An address delivered by Professor Jacobus tenBroek
President, National Federation of the Blind
at the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Wilkes-Berry, Pennsylvania, July, 1940
Five years ago, in 1935, the Congress of the United States passed and the President of the United States signed what was widely regarded as the most progressive and humanitarian social legislation since the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution emancipated the slaves. Two years later, in 1937, the Supreme Court of the United States sustained this enactment against a charge of constitutional invalidity. Because the primary aim of this liberal legislation was security against certain of the major social and economic hazards of life, it was called the Social Security Act. It aspired to nothing less than protection against the pennilessness of unemployment, security against the destitution of age, and mitigation of the desolation of blindness. In its passage, the worker found release from apprehension, the aged found physical comfort, and the blind found hope.
After five years of experience with the Social Security Act, what has become of these lofty purposes that were thus expressed by the nation's Legislature, approved by its Chief Executive, and sanctified by its highest Court?
Ladies and gentlemen, I come before you tonight, in the first place, to say that so far as the blind are concerned the Social Security Act has not only failed to attain its plainly expressed goals but it has been used as a weapon to compel the states to treat their blind in a more niggardly fashion; and I come before you in the second place to proclaim to the wide world that the reason for this failure and the wielder of this weapon against you has been the Social Security Board at Washington. Proceeding in profound ignorance of the problems of the class with which it has dealt, moved by an intolerable authoritarian arrogance, the Social Security Board at Washington has constituted itself a supreme tribunal to judge whether the states are treating their blind badly enough. If they are not, these administrative despots in the nation's Capital apply compulsion by way of open threat and subversive action. So damaging have the activities of this Board become that it represents the greatest single menace to the welfare of the blind now in existence. Our salvation depends upon our ability to confine its operations within the limits of the law. Its unauthorized exercise of discretionary power must be terminated. This can only be accomplished by a militant, aggressive, group-conscious national organization of the blind. By this means we may diminish the Board's arrogance if we cannot reduce its ignorance.
To speak now more particularly, I levy three specific charges against the Social Security Board at Washington: First, it has unlawfully arrogated to itself the power to define the expression needy individuals who are blind as used in the Social Security Act; second, having illegally usurped this power, the Social Security Board has exercised it in a narrow, restrictive, and untenable way; third, the Social Security Board has arbitrarily, unlawfully, and oppressively insisted that the states, in order to gain or retain federal participation in their plans for aid to the blind, must determine need on an individual basis and not on a basis of legislatively fixed general standards.
(1)The illegality of the Board's assumed power to define the expression needy individuals who are blind in the Social Security Act can easily be demonstrated by a resort to the Congressional record. Title X of the Social Security Act which deals with the blind was amended into the Act by the Senate Finance Committee of which Senator Harrison was chairman. The report of the committee to the Senate and the statements of this chairman when introducing the Act were very emphatic as to the location of the authority to define the term needy individuals who are blind. Senator Harrison said, We have laid down the conditions (in the Act) and we leave to the states to say who shall be the persons selected to receive the federal assistance. As if to place the matter beyond all controversy or doubt as to the intention of Congress, Chairman Harrison made the following carefully worded statement: It must be recalled that when this proposal was first made to the Senate Finance Committee it gave much more power to officials in Washington, so far as pensions were concerned. The authorities were to pass on state plans with respect to amount of pensions, who should get pensions and so forth but we subsequently effected a complete change. I know it was the opinion of the Committee on Finance that the whole order should be changed and that the authority should be vested in the states. It is hard to imagine how the power of speech could be more accurately employed in describing what was within the mind of Congress.
Equally forceful is the procedural history. Under Section 1002 (a) of that Act a state plan for the blind must, in order to gain participation by the federal government, provide for seven specifically set forth conditions. In the Senate, Senator Wagner moved to amend Section 1001 (a) by adding two additional requirements which must be present in a state plan if it is to have federal approval. They were (8) provide that money payments to any permanently blind individual will be granted in direct proportion to his need; and (9) contain a definition of needy individuals which will meet the approval of the Social Security Board. The amendments were accepted by the Senate without discussion. However, when the Social Security Act reached the conference committee of the House and Senate for a resolution of their differences, these amendments were stricken out at the insistence of the House, and the Senatorial conferees readily concurred in the omission when attention was called to their significance. Is it possible that anything more illuminating could have been done? This procedural history indicates that amendments were framed and proposed for the purpose of compelling states to provide a definition of need which was satisfactory to the Social Security Board, and upon reflection these amendments were deliberately withdrawn from the Act. Hence it is not possible to have any doubt that Congress intended that the Social Security Board should not have the specific power which it now claims.
(2)The definition of a needy blind person which the Social Security Board has foisted upon a number of reluctant states and upon the outraged blind of the nation has been that he is one who lacks the physical necessities of life, one whose needs will be satisfied by the provision of a bare animal minimum in food, shelter, and clothes. Thus, according to the Social Security Board a needy blind person is one whose need is the same as that of paupers, indigents, and the aged, for concerning these latter the state intends only to relieve material poverty.
