Wilbur Joseph Cohen believed that the nation's welfare system should be overhauled so that the poor could be helped out of the quicksand of poverty through education, vocational training, improved job opportunities and instruction in family planning. Cohen was advocating such actions years--even decades--before the idea of "breaking the cycle of dependency" became politically fashionable even in conservative circles.
Cohen had been denounced for his radical, socialist and dangerous ideas. But his proposals have become an essential part of American life over the past half century. Untold millions of Americans past, present and future have Cohen to thank for making their lives considerably easier and more dignified.
Cohen died last weekend in Seoul, South Korea, at the age of 73, while still pursuing the mission of his life: helping others. From 1934, as a whiz kid with Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, through Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, nearly every major piece of social legislation bore Cohen's mark. He was instrumental in writing the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Medicare Act of 1965, to name just two of scores. He served as undersecretary of Health, Education and Welfare 1965-68 and secretary in 1968-69.
When he was not practicing public service, Cohen was teaching it, for many years at the University of Michigan and most recently at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Government at the University of Texas in Austin. He was a dynamic man with the sort of mind and the physical energy that could have made millions in private business, or as the ultimate Washington insider-lobbyist. Yet he chose a different goal, bringing 20th Century meaning to Thomas Jefferson's declaration: "The care of human life and happiness . . . is the first and only legitimate object of good government."