Social Security "was basically invented" at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; "that's where Franklin Roosevelt got the idea."

Russ Feingold on Friday, October 7th, 2016 in a debate

Was Social Security 'basically invented' at the University of Wisconsin?

Democrat Russ Feingold is a former U.S. senator from Wisconsin. (Associated Press)

Social Security and Medicare reform could be front and center in 2017.

Key funds for Social Security are likely to be depleted by 2034, according to a June 2016 report, and Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund may be insolvent by 2028.

President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly said he would "save" Social Security, a program that will provide $900 billion in benefits to more than 60 million people in 2016  alone.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress — notably House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) — have their own plans, which could largely privatize Medicare.

In light of those challenges and policy differences, we returned to a statement about Social Security that struck us during the 2016 election.

It’s from Russ Feingold, who said in an October television interview during his U.S. Senate race that the idea for Social Security "was basically invented up on Bascom Hill, my alma mater here; that's where Franklin Roosevelt got the idea."

Is Feingold correct?

Social Security’s history
When we asked Feingold spokesman Josh Orton for backup, he pointed to several Wisconsinites and people tied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison — where Feingold graduated in 1975 — who were influential in developing Social Security. Among them:
  • Edwin Witte, a graduate of UW-Madison and economics professor there from 1933-1957. Roosevelt appointed Witte chairman of the Presidential Committee on Economic Security, which essentially crafted the plan for Social Security in 1935.

  • Arthur Altmeyer, a UW-Madison graduate and professor who also sat on the committee. Altmeyer later served on the federal Social Security Board and was the first Social Security commissioner. Roosevelt called Altmeyer "Mr. Social Security," according to the Social Security Administration.

  • UW-Madison professor John Commons, under whom Witte and Altmeyer studied. Commons was a labor economist at UW from 1904-1933 where he helped develop the state’s employee compensation program and civil service law. He was known as the "spiritual father of Social Security," according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

  • Wilbur Cohen, who served as a research assistant to Witte after graduating from UW-Madison in 1934. Cohen sat on the Committee on Public Administration of the Social Science Research Council and also advised the Social Security Board.

Current UW-Madison professor Pamela Herd agreed that Wisconsinites tied to the university were key figures in the development of Social Security.

"There were a lot of people involved in the creation of this program, but some of the most important players were from Wisconsin," said Herd, an expert on Social Security.

Our rating

Feingold said that the idea for Social Security "was basically invented up on Bascom Hill, my alma mater here; that's where Franklin Roosevelt got the idea."
Historical accounts show, and an expert agrees, that officials who helped propose and initially operate Social Security had deep ties to UW-Madison.
We rate Feingold’s statement True.