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Social Responsibility for Individual Welfare

Social Responsibility for Individual Welfare

by Eleanor Roosevelt, A Presentation at the National Policies for Educational Health and Social Services, 1955Eleanor Roosevelt[View Image]
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Eleanor Roosevelt

I am happy that in this remarkable conference that has been called to celebrate and to deepen the thinking and knowledge of our people throughout the country on these subjects, we should have the stress laid on this particular subject: “Social Responsibility for Individual Welfare.”

Every woman is proud that the first woman to be in the Cabinet to head a Department of Social Welfare is Mrs. Oveta Culp Hobby, and we know that she will have the backing of the women of this country in every struggle to really bring to the people of the country a greater sense of welfare and opportunity and justice in the life of our land.

Now, it has come about that when you talk about the welfare state as a rule people think that that is a rather derogatory term—that a welfare state is somehow not a good thing. But if we could just change it around a little and say that we believed that society included the government, the individuals themselves as individuals, and all other groups—universities, the people who form the policies, the industrialists, the people who guide commerce, industry, and agriculture—if we thought of them altogether as working together to increase the welfare of the individual, then we would cease, I think, to have fear of just the mere words “a welfare state.” We would have a truer conception of what the words really mean.

It is basic in a democracy that leadership for the welfare of the people as a whole must come from government. It is true that we pride ourselves on holding the reins of government, but we need leadership. We need a voice to define our aims, to put into words the things we want to achieve; and so we look to government to do just that—so that we do not stand still but move forward. Just as Alice in Wonderland had to run very fast to stay in the same place, we must run even faster to stay in the same place, and we have to do even more in order to go forward. We will go backward unless we go forward.

My husband used to say that we progressed by crises, that when the crisis was so bad that we wondered how we were going to meet it, then we were ready to try something new, to try something that perhaps we would otherwise have hesitated to undertake.

When sometimes I hear it said that in my husband’s time we started something dreadful, something which they called “creeping socialism,” I wonder whether instead we didn’t really face the fact that a democracy must meet the needs of its people, and whether what we did was not actually to save democracy, to save free enterprise, to keep for ourselves as much freedom as we possibly could. Had we not met the needs of the people, we might have waked up and found ourselves not just in creeping socialism, but perhaps going actually to the far extremes of either fascism or communism, because we could not find a way to meet the needs of the people.

As I have been around the world it has seemed to me that we in this country, when we talk of capitalism or free enterprise, should explain what we mean, because there are many areas of the world in which it is not at all understood what we actually mean when we talk of our own capitalism, of our own development in the past thirty years or forty years, let us say.

We have had great changes, but they have been the changes which had to come if our people were to have a chance for full development. To be sure some of the things were very new; now they seem very old. I can remember when we started old-age pensions. Now the idea is not very shocking to us—a mutual contribution towards this security in old age. We started care for the blind and the crippled. Many said that it was simply a humanitarian gesture, but it was more than that. It is real insurance so that they will not remain a burden on society. That is why we continue to develop the employment of the crippled and the blind. We continue to find useful ways of using people, even handicapped people.

Old-age pensions, as now accepted, are contributed to throughout the working life of every individual. Care for the blind and the crippled may sound completely humanitarian, but on the contrary it is really an insurance so that society will not have an obligation to carry handicapped people as a complete burden. In the underdeveloped areas of the world the only thing open to the handicapped individual is to beg. We not only try to extend the best medical care but we try to train these individuals to earn a living, and we are constantly working with industries to open occupations to trained handicapped people, while many industries also have undertaken training programs of their own. This whole program eliminates a burden from society, just the same as pensions do which are paid for during the working life of an individual.

We believe in unemployment insurance. We know that it is not perfect in operation. We know that a number of things that are done for general welfare are not perfect in the way they work out, but that it would be unwise to wipe out the whole of something because there needed to be certain reforms and changes. It was felt that as we went along we would realize that unemployment insurance was not just for the benefit of the individual; it was for the benefit of our economy. It was to try to keep us from having debacles, from actually having buying power so reduced as to hurt the economy of the nation as a whole. It is part of our economic insurance.

