Cohen, Wilbur Joseph

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COHEN, WILBUR JOSEPH (1913–1987), U.S. social welfare authority. Born in Milwaukee, the son of Jewish immigrants, Cohen left his home in the early 1930s to attend the University of Wisconsin. He served with the U.S. Committee on Economic Security in 1934-35 and participated in the drafting of the Social Security Act. From 1936 to 1956 he was employed in the Social Security Administration and helped secure the adoption of measures that would provide for shared financing by the federal government and the states in programs for the aged, dependent children, the totally disabled, and the blind. Cohen was responsible for the passage by Congress in 1946 of legislation enabling the federal government to offer financial aid in hospital construction. He aided Jewish organizations in their support of social security and welfare legislation. In 1952–53 he advised the Israeli government when the state undertook the establishment of its own social security program.

For five years (1956–61) he was professor of public welfare at the University of Michigan, during which time he served as consultant to the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare and to the White House Conference on Aging. He returned to government service in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy appointed him assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. During the Johnson administration he was named undersecretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and saw the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid programs, which he had recommended three decades earlier. In 1968, he assumed the post of secretary of the department (1968–69). He initiated extensive changes in the department and reorganized its public health division. As a part of the reorganization, the National Institute of Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Library of Medicine were brought into a new agency called the Health Services and Mental Health Administration. In 1969, when President Johnson left office, Cohen assumed the position of dean of the University of Michigan's School of Education.

As one of the key players in the creation and expansion of the American welfare state, Cohen was dubbed by President Kennedy as "Mr. Social Security"; President Johnson praised him as the "planner, architect, builder, and repairman on every major piece of social legislation" [since 1935]; and the New York Times described him as "one of the country's foremost technicians in public welfare."

Cohen wrote extensively on the field of welfare. Papers he presented before the National Conference of Social Welfare appear in The Social Welfare Forum (1954, 1957, 1961). Among his books and articles are Readings in Social Security (with W. Haber, 1949); Retirement Policies in Social Security (1957); Social Security: Programs, Problems and Policies (with W. Haber, 1960); and "The Problem of Financing Social Services" in J.E. Russell's (ed.), National Policies for Education, Health and Social Services (1961). He was one of four contributors to Income and Welfare in the United States (1962). He wrote Toward Freedom from Want (with S.A. Levitan and R.J. Lampman, 1968), Social Security: Universal or Selective? (with M. Friedman, 1972), Demographic Dynamics in America (with C.F. Westoff, 1977), and The American Economy in Transition (1980). He also edited The New Deal Fifty Years After: A Historical Assessment (1984).


M.O. Shearon, Wilbur J. Cohen, the Pursuit of Power (19672), incl. bibl.; Business Week (March 30, 1968), 35f. add. bibliography: E.D. Berkowitz, Mr. Social Security: The Life of Wilbur J. Cohen (2000).

[Joseph Neipris /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]