Wednesday, April 10, is the birthday of Frances Perkins, the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet. Remarkably, she took this historic step just over a decade after women won the right to vote.
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, she was instrumental in the creation of Social Security. She also played a key role in the enactment of other labor protections, including the minimum wage. A fighter for universal national health insurance, she died just 10 weeks before the important first step of Medicare was signed into law.
Like the other founders of Social Security, Perkins understood Social Security to be, in the words of Roosevelt, “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” In a radio address Perkins gave in 1935, when Social Security was before Congress, she too explained that the program was simply a first step to be expanded upon in future years:
“If put into effect…[the Social Security legislation] will provide a greater degree of security for the American citizen and his family than he has heretofore known. The bill is, I believe, a sound beginning on which we can build by degrees to our ultimate goal.
“We cannot hope to accomplish all in one bold stroke.”
In 1960, at the 25th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Social Security Act, Perkins analogized Social Security to a growing child:
“I think… that as we stand here, and as we sit here and think about this precious child we want to see it grow. It has grown enormously in these years, it has improved… but there is yet much that needs to be done…”
On April 10, the anniversary of Perkins’ birth, two different events taking place on Capitol Hill will mark important next steps toward that not yet completed vision. One is a hearing in the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, focused on expanding Social Security. [Author Nancy Altman is one of several witnesses who will be testifying.] The other is the introduction of the Medicare for All Act of 2019 in the U.S. Senate.
The hearing will focus on several proposals Democrats have introduced to expand Social Security, just as Perkins envisioned in 1935. These proposals include the Social Security 2100 Act, which is sponsored by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee. This bill, which is co-sponsored by over 85 percent of House Democrats, would address our nation’s looming retirement income crisis by increasing benefits across the board. It also includes additional targeted benefit increases. Larson intends to bring the Social Security 2100 Act to the House floor for a vote this spring.
It is just as appropriate that the Medicare for All introduction is happening on Perkins’ birthday. Making high-quality health care a right for all was one of the chief causes that Perkins fought for throughout her life.
The Senate Medicare for All bill is sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and co-sponsored by over a dozen other senators including Sanders’ fellow 2020 presidential contenders Kamala Harris (D-CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).
Like the House version introduced on February 27, this bill improves the current Medicare system by adding long-term care services, as well as hearing, vision, and dental treatments and devices. Both bills lower drug prices. They eliminate all premiums, co-pays and deductibles, and they extend the successful, efficient and popular Medicare program to everyone. Medicare coverage now extends to the grave. These bills will have coverage start at the cradle.
Expanded Social Security and Medicare are important building blocks on the foundation laid down in 1935. It is important to recognize that Perkins and her contemporaries in FDR’s administration had a much broader definition of Social Security than the one we use today. They used the term as a synonym for economic security.
Perkins knew that the base of economic security is a good-paying job. She understood that to achieve security, workers need a strong minimum wage, maximum hours, and the right to collectively bargain. All of us need housing and education. We need insurance against the loss of wages. And we need the assurance that if faced with an illness, we or our loved ones will receive high-quality treatment without being faced with destitution to pay for it. To be economically secure, we must have universal, guaranteed health care.
As we fight to expand Social Security and to improve Medicare and expand it to all, we also fight for a $15 minimum wage nationwide, for sick pay, vacation pay, paid parental leave, short-term disability benefits, and so much more to make the vision of the Social Security founders a reality.
All of this was essential to Perkins’ view of economic security. In a 1962 speech at Social Security headquarters, she described her response to FDR when he asked her to become his secretary of labor:
“Before I was appointed, I had a little conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn’t want me to be the secretary of labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance.”
As we continue to fight for Perkins’ vision, her life should both inspire us and drive us forward to success. We are confident that is the best birthday present we could give her.