The Faculty History Project documents faculty members who have been associated with the University of Michigan since 1837, and the history of the University's schools and colleges. This project is part of a larger effort to prepare resources for the University's bicentennial in 2017. Find out more.

The Bentley Historical Library serves as the official archives for the University.

Faculty Profile

Wilbur J. Cohen
The Michigan Alumnus 44

A Social Security expert, "
Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois
 once said, "is anyone who has
 Wilbur Cohen's telephone number."


The quip pays laconic tribute 
to a Michigan faculty member
 whose lifework touches every person in the United States.


Before coming to Michigan in
 1956 as professor of public welfare administration, Cohen spent 
22 years in the inner circles of
 Washington bureaucracy—acting 
as an adviser to Presidents Roose
velt, Truman and Eisenhower, 
and representing the United
 States at several international
 conferences on Social Security.


Prof. Cohen was one of the
 original architects of the Social
 Security Act of 1935 and served 
as technical adviser to the chair
man of the Social Security Board
 and the Commissioner for Social 
Security from 1935-1952.


He left a position as Director 
of Research and Statistics for the
 Social Security Administration to 
enter the academic world. Michi
gan attracted him because of its 
proximity to Detroit ("It's a natu
ral place to study employment 
and unemployment problems") 
and because he regarded it as "the 
best school in the country for 
work in the areas of social wel
fare policy and care of the aged."
 He appreciates the opportunities 
for cross-fertilization of ideas and
 co-ordination of work with per
sonnel in the University's School
 of Social Work, School of Public 
Health, School of Business Ad
ministration, and Survey Research Center.


On the Ann Arbor campus,
 Prof. Cohen's job is to train graduate students in the School of So
cial Work for positions in re
search and administration of pub
lic welfare programs. It is a field 
of enormous importance to the so
cial weal, and to taxpayers. About
 one-tenth of the gross national
 product—an estimated $55,000,
000,000—is spent annually by 
business and government for pub
lic welfare and medical care pro
grams.


But Prof. Cohen's special inter
est is in funneling information 
from his own research into the 
hands of legislators. He considers 
this "conduit between pure research academicians and politi
cians" indispensable in the forma
tion of sound welfare program 
policies.


Congressional groups call upon 
him frequently for consultation. 
In recent years he has returned to
 Washington to testify before the 
House Ways and Means Commit
tee, the Senate Finance Commit
tee, the Senate Labor and Pub
lic Welfare Committee, and the
 Senate Sub-committee on Aging 
and the Aged. Next month he
 will appear before the Senate
 Sub-committee on Automation
 and Unemployment.


In the realm of politics he is on 
the 14-man "personal advisory
 council" of the Democratic presi
dential candidate, Sen. John F.
 Kennedy.


Prof. Cohen, a gentle and gre
garious person who attacks his
 work with missionary zeal, be
lieves poverty will be abolished in
 America with the next 25 years. 
 He advocates strengthening the 
contributory social insurance pro
grams to reduce the need for re
lief, and more university research 
funds to study ways to eliminate
 dependency. He says at least half 
the cost of direct county relief 
should be paid from federal tax
 sources to reduce the burden on 
local property taxes.


Born in Milwaukee in 1913, he 
began his career following gradu
ation from the University of Wis
consin in 1934. He is a member 
of England's Royal Society of
 Health, the American Public Wel
fare Association, American Eco
nomic Association, and the Amer
ican Public Health Association.