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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 779

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This is the grave of Isaac Rubinow.

Born in 1875 in Russia, Rubinow immigrated to the U.S. in 1893, escaping the anti-Semitism of his home nation. He went to Columbia University and became a doctor. He specialized in helping out the poor in New York. But he saw so much poverty and misery around him. He figured he could do more to help these people by fighting poverty than by using his medical skills. So he did. In the meantime, he also became an American correspondent for Russian newspapers. He was also a terrible doctor from a business standpoint because instead of charging his poor patients, he would give them his money to help them. So he went back to Columbia for advanced work in economics and statistics.

Rubinow worked as an insurance actuary to pay the bills while he figured out how to change America. Extraordinarily brilliant and competent at all he did, in 1914 he played a critical role in the founding of Casualty Actuarial and Statistical Society of America, which is today Casualty Actuary Society. Rubinow was the first president. In 1916, he was elected as a fellow in the American Statistical Association. He used his insurance actuary expertise to argue for what would become Social Security. In 1915, he gave a speech to his fellow insurance men that it just made sense for the government to understand the basic ideas of their field and take steps to minimize risk that would pay off for the entire economy. This was of course true. It would also take the rest of his life to convince people in power it was true. He was influenced in his beliefs here by Jewish traditions of mutual assistance, though it’s worth noting here that many immigrant groups provided these sorts of things when they came to the U.S., to provide for a decent burial if nothing else.

Rubinow started writing for Progressive journals such as Survey, though he found Progressives’ insistence on voluntarism quite frustrating. By the 1910s, he was already criticizing Progressives for not understanding that the state was necessary for fixing social crises and that voluntarism was no solution at all. In 1913, he wrote “the progressive social worker must learn to understand that a sickness insurance law” would do more to fight poverty “than a dozen organizations for scientific philanthropy with their investigations, their sermons on thrift, and their constant feverish hunt for liberal contributions.” Ouch. He provided what was probably the first course on social insurance ever offered, teaching for awhile at the New York School of Philanthropy. Rubinow was a socialist and most Progressives were not. He stated that his fellow Progressives “are afraid of a change,” and this is true. There was a lot of fundamental conservatism in the wealthy WASPs who dominated the Progressive movement. They were interested in reform to save America for themselves and that meant a strong belief in voluntarism and capitalism by most of them, just maybe with a little regulation.

In 1913, Rubinow wrote the first major book on the need for social insurance. Titled Social Insurance: With Special Reference to American Conditions, it became a textbook for reformers and helped to shape debates on what the American welfare state could look like for decades. In this, he brought his insurance background, explaining how social risk could be managed in any number of fields, from old age and death to unemployment. He also showed how poverty is not a personal failing, which so many Americans still want to believe today (including many who are in poverty!) but rather that it is something the perpetuates itself over time and generations. He had influence pretty quickly. For instance, Ohio formed a commission to study the idea of unemployment insurance, building on Rubinow’s ideas that individual firms could not protect their workers from the risks inherent in the modern economy, but the state could.

Rubinow went on to combine an expertise in agricultural issues with a broader intellectual project on how to prevent poverty. In terms of the former, he ended up working for the Department of Agriculture, where he wrote an important study on the growth of wheat in Russia and how its growing export markets would impact the U.S.

The 1920s were not great for Rubinow. Progressivism and socialism were in decline and it was an era dominated by the free market fundamentalism that Rubinow was dedicated to fighting. He was deeply frustrated and isolated from the leading figures of the time.

And then the Great Depression happened.

One thing the Depression did, for all its horrors, was give Rubinow hope that his ideas would finally come to fruition. He wrote in 1933 that the “great American bubble of private philanthropy as a basis for social justice–one might say the great American substitute for social policy–has finally been burst.”

In 1934, Rubinow published The Quest for Security. This effectively restated many of the arguments that he had been making for over twenty years. But this time, the nation was ready to listen. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and the New Deal was happening rapidly. Key liberals in the administration such as Rexford Guy Tugwell and Henry Wallace were pressing for the kinds of big social programs that Rubinow had long demanded. The time was right. And he hit the jackpot with it. The book came out just as the issue of old age insurance was hitting both the political and cultural zeitgeist. Francis Townsend’s big demands for old age insurance were attracting huge numbers of supporters. In 1937, Leo McCarey, a noted conservative, would make his masterpiece film Make Way for Tomorrow, demonstrated the horrors of what happened to old people who could no longer support themselves. This all led to the Social Security Act that Roosevelt in 1935.

At the very end of his life, after Roosevelt had signed the Social Security Act, Rubinow was in the hospital. While in his hospital bed, he was reviewing documents to defend the constitutionality of the SSA. Shortly before his death, Roosevelt actually sent Rubinow a copy of The Quest for Security thanking Rubinow for influencing him. Rubinow, so out of the center of power for so long as Americans went through their obsession with voluntarism up to the point of the nation breaking apart, could die knowing the huge difference he had made in American history. He did not live to see the rise of unemployment insurance with the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, unfortunately. He died in 1936.

Isaac Rubinow is buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, Queens, New York.

I don’t usually rely so heavily on a single book for information on someone, but Mike Konczal’s excellent new book Freedom from the Market goes into significant detail on Rubinow and that’s where all the juicy quotes come from.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other people who helped lead to New Deal policies, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Francis Townsend is in Los Angeles and Benjamin Cohen is in Muncie, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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