A Personal Remembrance

By: Larry DeWitt, the public historian at the U.S. Social Security Administration. He is the co-editor of Social Security: A Documentary History (Washington, D.C., Congressional Quarterly Press, 2008).

Robert M. Ball - November, 2001. Photo by Larry DeWitt, SSA History Archives.

Late in the night of January 29, 2008 Robert M. Ball, a leading figure in the development of the Social Security and Medicare programs, finally stopped working for these programs and bequeathed the task to his successors. Ball started his career in the Social Security field in 1939 and he labored on issues related to Social Security without stint for the next 69 years, working up until two weeks before his death at age 93.

Ball graduated from Wesleyan University in 1936 (with a B.A. in English and an M.A. in economics, a combination that served him well in his career) and that summer he married his wife of 71 years, Doris McCord. The newlyweds camped out in a tent in the Adirondacks for two months (on a budget of $50) as their honeymoon.

After a brief stint on a labor newspaper, Ball went to work for the U.S. Social Security Board in a local field office in New Jersey. Quickly coming to the attention of top officials with the Board, he was brought into the agency’s Baltimore headquarters to serve as a master trainer, introducing new employees to the concepts and ideals of social insurance. Ball had a special talent in this area, one that was evident throughout his life. He could take complex subjects and explain them with a clarity and ease which made them both easy to understand and easier to accept. Generations of political figures, Congressional staffs, reporters and editors, and civil servants, came to rely on Bob Ball as a reliable voice amidst the din of policy debates.

Ball was both a policy expert and a highly capable administrator, and was committed to the importance of both endeavors, as was his predecessor and his only equal in this regard—Arthur J. Altmeyer. Altmeyer was the founding executive who shaped the Social Security program (and the institutions which administered it) from its founding in 1934-35 until he was unceremoniously pushed out of government in 1953 by the incoming Eisenhower Administration. With a slight overlap, Arthur Altmeyer was the dominant figure in the development of the Social Security program from 1935 to 1953, and Bob Ball took over this role from 1953 to 1983 (when the last major Social Security legislation was enacted) and beyond.

Ball’s formal career in government spanned 1939 to 1973, but he never ceased being an advisor and consultant on Social Security and Medicare. By the mid-1940s Ball was an expert on expanding the coverage of the Social Security system. By 1948 he was the Executive Director of the Social Security Advisory Council which crafted the crucial 1950 amendments to the Social Security Act, which in Ball’s own estimation:

. . . really saved the concept of contributory social insurance in this country. The program had been stalled since 1939, there had been no significant amendments for ten years, and inflation had really made, what anyway were very small benefits, fairly meaningless. Only 16% of the elderly in this country were eligible for Social Security benefits, even by 1950.

By the time of Altmeyer’s departure from the Social Security Administration in 1953, Ball was positioned as the Deputy Director of the largest and most important Bureau in the agency. He was in fact the leading figure in the organization for many years, well before having the requisite job titles. While still in the Deputy Director job, Ball played a behind the scenes role in the 1956 addition of disability benefits to Social Security. During these years, Ball was the educator; the source of factual background and analysis; striving to walk a fine line between advocacy and the duties of a civil servant. This was a line he was able to walk many times in his career, due to his unobtrusive manner and the diplomacy with which he worked for his objectives. Usually reserved, Ball was in the Senate when the disability bill passed (by a single vote) and Ball’s biographer, historian Edward D. Berkowitz, has reported the scene as described by one eyewitness: “Ball and some others were literally dancing in the aisles and it didn’t seem to bother them that Rod Perkins was looking down at them down the full length of his nose.”1 (Perkins was a Nixon Administration official at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and nominally, Ball’s superior.)

More typical was Ball’s role in bringing the Eisenhower Administration slowly around to supporting Social Security. Although the Administration opposed disability benefits, they did not turn against the program in general, as some conservatives hoped they would. Upon taking office, the views of the Administration toward Social Security were uncertain. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce developed an alternative scheme which they pushed as the Republican alternative to Social Security, and they had some expectation that the Administration might also take this view. The President appointed Oveta Culp Hobby to be the head of HEW, and tasked her with chairing a study group to formulate the Administration’s Social Security policy (informally known as the Hobby Lobby). It was clear to Ball that the group was slanted in favor of opponents of Social Security and that Secretary Hobby was inclined in that same direction. Ball managed to get himself appointed as staff director to the Lobby and, over many months, patiently educated the group to the value of Social Security. His efforts were so successful that President Eisenhower’s first major public statement on Social Security was a call to expand the program to include 10 million additional uncovered workers.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy appointed Ball Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), a position he held under three presidents—Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon—becoming the longest-serving Commissioner in the organization’s history.

