In a Quite Practical Way: The Political Origins of Social Security Unemployment Insurance Policy
AbstractIn the winter of 1930, Franklin Roosevelt requested that six of his fellow governors join him in Albany to discuss the relief and prevention of unemployment across the region. Governor Roosevelt stressed in his invitation, delivered from Warm Springs, that this ‘Interstate Conference on Unemployment’ would necessarily involve discussion of “large social and business problems as well as matters of definite legislation.” The presentations, conversations, and debate that occurred over these few short days in January 1931 were a major milestone in the formulation of a national unemployment insurance policy in the United States. While it has been largely overlooked in New Deal historiography, the Albany conference would both reflect the shifting political landscape of the early nineteen thirties and in some significant ways shape the perceptions of this collection of future New Deal policy makers.
I argue that the interstate conference itself reflected a shift in the political debate surrounding unemployment insurance in three district ways. First, the conference represented a willingness on the part of the elected leadership of seven major eastern, industrialized states to study the historical and theoretical underpinning of a robust unemployment insurance apparatus. Secondly, it provided the opportunity for Roosevelt himself, along with a broad set of future policy architects of the New Deal, to begin coalition building around the issue of unemployment insurance. Finally, the conference marked a pivot in Roosevelt’s own attitude—from viewing unemployment insurance as an undesirable “dole” project, toward a broad acceptance of permanent governmental intervention.
In Albany, some of the most progressive political minds of the era would gather to present the historical background and discuss the feasibility of a public unemployment insurance program to a broad collection of state executives. The governors had come from Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. The subjects discussed ranged from domestic and foreign experiences in managing unemployment reserve funds to the very constitutionality of an unemployment insurance system.
Frances Perkins, future Secretary of Labor, had led the organization of the conference in addition to securing the presence of many of its more policy-minded attendees. Paul Douglas, the University of Chicago economist and future United States senator, had led the development of the content with which the attendees would be presented. A collection of lesser known yet pivotal figures in the future New Deal Administration had also been key to the Albany Conference. These included the future chair of the National Recovery Administration Labor Advisory Board Leo Wolman, future Public Works Administration executive advisor Aaron Rabinowitz and future SSA unemployment insurance advisor Henry Bruère. With the input of these thought leaders, the end result of these few short days of conversations was both a progressive policy statement on the need for regional cooperation in developing an unemployment insurance program and bolster the political platform from which it might be achieved.
In order to construct the historical narrative surrounding the Albany Conference, this piece will make use of the available transcripts of the conference itself, written records of the attendees, and coverage by both the local and national media.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:37945097