There are many things that, just like freedom, we must constantly be studying and watching when we do things for the welfare of people, because we do not want to remove from people their sense of responsibility and initiative. We want them to feel that they are partners in each thing that we do, that if they function in a democracy, then what their government does comes from them. They acquiesce, they work it out, and they must not lose initiative.

We have not completely solved the unemployment problem because it is still open to abuses. It is safeguarded to some extent by the fact that government offices try to find jobs for people within their range of employment, which they are expected to accept. But many people have had the experience of knowing individuals who took advantage of unemployment insurance when they really could have obtained work. The law was not written to encourage such people, and so ways should be sought to eliminate existing loopholes so that it would be impossible to get unemployment insurance unless one is unable to find work in a field where one is competent.

All these social measures were designed to protect society from sudden fluctuations in the economy and to protect the individual from situations beyond his control which he could not completely handle by himself. They were designed as cooperative measures between the individual and his government, which, I think, is a step forward. They should not tend to remove initiative from people nor keep them from feeling a sense of individual responsibility and ambition.

The advantage of a democracy over the socialist state would seem to be a greater freedom, which provides for the development of the individual for free choice of a way of life and for a sense on the part of the individual of participation in the decisions made which affect his life and his future. His government tries to remove from the individual a fear of want so that he may be freer to fully develop, but it does not countenance a stepping in of government to take over the major part of the responsibility for man’s existence.

I was struck in France by the difference between our philosophy and theirs, which are still miles apart. They do not think that it is important that a man earn a living wage. We do. I think it is the basis of the welfare of the individual.

Under the social-security system of France nearly every employer pays his employees less than a living wage. He pays from 35 to 50 per cent of the wage, not to the employee, but into a caisse or fund managed by the government and distributed under government auspices to families according to their size. Under this system a man with five or six children receives a considerable sum more from the government than he earns. In a democracy like ours we think it important for industry to be so organized that a man receives wages commensurate with his work and on which he can support his family. In other words, what we hope to ensure to every individual is an ability to earn a living, and the benefits of a welfare state are simply auxiliary to meet emergencies and to help a human being to meet situations that may arise in his life which he ordinarily could not meet alone.

There I was told very calmly, “Oh, but you do not understand our system. We know we don’t insist upon a living wage, but the government gives to families, according to the number of children, an allowance. If you have five or six children you might almost as well not work because the government pays you so much more than you can possibly earn.”

We have to recognize that our type of capitalism in this country is different from what the same word connotes in some other countries. From the time of the last depression we have taken great strides in the recognition of the responsibility of government and industry to cooperate to prevent any disasters to the normal economy of the country. We have to be prepared to meet disasters caused by nature. These we expect the government to cooperate in meeting, but we recognize the responsibility of industry today as well as of the individual. We believe that together we should strive to give every individual a chance for a decent and secure existence and in evolving our social patterns we are trying to give both hope for better things in the future and security from want in the present.

Basically, all of us believe that where the people feel they have justice, opportunity, and freedom and can actually rely on the interest of their government and on the attitudes of society to help them achieve stabilization and as much security as one can ever count on in human life, there will be belief in the government and the security that no other isms will really undermine the faith in the ideas on which this country was founded.

We believe that together we should strive to give every individual a chance for a decent and secure existence; and in evolving our social patterns we are trying to give both hope for better things in the future and security from want as far as possible in the present.

These aims should not affect either the initiative of the individual or his sense of responsibility, but should give him a feeling of partnership in his government and with the economy of his country as a whole, which we hope will be a pattern that far transcends the economic pattern and the ideological promises that are made in parts of the world by Communism.

If we live and work for the basic ideals that our country was founded on and have justice and freedom, I think we need not have loyalty boards. We need not have inquisitions. We can trust that what we believe in and stand for will be strong enough so that we can trust each other and other people as a whole.

Source: Roosevelt, E. (1955). Social responsibility for individual welfare: National policies for educational health and social services.  In J.E. Russell (ed.), National policies for educational health and social services, pp. xxxv-xxxviii. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.


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