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Remembering Social Security's Forgotten Shepherd

Aug 12, 2005 (Morning Edition)

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The Social Security program is one of President Franklin Roosevelt's most enduring legacies. On August 14 it will be 70 years since he signed the bill that brought Social Security to life.

Standing right behind him that day was Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor and the first woman to hold a Cabinet-level post. She was more than just window dressing for the ceremony. Perkins was the driving force behind this landmark legislation.

Biographer Penny Colman says Perkins — little-remembered today — loomed large in the political struggle to make Social Security a reality.

Perkins led the working team that created the Social Security plan, and steered the bill through Washington's treacherous political waters.

She was born on April 10, 1880, in Boston, Mass. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, earning degrees in 1902 and 1910. Her masters from Columbia was in sociology.

She spent her life fighting for social reform and workers' rights. After a number of positions in New York, including working for then-Gov. Roosevelt, she was appointed secretary of labor in 1933. Perkins served 12 years, longer than other secretary of labor.

She followed her Cabinet years with a stint on the United States Civil Service Commission. She resigned in 1952, after the death of her husband.

Frances Perkins died 13 years later, in 1965.

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Social Security Milestones

Aug. 14, 1935: Social Security Act signed into law November 1936: First Social Security numbers issued January 1937: Social Security taxes collected for the first time 1939: Law changed to provide survivor benefits and benefits for the retiree's spouse and children January 1940: Payment of regular monthly benefits begins 1956: Disability benefits added 1975: Cost of Living Allowances (COLAs) first paid 1984: Congress, the president and vice president, federal judges, many federal employees and most political appointees begin paying into the program

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