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Abraham Epstein

Abraham Epstein

Abraham Epstein (1892-1945) was an economist whose dedication and hard work for the underpriviledged led to the Social Security Act of 1935.

A pioneer of the American social-insurance movement, Abraham Epstein was born in Luban, near Pinsk, Russia, and came to the United States at the age of eighteen. He lived in New York City and worked at factory jobs for one and one-half years, until a friend got him a job teaching Hebrew in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Soon after his arrival, he walked into an exclusive private boys' school, asked about enrollment, passed the entrance examination, and won a tuition scholarship to attend East Liberty Academy. Another scholarship enabled him to enter the University of Pittsburgh, where he received a B.S. in 1917. That same year he became an American citizen.

Commission on Old Age Pensions

Epstein continued to do graduate work in economics at the university and conducted a detailed survey of employment and housing conditions of Pittsburgh's black population. This study, The Negro Migrant in Pittsburgh (1918), won him offers of several university fellowships, but he instead took a position at the Pennsylvania Commission on Old Age Pensions. He remained there until 1927, securing the passage of a state-financed old-age-pension program in 1923, despite vigorous business opposition. The pension act was declared unconstitutional in 1924, and before the decision could be appealed, the commission had been disbanded.

Social Insurance

After leaving the commission, Epstein founded the American Association for Old Age Security in 1927, which changed its name to the American Association for Social Security in 1933. By 1927 he had published several books on aging and lectured widely for social welfare and unions. Epstein led one of the two dominant groups favoring social insurance in the 1930s: he advocated government-financed programs aimed at redistributing wealth and caring for the underprivileged. The other, more conservative group, led by John D. Andrews, favored private social-insurance programs as a means of preventing suffering and poverty. The two approaches came into conflict during the Depression: Andrews's "American plan" was adopted in Wisconsin in 1932, and Epstein's "European plan" won in the New York State legislature in 1935.

Social Security Act

A rift between Andrews and Epstein resulted in the Roosevelt administration's failure to consult Epstein on the drafting of the Social Security Act of 1935, a blow from which he never recovered. He criticized the Social Security Act for failing to provide for government contributions, for leaving unemployment compensation to the states, and for the large reserve fund it set up that reduced spending power. Many of his criticisms still plague the program today.

Further Reading

New York Times, May 3, 1942, p. 43. □

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