Edwin Witte possessed a rare gift: the ability to understand society’s needs and craft complex public policies to address them.
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The Jefferson County native was born in the unincorporated community of Ebenezer, Wisconsin. Recognizing a very bright student, Witte’s parents sent him to nearby Watertown for high school. His studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison led to a focus on economics, and upon graduation, he began working for state government — his foray into progressive politics and his chance to embrace the Wisconsin Idea.
For more than a decade, Witte served as chief of the Wisconsin Legislative Research Library, helping legislators draft potential laws. He was a strong proponent of data, believing that one could make a persuasive argument by “studying facts, not for their own sake, but to solve problems and to make this a better world to live in.”
After joining the faculty of his alma mater, Witte took on a remarkable challenge. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked him to lead an effort to develop “social insurance” for those facing economic hardship during the Great Depression — and FDR wanted it done within six months.
Witte believed that facts exist “to make this a better world to live in.”
Witte met the deadline, he explained the ins and outs of the plan during four days of testimony before Congress, and Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. Today the act has evolved into programs that help millions of Americans by providing retirement pensions, assistance for the unemployed and the disabled, and aid to families with dependent children.
Although many called Witte “the father of Social Security,” he dismissed the title with characteristic humility. Developing and enacting legislation required multiple minds and a willingness to collaborate, he said.
Witte died in Madison in 1960, just a few weeks shy of Social Security’s silver anniversary.
Thank you, Jefferson County, for Edwin Witte, who transformed FDR’s hopes into a functional policy that made the lives of millions of Americans more secure.