Mary Dewson Speech

An Address

By Mary W. Dewson,
Member, Social Security Board

Before the Women's City Club of Boston, Mass.
February 17, 1938 

photo of Mary Dewson


I am one of those heretics who believe that nine-tenths of an audience goes away from a talk with an impression, but few facts--and that the few facts, because they are scrappy and disassociated, roll off to some little-used corner of the mind and are lost. Therefore, today I am drawing you a picture. I hope it will associate your ideas on social security and get them into relationship, so that they will mean something you don't have to remember, but can't forget.

The picture shows what government--that is, all of us--is doing to give each of us a firm footing on which to fight for a living.

Rugged individualism is grand if the odds aren't insuperable. But in high-powered, mass-production industry, with its great rhythmic fluctuations of employment and unemployment, the odds are insuperable for a staggering number of men and women. Under such conditions rugged individualism is a losing fight unless all of us get together to provide protection and insurance against certain risks. England, Sweden, and other foreign countries recognized this truth some 30 or 40 years ago. It's a three-volume novel why we didn't. But now we have.

Stripped down to bare terms, what does "social security" mean? Just that the inevitable hazards of life shall not be allowed to take their uttermost toll of the defenseless.

Life being what it is, it seems to me a little silly to fear, as some people seem to, that we shall ever have too much security. Insecurity is the lot of rich and poor. Babies of the rich die. Their children could be better educated, better equipped to make their own way in the world. Sickness and accident spare none. Wives lose their husbands and children their parents, whatever their economic status. Many of the well-to-do are unable to find work for which they are fitted. And in the end, the portion of the fortunate who live is old age; but, this again has hazards for all, the bitter hazards of declining power and decreasing independence.

Little by little--actually, during the past century, with amazing speed-medicine and science, education and training, invention and industry have made life easier and at least potentially more secure. But the great hazards of life remain. For the big man and the little man, for the rich and the poor, there is no absolute security, today or any day, past, present or future.

Yet the effect of these disasters that are the common lot of man can be mitigated to a certain extent. Today as in the past, men of substance may be able to weather most storms alone, as long as their cash or credit holds out. But I know, and you know, that these relatively self-sufficient ones are a mighty small part of our people. The vast majority has never at any time in our history had enough reserves to with-stand single-handed "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." In pioneer times the wind was tempered to the shorn lambs by neighbors, relatives, and friends--except in individual cases where prejudice was stronger than sympathy. Today neighbors have practically disappeared; and family and friends are often powerless to help because they, too, have no margin between earnings and necessities. Of all those insured under the Federal old-age insurance law who died in 1937, a full half left not one penny.

Before the great depression, private philanthropy relieved the misfortunes of a few and satisfied the instincts of the good and charitable. But it left the many to endure their hardships as best they might, until in the last extremity the "poor laws" were invoked to preserve the so-called decencies of civilization. The widespread anguish following the economic collapse of 1929 blew away the rosy fog which we had permitted to obscure these unpalatable realities. And practical plans began to take shape for a minimum of protection against certain major hazards.

None of these plans we lump together as social security is new. Some, like workmen' s compensation, were already pretty well established by the end of the 1920's. Others, like provisions for children and for the aged, have been developing piecemeal for 25 years. Today they are being carried out in fresh and more effective ways, and much more inclusively. Still others, like unemployment compensation, after lingering in the doldrums of discussion for a generation, have at last become a reality. And a final group, including basic essentials like minimum-wage legislation for both men and women, and health insurance, have not yet emerged from the era of high-powered talk which has preceded every piece of social legislation on record.

All these plans have one common purpose--to enable every man and woman in this country to come to terms with life according to his own initiative and industry and capacity and courage. They represent only a minimum; they do not--and are not intended to--measure up to an abundant life. Their purpose is simply to give the worker a fair chance, with the cards no longer stacked against him in advance. This much security all of us would surely have for each of us.