This definition must be rejected by anyone having even the slightest acquaintance with the needs of the blind. A needy blind person has a greater need than paupers, indigents, and the aged, because there are additional elements comprising it. Besides the physical necessities of life, his need consists in some fair utilization of his productive capacity. This can only be obtained by restoring him to economic competence in a competitive world. Without it his need will never have been terminated. With it he is a normal, useful, self-respecting citizen. Hence his need is as broad as the effects of his blindness. It can only be met by a rehabilitation that is social, economic, and psychological, and these are the objectives within the intentions of the legislatures of many of our states in their statutory schemes providing aid to the blind.
In order that the blind recipients of aid may enlarge their economic opportunities and may be rehabilitated into independent livelihood these statutory schemes provide that the blind may possess a certain amount of tangible and intangible assets and may accumulate a certain amount of earnings without penalty. These statutory schemes recognize that one of the purposes of aid to needy blind persons is to remove them from the class of needy blind persons and one of the means of enabling them to so remove themselves is to permit them a reasonable sum of personal property. They acknowledge that this, in the last analysis, must be the distinction between aid and relief. These state plans were well designed and deliberately worked out to fulfill the demands of these comprehensive purposes. That a cry should now be heard from Washington that these plans should be dedicated to less than this is only explained by the famous remark of Justice Brandeis about the zealots who even if well-meaning are without understanding.
(3)In providing that needy blind persons should be afforded financial assistance two courses were open to the legislatures of the states: They might have left the welfare departments to determine who were needy persons within the meaning of the word needy as generally used, or the legislature might have defined the word needy with particularity, setting up definite tests, and leaving the welfare authorities no function but to determine whether each particular applicant complied with those tests. As between these two alternatives some of the legislatures had no real choice in view of the extensive rehabilitative objectives they wished to accomplish. If these were to be realized it was apparent to the legislatures that a system would have to be created in which there was a minimum of administrative interference with the conduct and funds of the recipients. Administrative personnel, whether by reasons of training or native ineptitude, were notoriously considered to be unqualified as discretionary agents in such matters. Furthermore, if the blind were to be given a chance to enlarge their economic opportunities, and if their efforts to render themselves self-supporting were to mean anything, they would have to be given complete freedom of choice as to the direction of the rehabilitative effort, and entire flexibility within prescribed limits, as to their economic arrangements and position.
Accordingly, the legislatures of such states as Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California set up in the aid statutes themselves a complete system of standards on the crucial issue of what need is and what blind persons should receive assistance. Thus, under these statutes, the sole function of the welfare authorities is to find out whether an applicant falls within the categories specified by the legislatures. Senator Wagner's proposed amendment (8) would have given the Board some discretionary power to determine whether the state plan made payments in direct proportion to the blind person's need, and that amendment was also stricken out. The fact of this deliberate omission is proof of the absolute intention of Congress to leave the matter as to who was needy and as to what blind persons should receive assistance to the judgment of the states. It is further proof that Congress intended that the judgment of the states in that matter should be so free that it could set up a statutory system with a complete set of standards for the payment of aid and thus obviate the fettering restrictions of a social service budgetary system which would interfere with rehabilitative efforts. It is proof that state plans in order to gain Social Security Board approval do not have to grant aid to blind persons in direct proportion to their need and may make flat payments to all persons who come within the classification. Consequently, the expressed attitude of the Social Security Board that it may refuse to approve state plans because they grant aid not in accordance with individual need is utterly and palpably untenable and is an assumption of the power which Congress, by omitting the proposed amendment (8), specifically aimed to prevent.
In this discussion, I have concentrated attention chiefly upon the Social Security Act and the Social Security Board's interpretation of it. I have done so because that subject represents one of the primary problems now confronting the blind and because that subject shows, in an acute form, the need for unified action and national organization on the part of the blind. It is a problem of vital importance both to those states now receiving federal funds and to those which have been denied the participation of the federal government. It is not a problem that can be handled by one state or by a small group of states. All the blind in all the states must combine and concentrate their energies upon it in order to reach a workable and satisfactory solution.
Another reason for spending so much time and attention upon the Social Security Act and the Social Security Board's interpretation of it is that that subject points to a number of other problems that are common to the blind throughout the nation. The proper definition of blind persons who should receive state assistance is one such problem; the proper type of standards to be set up in the state statutory schemes is a second; the proper function and place of the social worker in the administration of the state and national legislation is still a third. Finally, the whole idea of a national pension or annuity is involved in this discussion. The problems arising in connection with the administration of the Social Security Act will undoubtedly recur in connection with the administration of a national pension when that is obtained. It is important for us to build up a national body of common and transmissible experience upon these subjects in order to avoid the errors of the past and make secure our future. Upon all of these problems it is necessary for the blind to organize themselves and their ideas upon a national basis, so that blind men the nation over may live in physical comfort, social dignity, and spiritual self-respect.
back to top