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Cohen, Wilbur J.: Correspondence

Wilbur J. Cohen’s Correspondence

By Edward Berkowitz, Ph.D., Professor of History and Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University, Washington, DC

Note: What follows is excerpted from the many documents that comprise the Wilbur Cohen Papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. Cynthia Knight, an archivist there, recently completed the job of cataloging these papers, which promise to be a rich source of information on the history of social welfare policy.

Edwin Witte to Wilbur Cohen, August 4, 1934 (after Cohen had applied
for a job with the Committee on Economic Security)

I have not answered your telegram of July 31 because I have very
uncertain as to the general direction our work will take and the staff
we will need. The time element is so short that we can not engage in
any extensive research work; rather the job is one of outlining the
possibilities in the field of social insurance and then formulating the
details of the plan which the cabinet committee and the President
decide should be presented to the next Congress. For this we need
primarily specialists in the various fields of social insurance,
actuaries, and lawyers. It is probable that we have places for a small
number of staff people to assist our specialists in any research they
may wish to undertake but we can not select these secondary staff
people until the specialists are employed, as secondary people must be
agreeable to them… I have a very high opinion of your ability and
think you could do a great deal of work for us in the next months which
would be very useful. But you of course can not rate as a specialist and
there is the further difficulty that you are from Wisconsin. There are already
so many people from Wisconsin connected with this work that we have to be
careful in employing many more people from our state. Frankly, however,
I hope that I will be able to find a place for you and I will let you
know as soon as I have something definite to offer.

Cohen to his parents, Tuesday evening, August 14, 1934

Well, I’ve finished my second day of work! I have been quite
conscientious these past two days to find out what I am supposed to do
and the most efficient, rapid, and intelligent way it can be done. I
have not yet succeeded very well but I hope to as soon as I get better
acquainted and institutionalized… I only have to wok 39 hours a week.
From 9 to 5 each day (with one hour off for lunch) and from 9 to 1 on
Saturdays. I have been working 8:30 to 6 to get acquainted… Mr. Witte
is awfully kind. He took me to dinner today and is most informative on
what is going on in the government. As we were going down in the
elevator this noon, he met Prof. Rexford Guy Tugwell, Ass. Sect. of the
Treasury, the head of the “Brain Trust” who he will confer with on
plans for passing a legislative program of social insurance…. I have
moved now to 1744 P. St., NW, where I have an exceptionally clean,
quite, cozy, room for $3.50 a week with all linens. It in a very nice
section, right off DuPont Circle, only 15 minutes walk to the office…
I have met a great many Wisconsin people here and consequently
am not isolated. Tonight I met 3 new Wisconsin people I hadn’t seen
in some time; this afternoon 2; total 5 for the day. Several work
right in the same office building with me so I have get acquainted quite easily….

Cohen to his parents, August 20, 1934

My office address is the following: Committee on Economic Security,
1734 New York Avenue, NW… I took my oath of office today and also
received my appointment which expires at least before June, 1935. I
expect my work will be over much before that time, perhaps even by
Christmas–but we shall have to wait to see about that…. Now I am
preparing digests on the Social Insurance systems of Russia and Italy.
The reading is fine and I enjoy it. Besides, I can put my fingers on
other sources of government material which will help me in other lines
of work I am interested in. For instance, I have obtained case reports
on the NRA, court decisions affecting labor, the Congressional hearings
on the Wagner Bill etc, etc., The contacts, of course, are valuable.

Cohen to his parents, August 25, 1934

I only work from 9 to 1 on Saturdays, so I came home this afternoon and
slept a couple of hours. I have been reading a report on Old Age
Pensions this evening …. I started working today on an analysis of
the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan. Dad will probably
remember that the biscuit man spoke to me of it one day in the
store and showed me the booklet put out by this Dr. Townsend of
California. The plans sees to have many enthusiasts just like the Biscuit man.
Every day we get a dozen letters sent over from the White House to answer
for the President regarding old age pensions. The Pacific Coast is all
enthusiastic about the plan, but of course the provisions of the plan
are fantastic and absurd. It would be impossible to get the plan
through Congress, even then it would undoubtedly be declared
unconstitutional and if it did surmount these obstacles it could never
be put in operation because not enough revenue could be produced to pay
the fantastic benefits of $200 a month… So I have the job of analyzing
the plan and showing the economic and social absurdities of the plan.
Consequently, the work is drilling me in fundamentals of economics and law…
Mr. Witte outlined my work this morning for the next few weeks. I will
prepare a survey of the unemployment insurance system of Switzerland
and a compilation of all the forms of social insurance in all foreign countries,
then an analysis of the arguments on the Wagner-Lewis unemployment
insurance bill at the last Congress, etc., etc…
The work is certainly should prove to be very interesting. …

Cohen to his brother, Darwin Cohen, October 15, 1934

I really meant to write you sooner but I’ve been busy with “economic
security” and with ever so many other things. There are people to meet
and to know and places to see–and since I have a little money now I
try to take in as much as possible yet saving some in order to return
to school, sometime…. There are many Wisconsin people here and
everyone else is friendly too…And so much to talk about, unemployment
insurance, old age pensions, unemployment estimates, strikes, unionism,
labor injunctions etc, etc. It’s a grand time and a grand place–and to
get paid for doing and seeing and hearing it all is like feeding a
candy baby.

Cohen to his parents, November 22, 1934

I am sorry about not writing more frequently but in the hurry of
official work, meetings, lectures etc. there is but little time to come
to write a letter. I just attended a union meeting (I’m a member of
Lodge No. 139 American Federation of Government Employees affiliated to
the American Federation of Labor) and I came home to write you this
line, then to have some dinner and back to work. I’m compiling so many
charts and tables on the older worker that I’m beginning to really
learn how to manipulate statistical techniques….Supposedly our jobs
end December 1. But perhaps we will be kept on if the President decides
he needs more information. I’ll let you know what I’ve decided to do
when I get some information myself. I’ll probably stick around here
anyway for awhile….No, I haven’t been going to school because I felt
I could learn more putting the time in on my work. And I found that the
additional time spent on my work was well spent. I’ve been learning a
lot of new things–that one can’t learn in school.

Source: Wilbur Cohen Papers at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. 

How to Cite this Article (APA Format). Berkowitz, E. (2011). Wilbur J. Cohen’s Correspondence. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

One Reply to “Cohen, Wilbur J.: Correspondence”

  1. Aiden Cohen says:

    Thank you for archiving these conversations. My grandfather saved everything! I am getting so much joy and knowledge about WJC. Thank you! Happy 2018!!


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