I like to compare these social provisions for individual security to a platform--a firm footing for the worker. And now I want you to examine with me, for a few minutes, the strengths and weaknesses of this platform as it stands before you. You will see that it is built out of separate planks. The ones in black are still lacking; the others are already in place. But the fact that any particular piece is in place does not necessarily mean that it is a stout 2-inch plank, capable of carrying its full share of the load. Legislatures are constantly replacing timbers too weak to stand the strain, or full of knot holes.

I want to make it clear, too, that the relative size allotted to these planks, or segments of security, in this picture is not statistically significant. It represents simply the value that I, personally, set on each of these sectors in the worker's security platform.

Wholesome Childhood

It may be trite to say that its children are a nation's best assets. But it is true. And on the whole, Americans have done pretty well by their children, though not as well as they should. One of the important things about the Social Security Act is that it has recognized this national responsibility for the well-being of children. Through the four cooperative Federal-State children's programs established by the Act, more children than in the past will have a chance to grow up with healthy bodies and in wholesome homes.

For maternal and child health services Congress has appropriated $3,700,000 for the fiscal year 1937-38. The Federal Children's Bureau makes grants to the States, which they are using, together with funds of their own, to safeguard the health of mothers and babies. Anyone who wants proof of how badly this service is needed might ponder on a few pretty shocking facts--in 1935 some 40,000 babies were born without benefit of doctor or midwife; in the same year 12,500 mothers died from causes related to childbirth and about 150,000 infants were either stillborn or died during the first month.

For services to crippled children Congress has appropriated $2,800,000 this year and the 45 cooperating States also have made substantial contributions. Probably about six out of every thousand children in the country are crippled-something over 250,000 all told. Some 100,000 have already been registered in 38 States. One of the important services under this program is the locating of crippled children even in remote communities and bringing them in to centers where adequate treatment is available.

For child welfare services the Federal appropriation for this year was $1,475,000. With Federal grants, 45 States are providing better care for homeless and neglected children and for those in danger of becoming delinquent. And again this service is being promoted particularly in rural communities where in the past these services have been least adequate.

For aid to dependent children in their own homes Congress has appropriated $54,600,000 this year from which the Social Security Board is authorized to approve grants to the States. The Federal Government pays one-third of the cost of this program, the States and their communities two-thirds. This month, well over half a million children in nearly a quarter of a million families are receiving assistance in the 40 participating States.

These four provisions are part and parcel of our platform. Though a lot of work remains to be done, this is a substantial beginning in building these children's planks into a Nation-wide social security structure.

As regards child labor, we have made no such national beginning. The child labor amendment remains unratified, though four State legislatures approved it during the past year, bringing the total to 28. A number of States have passed a variety of laws relating to child labor, but the establishment of Federal standards is yet to come. Meantime, this lack constitutes a major gap. Well over 2 million children between 10 and 17 still work--or, as the statisticians say, are "painfully employed." I always wonder about that phrase. With a vast army of unemployed adults, are we so sure children are gainfully employed when they are deprived of education in order to work for meager waves, often at jobs that jeopardize their health?


Public education was the first labor law. A certain amount of schooling is a prerequisite to every kind of work except the most unskilled. Education helps a man to get a job and to hold a job. This tie-up between school and job has been more and more clearly recognized, and today in some States the school gives working papers to young people, in order to make sure that they have fulfilled minimum educational requirements.

Public responsibility for education has so long been taken for granted, particularly here in New England, that we may forget how generally it was once viewed with alarm. Only a hundred years ago, a "public-spirited citizen" could say of public schools that "a more pernicious notion could not prevail. It has given (the people) a premium for idleness.... The education of their children is the first and most obvious duty of every parent. Is it the friends of the poor who absolve them from what Nature, what God Himself has made their first and most sacred duty?"

That has a strangely familiar ring. More recent orators have worked similar arguments overtime in protesting against child labor legislation. Who knows but what Americans may live to see the time when child labor provisions will be as respectable as educational provisions are today?

