On April 27, 1933, the Rockefeller Foundation approached the staff of the Social Science Research Council requesting that it submit, “within 48 hours,” “suggestions for immediate research relating to urgent problems confronting the Federal Administration in the current national emergency.”1Social Science Research Council, Committee on Problems and Policy, Minutes of the meeting of November 25, 1933, Appendix 11. See also, David L. Sills, “Council Marks the 50th Anniversary of Its Committee on Social Security,” Items 39, no. 3 (September 1985): 39–40. The urgency of the request was such that Council staff responded “[U]pon its own responsibility,” without waiting for the normal approvals. Its proposals ranged from “The Release of Impounded Deposits of Closed Banks” to “An Integrated Program for the Fact-Finding and Technical Services of the Federal Government”; from “National Self-Sufficiency versus International Economy” to “An Examination of Proposals for the Stimulation of Business Revival.”2Social Science Research Council, Committee on Problems and Policy, Minutes of the meeting of November 25, 1933, Appendix 11. As the work proceeded, the Council established a special temporary committee,3Excerpt from Social Science Research Council, Annual Report, 1934–35. held at least two conferences—whose attendees were primarily policymakers—and prepared a “Report on a Tentative Plan for a Proposed Investigation” on the subject “Planned Protection Against Unemployment and Dependency.”4Social Science Research Council, “Planned Protection Against Unemployment and Dependency: Report on a Tentative Plan for a Proposed Investigation,” November 1934. The revised Report was prepared in November 1934 and circulated to the Council’s Board and Committee on Programs and Policy in December of that year but features as Appendix 1 of the Council Agenda for April 6, 1935. An initial draft of the Report was informally provided to the FDR Administration in June 1934, just prior to the establishment of the government’s Committee on Economic Security.5“Prefatory Statement,” Ibid. In April 1935, when a revised version of the Report was included with the Agenda of the SSRC’s Policy and Planning Committee meeting, it was labelled “confidential.” That text still represented an interim draft, a definite proposal being deferred until the Administration had clarified its own program. Nonetheless, two points appear to have been clear. The first was that the Council—backed by the Rockefeller Foundation—would undertake a major role in promoting and conducting the research required to inform the Administration’s policies and, in so doing, mobilize (and also inform) the very policy networks that were establishing the Administration’s programs. The second point was that the Council would stress the importance of a unified approach to “the Emergency” (as the economic crisis was often referred to) and, specifically, social insurance and relief.6Ibid., 1.
The Report explicitly articulated the paradigmatic shift that characterized the New Deal: from an individualistic, culpabilizing view of economic hardship to a societal perspective; from piecemeal responses to general programs; from private initiatives to governmental responsibility. Bryce Stewart and Meredith Givens, the Report’s authors, stressed the emergence of a “new point of view,” citing Woodrow Wilson’s inaugural speech of two decades earlier: “There can be no equality of opportunity, the first essential in the body of politics, if men and women and children are not shielded . . . from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control, or singly cope with.” The Report maintained that society’s need to protect its members was no longer “only” a humanitarian exigency but a systemic imperative, required “to insure its own survival.”7Ibid., 1.
“Relief” could no longer serve as a guide to policy. The word “relief” itself was “loaded with the connotations traditionally associated with the old type of aid for defective and dependent persons . . .”8Ibid., 3. The “social” perspective that the Depression had engendered was not, in fact, required only by the Depression: it “would have been equally justified for an attack upon the continuous hazards of unemployment or dependency attributable to accidents, sickness, advanced age, technological change, or disorganization in the labor market . . . [For] the social consequences of these risks are less serious only by reason of their dispersion in time.”9Ibid., 8–9. While “to the wage-earner all types of unemployment or dependency are identical in that they mean cessation of income and depletion of savings . . . the various forms of unemployment and dependency have an essential unity from the social as well as from the individual viewpoint.”10Ibid., 9.
If a unified response was required, the current situation provided just the opposite: a patchwork of struggling community initiatives and government agencies with fragmented responsibilities and stretched resources too caught up in coping with the crisis on a daily basis to be able to work out the “more integrated and rational system” that appeared essential.11Ibid., 16. For this, “a careful, scientific and dispassionate survey of the entire relief situation in the United States must, sooner or later, be provided.” Even more, “an intensive, independent research effort” was required, “unhampered by immediate responsibilities to administration but fully en rapport with its problems.”12Ibid., 16.
The Council’s Board concurred with the fundamental elements of this analysis: in July, 1935, it appointed a Committee on Social Security and directed it to examine “the problems involved in social insurance and relief, in the relations of the various social insurances to each other and to relief, and in the effects of insurance and relief on economic stability, keeping constantly in sight the problem of social security in its entirety . . .”13Report of the Committee on Social Security of the Social Science Research Council for the period from July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1937, appendix 10, 1. Emphasis added. The Committee was discharged in 1942 for a variety of reasons, but principally because so much of its personnel were being drafted into the war effort. See Sills, op cit. The Committee was also charged with “maintaining contact with public officials and private agencies . . . orienting research into socially useful channels . . . assembling and stating the results of research in comprehensible terms . . . [and] bringing these results to the attention of officials and others in position to utilize their potential value to society.” But the Committee’s instructions specifically excluded providing “advice or pronouncements on matters of policy or action.”14Report of the Committee on Social Security of the Social Science Research Council for the period from July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1937, appendix 10, s.1.
