Frances Perkins Center Acquires Perkins’ Homestead

Frances Perkins, 1935

Frances Perkins, 1935
Perkins served as Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Some 95 million Americans collect Social Security and unemployment insurance benefits, yet few today know about Frances Perkins, the woman responsible for the social safety net so many depend on.

Perkins (1880-1965) was the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. She served as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from his first term in 1933 until his death in 1945.  “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR and the millions of forgotten, plain, common workingmen,” she said.

A savvy and trusted advisor to Roosevelt, Perkins accepted the job as U.S. Labor Secretary on the condition that he let her pursue what she called “practical possibilities.” Those possibilities encompassed a broad portfolio of policy initiatives, including landmark legislation that enacted unemployment insurance and Social Security, widely viewed as the most effective anti-poverty program in U.S. history.

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge

Inspecting the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

Author Adam Cohen extolled Perkins in the introduction he wrote to her biography of FDR, “The Roosevelt I Knew”:  “If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes—as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine. Like Franklin, Perkins was a brilliant self-creation: There had not been anyone like her before and there has not been anyone like her since.”

To shine a light on Perkins’ underknown legacy, the Frances Perkins Center, established in 2009, has acquired the place Perkins considered her true home—a 57-acre farm that was settled by her ancestors on the Damariscotta River in Newcastle, Maine. Perkins spent her childhood summers at the 1837 “Brick House” surrounded by fields, forests and miles of stone walls and returned throughout her life. She is buried in the local cemetery.

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
Perkins considered Social Security her greatest achievement.

Designated the Frances Perkins Homestead National Historic Landmark in 2014, the property will serve as the Center’s headquarters and as a living memorial to its namesake when it opens in 2021. Exhibits, public programs and community use will follow.

A $500,000 matching grant to the Center from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program, awarded in August, is a major step toward realizing the Center’s long-held vision and $5.5 million capital campaign goal.

Perkins greets FDR

Perkins greets FDR
FDR’s return from the Teheran Conference, December 17, 1943
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Perkins relied on facts and well-crafted legislation rather than “fiery rhetoric” to address social ills, on the advice of her mentor, Florence Kelley, the legendary progressive for whom Perkins worked.  Perkins’ outrage at witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911, which killed 146 young workers for lack of safety codes, led her to Albany as a factory investigator and a series of key government positions culminating in her appointment as state Labor Commissioner by Governor Franklin Roosevelt. She lobbied for worker safety laws that became models for the nation. She later said, “the New Deal began on March 25, 1911,” the day of the fire.

Though her handiwork often went unrecognized, Perkins’ proposals laid the foundation for New Deal social policies. Her persistence and political skills as Labor Secretary brought them to fruition. Consciously dressing to appear “motherly” and unthreatening in a political world dominated by men, Perkins chaired key panels, hired brilliant aides, cajoled naysayers, built coalitions, and helped launch large-scale public works programs to create millions of jobs for skilled and unskilled workers.

Her legacy includes the first federal minimum wage laws, restrictions on child labor, provisions for workers’ safety and the right to unionize. Her biographer, Kirstin Downey, aptly credits Perkins as “the woman behind the New Deal.”

Frances Perkins with Balto

Frances Perkins with Balto
Perkins Homestead, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

The Brick House

The Brick House
Newcastle, Maine, 2013
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

 

Social Security at 80: Still Missing the Keystone

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
FDR signs the Social Security Act with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet.

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, declaring:  “If the Senate and the House of Representatives … had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt acknowledged that the groundbreaking legislation was “a cornerstone in a structure … by no means complete.”

Once the cornerstone was laid, Social Security soon expanded. Initially, its two social insurance programs, Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, covered only a portion of the work force. Left out were workers in very small establishments and the public sector, along with the self-employed. Also excluded were domestic workers—largely women and agricultural workers—occupations in which many African Americans were employed.

Within four years Social Security extended benefits to widows and orphans. In 1950, Congress added coverage for domestic and agricultural laborers. Disability insurance was also added in the fifties, and Medicare in the mid-1960s. In 1972, automatic cost-of-living increases began. Unemployment Insurance has been less expandable, but groups previously excluded became covered in 1970 when Congress also provided for automatic extensions of benefits during recessions when many workers are laid off.

Social Security Poster 1935

Social Security Poster 1935
Social Security was funded entirely by payroll taxes.

Headed by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the Social Security Act, recognized that “employment assurance” was the key to economic security. The committee acknowledged that public-work programs might be necessary not only during periods of economic depression, but during normal times as well. Roosevelt and Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins considered creating a permanent government employment program for those still jobless after receiving short-term unemployment compensation.

Ultimately, the government settled on permanent, short-term Unemployment Insurance as part of the Social Security Act, and a temporary employment program—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people and vastly enriched the country’s physical, social, and cultural resources. The WPA was terminated during World War II when job creation became temporarily unnecessary. Thus, Perkins wrote in the mid-1940s, “Unemployment Insurance stands alone as the only protection for people out of work.”

What might Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Perkins have said when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, many jobless workers collected extended unemployment benefits instead of getting paid to restore the country’s decaying infrastructure, making our economy and planet more sustainable, and providing sorely needed social services?

Ida May Fuller, 1940

Ida May Fuller, 1940
Ida May Fuller was the first to receive a monthly Social Security check. She received $22.54.

Nearly seven years after the Great Recession 20 million people remain jobless or are forced to work part time. The proportion of working-age people working or actively looking for work is the lowest since 1976.

Federal legislation pending in Congress comes close to completing the Social Security edifice begun 80 years ago. The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment & Training Act, http://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/jobs introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) commits the U.S. to full employment at a living wage, paid for by a small tax on financial transactions. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH) bill for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps http://kaptur.house.gov/images/114th-Kaptur-CCC-bill.pdf would, like its famous New Deal predecessor, create needed jobs dedicated to preserving and restoring the nation’s resources.

Let’s observe Social Security’s 80th birthday by taking steps toward employment assurance—jobs—the keystone of economic security.