Meantime the Federal Government has recognized the advantages of training in relation to work. The Federal Bureau of Vocational Education was established in 1917, and in 1920, vocational rehabilitation for workers crippled in industry was added. I have always wondered, by the way, why these job-training activities were put into the Department of Interior along with the buffaloes and public works, instead of into the Department of Labor with the workers. However, there they are and have been for 20 years, in recognition of the Nation's concern over this plank in the worker's platform. And, in 1935 the Social Security Act provided for the extension and strengthening of vocational rehabilitation by authorizing annual appropriations of $1,938,000 for grants to match State funds for this purpose.

A Job

The first, last, and main thing people want and have a right to is a job. Good health, education and training help to get a job and to keep it. But whether or no, a man must work to live.

Individual initiative today, as in the past, is the one most important factor in getting a job. But with conditions of employment--or perhaps one should say of unemployment--what modern industry has made them, a man's opportunity of selling his services in the market place is limited. Such markets as there are may be scattered and inaccessible; there may be no market at all for particular skills; and if so, new and strange kinds of work must be hunted up and tried out. These problems exist quite independently of the major issue of mass unemployment, with which we have become all too familiar in recent years.

Public Employment Service is designed to provide accessible, centralized labor exchanges where the employment needs of both workers and business can be efficiently met. Under the Wagner-Peyser Act, passed by Congress in 1933, the public employment service attained the status of a full-fledged national system. Its purpose is to find work wherever work may be had throughout the country. It knows, for example, that today every steam shoveler in the United States is employed. Last year over 2,100,000 jobs in private industry were filled through this cooperative Federal-State system. This was an increase of more than 80 percent over the number of private jobs filled by the public employment service the year before.

The most recent development along this line is the coast-to-coast coordination of employment service with unemployment compensation administration, and the expansion of State employment services to meet these new responsibilities. Paying compensation when a man loses his job is one part of the picture; helping him find another job is the other, and even more essential, part.

At Least a Health and Decency Wage

Next in importance to the dire necessity of a job, any kind of a job, is earning enough to live on in health and decency. Workers are forced to take whatever they can get, and will under-cut anyone rather than go without work. Nothing but minimum wage legislation can prevent the chiseling minority of employers in unorganized industry from paying substandard wages. Labor unions can and do prevent substandard wages in organized industry. But up to now their membership has included only a comparatively small percentage of the Nation's workers, and in the main their emphasis has been on bargaining for increasingly adequate pay for this relatively small group. Important as their efforts are, they have not touched the problem of setting a basic level below which wages cannot fall for the great mass of working people.

Minimum wage and hour legislation is, after the job itself`, the most important of all the planks in the social security platform. Yet it is still in the future for men workers in every State in the Union, and even for women and children, except in 22 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico--the gain for women following the favorable decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1937.


Decency and health demand not only a wage to live on but a fit place to live in. Americans have done a conspicuously poor job in recent years at "keeping the home fires burning"; and today housing is one of the major problems confronting us as a Nation and as individual families. Even before the depression at least 11 million families--and that means some 45 million men and women and children were living in homes that endangered their physical safety, their health and their morals. This situation exists not merely in our crowded cities; at least half of these substandard dwellings are scattered over the open country. Children are growing up in these homes--some of them: the death rate of babies is three times as high in families indecently housed as in those in decent homes.

Housing is a public menace and a public responsibility. Making up our arrears will enlist the combined forces of private construction and finance and of government cooperation. Through Federal housing and home-financing legislation we have made a significant beginning. But it is only a beginning. A national housing plank is in place in the worker's program, but it will be paper-thin for years, even with the present program.

Unemployment, Sickness and Old-Age Insurance

With health, training, a job that pays a living wage and a chance to live in decent surroundings, most of the people most of the time will manage to get along without further help. With that much of a footing to stand on, they can and will look out for themselves and their families--most of the time.

