Wilbur J. Cohen

Wilbur J. Cohen

Wilbur J. Cohen
7th United States Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare
In office
May 16, 1968 – January 20, 1969
President Lyndon B. Johnson
Preceded by John W. Gardner
Succeeded by Robert H. Finch
Personal details
Born Wilbur Joseph Cohen
June 10, 1913
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
Died May 17, 1987 (aged 73)
Seoul, South Korea
Resting place Garden of Memories Cemetery
Kerrville, Texas, United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Eloise Bittel Cohen
(m. 1938 - 1987, his death)
Children Christopher
Alma mater University of Wisconsin–Madison
Profession Government
Religion Jewish

Wilbur Joseph Cohen (June 10, 1913 – May 17, 1987) 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.


  • Early life and career 1
  • Kennedy and Johnson administrations 2
  • Later life and death 3
  • Books 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early life and career

Cohen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Bessie (née Rubenstein) and Aaron Cohen. He was known to 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. 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.

On April 8, 1938, Cohen married Eloise Bittel. They had three sons: Christopher, Bruce and Stuart.[1]

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.

Kennedy and Johnson administrations

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 he served as the U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1968, following the resignation of John W. Gardner.

He 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.

Later life and death

In 1969, Cohen retired at the end of a Johnson's administration. In 1970, Cohen served as the president of the American Public Welfare Association (renamed the American Public Human Services Association in 1997). In 1980 Cohen became a Professor of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.[2]

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Cohen was a professor of Public Welfare Administration and lived for many years, established the Wilbur J. Cohen Collegiate Professor of Social Work professorship in his honor.

He died while attending a gerontology conference in Seoul, South Korea, on May 17, 1987. He is interred at Garden of the Memories Cemetery in Kerrville, Texas.


  • 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 978-0-89940-416-5.
  • Social Security: Universal or Selective? Wilbur J. Cohen and Milton Friedman, co-authors. Washington: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. 1972. [2]
  • 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 978-0-88099-136-0.
  • Wilbur J. Cohen: the pursuit of power; a bureaucratic biography. Marjorie O'Connell Shearon. Shearon Legislative Service. 1967.
  • Mr. Social Security: The Life of Wilbur J. Cohen. Edward D. Berkowitz.[3] Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1995 hardcover edition: ISBN 0-7006-0707-2, ISBN 978-0-7006-0707-5.


  1. ^ Fitzhugh Mullan (5 October 1988). "Interview with Dr. Philip Randolph Lee". History of Health Services Research Project,  
  2. ^ Saxon, W. Wilbur Cohen, Leading Architect Of Social Legislation, Dies at 73. New York Times May 19, 1987. p. D30.
  3. ^ Edward D. Berkowitz.  
  • Social Security Administration profile
  • Guide To Social Security Archives, Papers of Wilbur Cohen
  • Kansas Press book on him
  • Site on LBJ's cabinet
  • Literacy Connections list of publications by Wilbur J. Cohen

External links

  • Find-A-Grave profile for Wilbur J. Cohen
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