by Anna Kresmer
From the Editor: There are many blessings for which we in the National Federation of the Blind are thankful, and one of them is the caliber of the staff who come to work with us and who decide to become a part of us. Anna Kresmer is just such a person, working to share with all of us the treasures that are to be found in the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Library. In this article she discusses one of the reasons we formed the National Federation of the Blind and our first effort to confront head-on a new federal bureaucracy that threatened to erode our hard-won gains for a secure income and the opportunity to go beyond government assistance. Here’s what she says:
For seventy-five years, the National Federation of the Blind has strived to achieve first-class citizenship for all blind Americans through collective action and self-advocacy. Over the years, the Federation’s focus and energy have shifted to address the most pressing problems of the day, from the right to organize in the 1950s, to the fight against NAC in the 1970s, to the ongoing mission to make the internet and technology accessible. Some long-standing challenges have proven to be stubborn and the battles rage on, such as the mission to end subminimum wage, while other challenges have been met and relegated (at least for the time being) to the annals of history. Each of these issues, and the many others not mentioned here, have confirmed the continuing need for an organization like the NFB, but one issue in particular is directly responsible for the formation of the Federation in 1940.
In the first few decades of the twentieth century, aid to the blind was primarily treated as a local or state-level concern. Organizations formed to meet that concern were mainly charities ran by sighted people, sheltered workshops, social clubs, schools for the blind, and the occasional state-run pension plan. The populations they served were generally limited by geography and could, therefore, reasonably be addressed by organizations of the blind of similar size and scope, like the Pennsylvania Federation of the Blind or the Central Committee of the Blind of Illinois.
But all that changed in 1935 with the passing of the first Social Security Act (SSA). Its aim was to protect segments of the population at risk of poverty including the unemployed, senior citizens, needy families with children, and the blind. It is unsurprising that blind people were included in this landmark legislation, since they were seen by society as generally uneducable, unemployable, and in need of custodians. This view is clear even in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who remarked on the third anniversary of the SSA’s passing in 1938 that now, “…forty thousand blind people are assured of peace and security among familiar voices.”i
The Social Security Act of 1935 was the first federal legislation to address the poverty faced by most blind people. Before the SSA, aid to the blind was spotty, unregulated, and varied wildly from state to state. Some states did not even have a pension program, while others set their rates so low that blind pensioners could not afford to feed themselves. The SSA sought to impose standards in welfare and to share the burden of supporting the “needy blind” by supplementing state funds with federal contributions.
On the surface it sounded like a wonderful idea to the politicians who voted for it and to the sighted agencies that lobbied for it, and the bill was enacted on August 14, 1935. However, not everybody was so thrilled.
From the start blind Americans found problems with Title X, the portion of the law which handled aid to the blind, and with the way that it was administered. The problems mainly stemmed from the concentrated decision-making power placed in the hands of the appointed Social Security Board, who set aid rates low and eligibility criteria high. States were required to adopt these standards if they wanted to receive the federal contributions, which meant that some state programs actually improved. However, in other states where larger organizations of the blind had already worked hard to get better benefits, the Federal regulations threatened to roll back their hard-won gains.
Perhaps the biggest objection, though, was that the original bill was passed largely without input from the people it was meant to help. Representatives from seven different organizations for the blind came to testify before the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance Committees, including the American Association of Workers for the Blind, the National Society for the Prevention of Blindness, and several state commissions and agencies for the blind.ii The only actual blind person to testify before Congress concerning the proposed bill was Robert Irwin, representing the American Foundation for the Blind and advocating for a smaller pension program than was eventually passed into law. So why were these custodial national and state organizations of sighted workers for the blind the only voices heard in Washington in 1935? The answer is simple: There was no national organization of the blind which could address Congress on behalf of all blind Americans.
The National Federation of the Blind was founded in 1940 by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek and blind representatives from seven state associations of the blind. It was the first national organization created by blind people and led by all blind officers with a primarily blind membership. Their goal was to promote the economic and social welfare of the blind by securing access to three basic rights: security, equality, and opportunity. However, looking at the speech given by Dr. tenBroek at the founding meeting, there can be little doubt that the NFB’s founding focused on the first of these rights—security—and that their first mission was to lobby the federal government on Social Security.
In his speech at the founding meeting, Dr. tenBroek called to the blind of the nation, saying:
There are many goals upon which we can unite: the ultimate establishment of a national pension which will eliminate the diversities of treatment of the blind among the states and insure an adequate support to all; the correction of the vices that have crept into the administration of the Social Security Act by seeking its amendment in Congress… governmental recognition of the fact that the blind are not to be classified as paupers and that they have needs peculiar to and arising out of their blindness… adequate methods for restraining the influence and defining the place of the social worker in the administration of aid laws… legislative and administrative encouragement of the blind who are striving to render themselves self-supporting… [and] governmental recognition of our inalienable right to receive public assistance and still retain our economic, social, and political independence…
In 1997, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan succinctly explained why the Federation’s initial focus rested squarely on security, specifically on the need for government aid, saying that, “When the National Federation of the Blind came into being almost six decades ago, our problem was simple. It was to find enough food to keep body and soul together—not for all of us, of course, but for many. If you are hungry, it is hard to think about anything else. And the blind were hungry.”iii
To satisfy this hunger, the NFB immediately began its campaign to turn Social Security into a program that truly benefited all blind people. As early as 1941, they began sending representatives to urge Congress to amend the act. They submitted memoranda and testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee and repeatedly called on their growing membership to write to Congress in support of their legislative proposals. Also during this time, the NFB attempted (not always successfully) to create legislative proposals in collaboration with other blindness-related organizations and lobbied the labor unions to support their cause.
Initially, all this hard work seemed to result in not much of anything. Aside from a pair of federal $5-a-month-increases to aid benefits passed in 1946 and 1948, the SSA saw little change regarding aid for the blind throughout the 1940s.iv
All this changed on August 28, 1950, when President Truman signed the Social Security Amendments of 1950 into law. This was the first major overhaul to SSA that affected blind people receiving aid. The changes seem basic today, but they clarified much of the vague language in the wording of the act. Beyond the usual increase in aid rates, the act now stipulated that aid applications had to be processed by state agencies within a reasonable amount of time, fair hearings had to be provided when claims were denied or not acted upon quickly, and aid had to be furnished promptly to all eligible individuals.v
Undeniably though, the greatest change for blind people realized by the 1950 amendments was that state aid programs were now required to exempt up to $50 a month in earned income when calculating aid payments. According to an NFB legislative bulletin, dated May 6, 1950 (when the provision was initially passed by the Senate):
These changes represent a forward step of the utmost importance. They firmly establish the principle of exempt earnings as a mandatory requirement on all of the States. They thus completely reverse the policy of the Federal Security Agency by which blind recipients of relief suffer a deduction of one dollar in their public assistance for every dollar earned by them. By accepting the principles of exempt earnings and making it a mandatory requirement on the States, the Senate Committee is reorienting the whole system of public assistance away from pauperism and permanent dependence and towards rehabilitation and opportunity.vi
The 1950 amendments are arguably the first, although by no means the last, major victory in the NFB’s campaign to amend Social Security. Over the years, the Social Security Act would be amended many more times and other laws affecting the livelihood of the blind would be proposed, passed, and amended. But as the urgent threat of poverty receded and more blind people joined the employment rolls, the Federation began to shift its focus to the other two rights that it had championed since its inception: equality and opportunity.