Except in a depression, periods of unemployment for the undefeated are comparatively brief and infrequent. Except for those cut down by accident or slowly going under with disease, spells of sickness are comparatively rare. Yet in a nation of 130,000,000 "comparatively" is a large and elastic word, and even for the fortunate, unemployment or illness will nick the work year. During the prosperous 1920's there were never less than a million-and-a-half workers out of a job, and the number now unemployed is anybody's guess from 7 to 10 millions. Estimates indicate that on an average day at least 2 1/2 million people are incapacitated for work because of sickness, and that in an average year over 10 million suffer accidents of one sort or another. When "comparatively few" means millions, protection becomes a national concern.

There is another and still more cogent reason for recognizing protection against these hazards as a national concern. Actual catastrophes--when the individual worker is knocked out by unemployment, accident, or sickness--may be relatively few and far between. But the risk--the chance that the blow may fall--is universal. The only practical method of protection against widespread hazards is to pool the risk. And the only agency big enough to administer mutual protection for all the people is the government. This is the what and why of social insurance.

In Workmen's Compensation against industrial accident, and more recently against industrial sickness, this kind of insurance is now an accepted part of the social order. During the last 35 years, workmen's compensation has been spreading from State to State, and today only two States--and those mainly non-industrial-are without such laws.

Unemployment Insurance is one of the new planks in social security established by the Social Security Act. Every State in the Union had an unemployment compensation law within less than 2 years after the Federal law was passed in 1935. Today, 23 are already paying benefits and the rest will follow suit in a few months. Wage earners, with the exception of domestic and agricultural workers and a few others, are now assured of unemployment benefits equal to half-pay for from 12 to 20 weeks.

Because unemplovment compensation is new and because in this early stage its administration looks complicated, it looms large in the public eye. As a matter of fact it is only a relatively narrow plank in the worker's platform. It offers no panacea for unemployment. All it is intended to do is to bridge the gap between jobs.

As to administration, I do not believe that unemployment compensation offers any more difficulties than accident compensation. To be sure, losing a job happens more frequently than, let's say, losing a leg. But disastrous as unemployment may be, it usually isn't as serious for the individual worker as a disabling accident. The differences between the two kinds of hazard are all in favor of working out effective routine processes for handling unemployment compensation. The facts about employment and unemployment on which benefit payments are based are more clear-cut and easier to determine than the facts about a given accident; and the payments to individuals are smaller and less variable.

Accident compensation laws and methods of administration have been improved and rounded out year by year. We may confidently look forward to the same evolution in job insurance. Indeed, because unemployment compensation is a cooperative system, in which the Federal Government as well as the States has a say, the administrative outlook is considerably more promising. Those of us who have spent our lives for better administration of labor laws are impressed with the value of conditioning State expenditures upon "proper administration"--and of evaluating the "proper-ness" of administration according to the views of disinterested men intimately familiar with the experience and techniques of not 1, but 48 States.

Unemployment compensation is essential, and the beginnings already made will no doubt be extended and strengthened. But when you come right down to it, the basic insurance against losing a job is health. And maintaining health is one of the first responsibilities of the individual and of the Nation. I heartily agree, and I think you do too, with Surgeon General Parran, in believing that we must accept as a major premise that our citizens should have an equal opportunity to health, as an inherent right co-equal with the right to life and liberty. "Yet today, except for the tiny proportion of illness due to industrial causes and so covered by workmen' s compensation, the American people have no adequate protection against this universal risk.

The place where adequate health protection ought to be--and isn't--is, after a health and decency wage, the biggest gap remaining in the security platform. At this point two separate planks are missing. One of these is sickness compensation against loss of earning power during temporary or permanent disability. This is akin to the sick-leave with pay which teachers and other Government workers have come to take for granted. The other is adequate medical care, including whatever medicines, treatment, and hospitalization are needed--a far more expensive proposition but one of the most profound importance. These are distinctive needs, and very likely we shall move toward meeting them on different but parallel paths--toward disability compensation along the lines recently laid down for social insurance against loss of wages due to unemployment or old age; and toward medical care along the lines of our long-established public health provisions. Adequate health protection may still be mostly pious hope. But it is not a vain hope; both of these measures are already on the horizon.

