as his industrial commissioner of the state, and she began advocating for unemployment insurance and old-age assistance.
After FDR was elected to the presidency in 1932, he asked her to join his administration as secretary of labor. Perkins’ acceptance was conditional upon FDR’s approval of a set of policy priorities she wanted to pursue: a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, a shorter work week, abolition of child labor and universal health insurance. FDR agreed, and Perkins accomplished most of her goals by 1945. Social Security, however, was to be her most enduring legacy.
FDR had appointed her in 1934 to chair his Committee on Economic Security to investigate the concept of social insurance. Six months later, the committee was to recommend the proposal that eventually became the most popular government program of all time.
“It has taken the rapid industrialization of the last few decades, with its mass-production methods, to teach us that a man might become a victim of circumstances far beyond his control,” Perkins said. “And finally it took a depression to dramatize for us the appalling insecurity of the great mass of the population, and to stimulate interest in social insurance in the United States.”
We have come to learn that the large majority of our citizens must have protection against the loss of income due to unemployment, old age, death of the breadwinners and disabling accident and illness, not only on humanitarian grounds, but in the interest of our national welfare. If we are to maintain a healthy economy and thriving production, we need to maintain the standard of living of the lower income groups in our population who constitute 90 percent of our purchasing power.
Thanks to Perkins’ visionary leadership, fewer than one in 10 senior citizens live in poverty. Without Social Security, that number would be more than four in 10. In June 2015, Social Security helped 60 million people—the majority of whom are women—more than a third of whom depend on the earned benefit for 90 percent or more of their income.
As the principal architect of Social Security, Perkins was central to the creation of a social safety net for middle- and low-income workers that to this day underpins the very best values of progressive government.
Now, that’s a powerful and lasting legacy.