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Wilbur Cohen in 1965.

Wilbur Joseph Cohen (June 10, 1913, Milwaukee, Wisconsin – May 17, 1987, Seoul, South Korea) was an American social scientist and federal civil servant. He was one of the key architects in the creation and expansion of the American welfare state and was involved in the creation of both the New Deal and Great Society programs.

Wilbur Cohen was known by several nicknames. He was once dubbed "The Man Who Built Medicare" and John F. Kennedy tagged him "Mr. Social Security," although, it was Frances Perkins, the first woman Secretary of Labor (under FDR) who was the architect of social security. With The Social Security Act Perkins established unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and welfare for the poorest Americans. The New York Times called him "one of the country's foremost technicians in public welfare." Time portrayed him as a man of "boundless energy, infectious enthusiasm, and a drive for action." He was a leading expert on Social Security and a member of Americans for Democratic Action.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1934, Cohen moved to Washington, D.C. where he was a research assistant for the committee which drafted the Social Security Act.[1] Later, he was Director of the Bureau of Research and Statistics in charge of program development and legislative coordination with Congress for the Social Security Board (SSB), which was renamed the Social Security Administration in 1946.

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed Cohen Assistant Secretary for Legislation of Health, Education, and Welfare. President Lyndon B. Johnson elevated him to Under Secretary in 1965 and to U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1968. Also, in 1968 Florance Flast joined several others in filing suit against Wilbur Cohen, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, contending that spending funds on religious schools violated the First Amendment's ban on the establishment of religion. The district court denied standing, and the Supreme Court heard the appeal.

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Cohen was a professor of Public Welfare Administration and lived for many years with his wife Eloise and their sons Christopher, Bruce and Stuart, established the Wilbur J. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Social Work professorship in his honour. Wilbur Cohen died while attending a gerontology conference in Seoul, South Korea in 1987.


  • The Elimination of Poverty in the United States. Wilbur J. Cohen, 1963.
  • The Roosevelt New Deal: A Program Assessment Fifty Years After. Wilbur J. Cohen. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 1986 paperback edition: ISBN 0-89940-416-2, ISBN 978-0899404165.
  • Unemployment Insurance in the United States: The First Half Century. Saul J. Blaustein, Wilbur J. Cohen, William Haber, co-authors. Kalamazoo, Michigan: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. 1993 hardcover edition: ISBN 0-88099-136-4, ISBN 978-0880991360.


External links

Political offices
Preceded by
John W. Gardner
United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
May 16, 1968 - January 20, 1969
Succeeded by
Robert H. Finch


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