Supposing, now, our worker has cleared all these hurdles; there is still one before him and that the least escapable of all. For the only way to avoid coming up against old age is to die beforehand. Most of those who outlive their capacity to work and support themselves have not been able to lay by enough to eke out an existence, much less to enjoy their new leisure. And the only way to provide any kind of old-age security for the bulk of the people is through social insurance.

Old-age insurance established by the Security Act and administered by the Social Security Board, is a national program through which young and middle aged workers can build up, by their own and their employers contribution, benefit rights which will give them something to live on when they are old and stop working. Some 37,000,000 applications have been received for accounts under this system since it went into effect a year ago January. This means that the present and future generations of industrial wage earners will be spared much of the humiliation and suffering that has too often been the lot of old age. With a regular monthly payment-even a small one--they will not be resourceless, forced to become a dead weight upon their families, who more than likely are already stretching every penny, or--worse yet--to seek private or public charity. The certainty of being self-supporting will fire many a worker's determination to do even better by himself in his old age. He will be encouraged to own a little home, to put a bit into the saving bank or United States savings bonds, or somehow to create a small reserve which will help to supplement his old-age insurance income.

Social insurance, like private insurance, has limitations. You can't, for example, insure people who are already old against old-age dependency, any more than you can insure your car against property damages after you have had a smash-up. Yet some provision has to be made for this non-insurable need. Nobody knows exactly how many of those now old are without sufficient resources for their own support. Surveys made some years ago in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other States showed that anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of the people over 65 had an income of less than $300 a year. And $300 a year is the modest minimum which, the American people seem to think, is essential for health and decency. Too take care of such old people, the Social Security Act adds another provision--for assistance on the basis of need. With Federal grants to match State funds, the States are now providing cash allowances for well over a million-and-a-half needy old people. As time goes on, however, more people will be covered by the old-age insurance system, particularly when, as we hope, it is extended to include practically all wage earners.

Assistance and Relief

Freely admitting this and other limitations, I still contend that these things are the basis of social security-wholesome childhood, education, a job, a living wage, decent housing, and social insurance against major risks. With these the worker's platform is complete-or would be if some planks weren't still lacking and others in need of strengthening. As long as there are gaps and weak spots in the platform, a lot of people are going to fall through--through into destitution and misery. And as long as these gaps and weak spots remain, some fairly extensive--and very expensive-life net will have to be stretched underneath to catch these often needless casualties before they quite strike rock bottom. That, I take it, is the function of relief. I am not saying anything in detail about this life net of relief and assistance, although the Social Security Board is responsible for one big section, aid to the needy aged, and a small section, aid to the needy blind. Other sections are institutional care, and outdoor relief for the unemployables, both of which are supported locally; and the W.P.A., through which the Federal Government undertakes to provide work for those who are employable but have no job. I as no visionary. I know that the need for relief will be with us in the future as in the past. And I hope that we shall be prepared to meet it more adequately than in the past.

Toward Firmer Footing

The point I am emphasizing is that it is incomparably better to assure the worker a firm footing--to close the gaps and strengthen the weak spots, insofar as we possibly can--rather than continue depending on the tragically wasteful business of picking up the pieces-pieces of human lives that might, but for our patchwork building, have remained whole and self-sufficient.

I believe that these gaps child labor, minimum wage, health insurance and others--will be closed, maybe not today or tomorrow but sometime in the not unforeseeable future. All the signs of the times point that way. In the last 3 years we have done more building--and--better building--on this social security platform than in the preceding half-century. There in no reason to think that the passage of the Social Security Act marked the finish of social legislation in the United States. Rather, there is every reason to think, and to hope, that it marked a new and clearer-headed awareness of what this security really is, and a new and vastly more determined effort to get the kind of security Americans want, the kind of security that assures every man and woman a chance to stand on his own two feet, and to make a winning fight to support himself and his children in the good old American way.