For the seven years of its existence, the Committee provided a space in which pressing and frequently contentious issues could be discussed and rearticulated into (or, at least, around) research questions. The discussants themselves were drawn from the policy networks the New Deal mobilized. Frank Bane, for instance, who had chaired the Council’s special temporary committee during which time the Report was written and served as the Director of the American Public Welfare Association, was appointed Executive Director of the Social Security Board upon its establishment in 1935. Joseph H. Willits, the first chair of the Council’s actual Committee on Social Security, had been the Executive Director of the federal Committee on Economic Security that preceded the passage of the Social Security Act and to whom the draft materials of the Council’s temporary committee had been provided. Princeton economist J. Douglas Brown, a member of the Council’s committee from 1937 to 1942, had staffed that same federal Committee on Economic Security, as had Eveline M. Burns who became an active member of the staff to the Council’s Committee.15Other examples of the interpenetration of Council and Administration networks include Council Committee members Louis M. Brownlow and Winfield W. Riefler. Brownlow led FDR’s Committee on Administrative Management (the “Brownlow Committee”); Riefler, (one-time) member of the Federal Reserve, (who had been Chief Economic Advisor of FDR’s Emergency Council) was Executive Director of the Central Statistical Board, served on the Technical Board of the Committee on Economic Security and later became secretary of the Federal Open Market Committee.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Council’s Committee felt a continuous pull towards the politics of the moment. Reporting on its first two years of activity, the Committee noted:
The hazards which surround the operation of an independent research organization with primary attention to current and near-term problems, or indeed in attempting anything but the orthodox kind of academic research, in such a highly controversial field should never be lost sight of however. In one direction, there is the danger of exhausting its energies in performing for government agencies a multitude of purely routine tasks . . . In another direction, there is the greater danger that the staff will be “used” by interested groups, official or other, to pull very hot chestnuts out of very hot fires. And nobody who has not been a close observer of the controversies raging in this field can conceive of the almost fanatical zeal and bitterness with which (what might appear to the innocent bystander as) minor differences of doctrine or procedure are disputed . . . What it [the Committee] has attempted to do is to undertake, and still more to promote, research which illuminates areas in which a maximum of heat and minimum of light now exist, and thus to widen the area in which conclusions can be drawn from fact rather than prejudice.16Report of the Committee on Social Security of the Social Science Research Council for the period from July 1, 1935 to June 30, 1937, appendix 10, s.8.
Among the areas of maximum heat to which the Committee sought to bring light was the issue of old-age insurance and the effects of federal provisions on private plans. In particular, a study of the potential effects of the Social Security Act on industrial pension plans examined the implications of, and support for, the Clark Amendment,17Rainard B. Robbins, Preliminary Report on the Status of Industrial Pension Plans As Affected by Old Age Benefit Sections of the Social Security Act (March 21, 1936) and Supplementary Report on the Proposed Substitute for the Clark Amendment (May 27, 1936) to the Committee on Social Security of the Social Science Research Council. For a brief description of the Clark Amendment see Social Security Administration, Research Note #9, The Clark Amendment to the Social Security Act at http://www.ssa.gov/history/clarkamend.html. which sought to exempt from Social Security taxes companies providing plans that met specified criteria. The Amendment was shelved soon after the passage of the Social Security Act, inter alia, because its proponents in the insurance industry had discovered that Social Security had enhanced, rather than reduced, their business.18Ibid.
The allocation of risk has once again become a matter of pressing concern on the public agenda. The paradigmatic shift that Bryce Steward and Meredith Givens, writing as precursors of the Council’s Committee, had noted—from an emphasis on individual responsibility and private initiative to a stress on societal dynamics and public obligation—has come under steadfast criticism for at least two decades. That governmental entities are best positioned and/or normatively called upon to ensure that certain costs associated with ordinary as well as extraordinary, private as well as public, issues—from aging to deindustrialization—not be borne by individuals and families alone may be more strongly contested in the United States today than ever since the passage of the Social Security Act. Attention to individual autonomy and choice, markets for risk, competition among risk-managers, and efficiency has grown commensurately. Proposals to introduce private accounts into Social Security echo strains heard elsewhere among policymakers: in calls to increase the reliance of Medicare on risk-bearing private plans or introduce health savings accounts on a generalized basis in the workplace, in legislation that effectively reduces individual bankruptcy protections and in resistance to the regulation of certain financial instruments intended to manage risk.
Seventy years ago, the Council appointed the Committee on Social Security to bring social science to bear on the reallocation of risks impelled by the economic dislocations of the Depression. In July 2005, the Council established a working group on the Privatization of Risk to explore current trends in risk allocation. Its analysis provides a lens through which to read the shifting bases of citizenship in the contemporary regulatory state.
Yasmine Ergas was a consultant to the Social Science Research Council for program development and external relations from 2004 to 2006. She was part of the SSRC staff from 1985 to 1991, and during her time at the Council, she was responsible for various programs, as well as starting the SSRC’s first activities on HIV/AIDS. Currently, she is director of Gender and Public Policy Specialization at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University.
Bruce Byers served as SSRC director of institutional research and information technology from 2002 to 2006, and he conducted the research for this article at the Rockefeller Archive Center.
This essay originally appeared in Items & Issues Vol. 5, No. 4 in 2006. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.