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Remembering the woman who led the drive for Social Security, 85 years later

Frances Perkins was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt--the first woman to ever hold a cabinet office.

If an act of government can have a birthday, this is the birthday of a law that changed America. 85 years ago today, the Social Security law was signed, guaranteeing most Americans some level of support in their old age.

While we may take the card for granted nowadays as a requirement to get a job, 85 years ago, Social Security was a momentous change for Americans. That idea made clear by the leader of the Frances Perkins Center

“When the law passed, 50 percent of seniors were living in poverty, and if they had no families to take them in, they went to poorhouses,” says Sarah Peskin, board chair for the Center in Damariscotta. The Center was created to honor the life of the remarkable woman who conceived of the idea for social security and then worked to make it happen.

Frances Perkins was U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Roosevelt--the first woman to ever hold a cabinet office. In the depths of the 1930’s depression, she developed the idea for Social Security, then took it to FDR.

“The one thing he said is the dole. It shouldn’t be the dole,” says Peskin. 

So, FDR named a special commission of cabinet members, with Perkins leading them, to hammer out the details and get the plan through Congress. What they developed was the basics of the system we know today, with employers and workers paying into the system through the FICA tax, and the government managing it. FDR signed the law on August 14, 1935. Peskin pointed out it also included the creation of the basic unemployment system we know today.

Besides Social Security itself, France Perkins also matters to Maine because of the rambling farmhouse in Newcastle, known as the Perkins homestead. The Center says seven generations of the family live there, and Frances Perkins herself spent many summers in this house as both a child and adult. It's now part of the Perkins Center, and is a national historic landmark.

“She’s buried here. Her will says 'I Frances Perkins of Newcastle, Maine.' This is the place she considered home,” says Peskin.

The house will be repaired as needed and opened to the public as another part of the legacy of Frances Perkins and her family. At the Perkins Center, however, they say the true legacy is Social Security itself. Despite continuing political arguments about future funding needs,  it has helped many millions of American elders and still does.

AARP Maine says 242,000 Maine seniors currently receive benefits from Social Security, roughly 20 percent of Maine’s population.