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Life Arts    H4'ed 2/14/10

My Old Age Benefit - My Childhood Heroine

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Message Margaret Bassett
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As a schoolgirl, I got shivers thinking about what old people would do if they had no place to go when they couldn't work--the Poor Farm, they called it. By the time I was in college we had what is known as Social Security. Others told me OAB funds were deducted from their paychecks at the rate of 1%. It was years before I saw deductions because I worked for non-profit or educational institutions.

So many changes have been written into Social Security law since its inception. Here we will see mostly the influence Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins made during the New Deal era.

Columbia University writes about the Francis Perkins Center at Brick House in Newcastle, Maine, where Perkin' parents came from,and where they returned every summer. There is a collection at their Rare Book & Manuscript Library. A special exhibit will conclude next month.

Born on April 10, 1880 Fannie Coralie Perkins, daughter of a stationer, enrolled in Mount Holyoke in 1898 where she became president of her class. She studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania before taking up a master's course in Economics and Sociology at Columbia. As an undergraduate she was influenced by Jacob Riis' "How the Other Half Lives." At the age of 30 she became Secretary of the New York City Consumers' League. The next year she married a man who worked for a man who became mayor of New York City. They had a daughter, whose son became involved with the Brick House.

The notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 happened in Manhattan on Saturday, March 25. At the time Perkins was across at Washington Square Park and ran over to help. Her career flourished with the rising star of Al Smith, whose Catholicism deterred voters from putting him in the White House, but did allow him to be New York governor from 1918 until 1924. He attempted the US presidency and was defeated. Franklin Roosevelt became New York governor in 1928.

What is curious by modern standards of party politics was how Perkins was able to continue her work in Albany as Industrial Commissioner of New York up until the time of FDR's election to the White House in 1932. Perkins, starting with a social worker background modeled after Jane Adams and Jacob Riis, had the blessing of Theodore Roosevelt who recommended her to Al Smith for a job in Albany. She remained in Albany during Franklin Roosevelt's term and then was appointed for the entire time of FDR's presidency. Always interested in Social Security, she also worked on the evolution of the National Recovery Act, finally declared unconstitutional and later proposed in separate parts. Some important aspects of NRA included the National Labor Relations Board, wage and hours laws, and child labor regulationss. Curiously, the Department of Labor during Perkins' time was responsible for immigration matters. Think Harry Bridges and the connection seems more plausible.

In the first term of Roosevelt's administration there was a lot of unrest in labor unions--really in respect to most social issues. Just as now, there was bombast over what was American and what was socialist. Harry Bridges, an Australian legally admitted to the US, spearheaded much of the contempt for what the far right considered to be illegal, and they wanted Bridges deported. The court ruled otherwise but Perkins bore the brunt of criticism. On another ethnic hot button issue were the Bundists, due to Adolph Hitler's position. By the start of FDR's second term, the mood was changing, and it definitely changed after Pearl Harbor. In my opinion the current excesses heard about Tea Party members is mild in comparison. The one difference between the two eras was that labor organization was coming into a new dawning in the 30s. It was not a quiet time for Secretaries of Labor.

When Harry Truman took charge, he asked his entire cabinet to submit letters of resignation on July 1. Perkins was given to understand she would have another position. During the New Deal, she enjoyed nearly carte blanche on proposed legislation for Social Security. A lot of spade work had been finished. After World War II unions--AFL, CIO and UAW--were surging. Truman appointed her as one of the three Commissioner positions with Civil Service. Finally at the age of 72 and widowed, she returned to a life of writing and teaching. Ultimately she ended up at the well regarded Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations in Ithaca. She lived--still teaching--until 1965.
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Margaret Bassett passed away August 21, 2011. She was a treasured member of the editorial team for four years.

Margaret Bassett--OEN editor--is an 89-year old, currently living in senior housing, with a lifelong interest in political philosophy. Bachelors from State University of Iowa (1944) and Masters from Roosevelt University (1975) help to unravel important requirements for modern communication. Early introduction to computer science (1966) trumps them. It's payback time. She's been "entitled" so long she hopes to find some good coming off the keyboard into the lives of those who come after her.
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