This was the heyday of SSA as a capable and respected administrative bureaucracy. Every administrative challenge given to SSA was dispatched with aplomb, and Bob Ball was really responsible for this remarkable record. His work ethic and his commitment to administration (a value he shared with Altmeyer) shaped the culture of SSA and made it the organization that it was. The most prominent example of this administrative competence, and Ball’s biggest achievement as an administrator, was the successful implementation of the Medicare program in 1965-66. Others might lay claim to the legislative achievement of Medicare (in particular, Wilbur Cohen and Lyndon Johnson) but it was Ball who made the legislation into a working program. Indeed, President Johnson described the Medicare implementation effort as the largest governmental undertaking since D-Day. Ball’s approach was thorough, to say the least. He even enlisted the U. S. Forest Service to send Forest Rangers out into the woods in search of elderly hermits whom he might be able to enroll in Medicare! In August 1966 Johnson wrote to Ball, telling him: “I want you to know of my satisfaction with the way in which you and the staff of the Social Security Administration have been handling the difficult and complex problems involved in implementing the Medicare legislation.” Johnson even traveled to the SSA headquarters in suburban Baltimore later that year (the only visit to the agency’s headquarters by a President) to personally oversee the presentation of honor awards to some of the employees for the Medicare effort.

Two of Ball’s signal achievements on the Social Security policy front were the successful passage, in 1972, of the provision creating automatic annual COLAs (Cost-of-Living-Adjustments) and, in 1977, the enactment of a provision creating automatic indexing of the initial benefit to wage growth. These two program features ensure that a person’s initial Social Security benefit will reflect their standard of living at the time of retirement, and that this standard of living will be maintained through the preservation of the purchasing power of their benefits. These are among the most valuable features of the program for beneficiaries, and are major drivers of program costs for the Trust Funds (which is why some Social Security reform plans call for indexing the initial benefit to prices rather than wages—which would significantly lower benefits over time). While Richard Nixon deserves some of credit for advocating COLAs,2 it was Ball who had been steadily supporting this idea, and it was Ball, especially, who understood the importance of the wage indexing provision. During the Carter Administration, Ball was their principal advisor on Social Security policy and in this role he was in just the right position to ensure that the wage indexing provision was adopted as part of the 1977 amendments.

Although Ball was appointed Commissioner of SSA by a Democrat, Richard Nixon was unable to replace him when the Republicans came back into power in 1969. Ball had such a reputation as a policy expert and as a capable administrator, that he enjoyed an unusual degree of bi-partisan support within the political salons of Capitol Hill. The Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (of which SSA was a sub-agency), Elliot Richardson, even pointedly told Nixon that he would not continue to serve as cabinet Secretary of HEW unless Nixon kept Ball on. Which Nixon did through his first term, accepting Ball’s resignation in January 1973, after he no longer needed to worry about his own re-election.

Perhaps Ball’s single largest contribution to the Social Security program (although such a judgment is ludicrously difficult) was his key role on the 1983 Greenspan Commission, which produced the last major Social Security legislation of the twentieth century. It was this legislation which gave us the current policy context for Social Security, including the large build up of the Trust Fund reserves and their subsequent draw-down (by 2041) as the Baby Boom generation retires. Major policy innovations were adopted at the same time, including: raising the retirement age from 65 to 67; taxing a portion of Social Security benefits; and the coverage of all new federal employees. The Commission’s report—and the legislation it basically blueprinted—was a bi-partisan compromise designed to restore the solvency of the Social Security program. Recall how serious matters were in 1983. President Reagan would sign the bill in April 1983, and the actuaries were predicting that the Trust Funds would run out of money in August 1983. So the event that is presently looming sometime around the year 2041, was four months away in 1983! (This did not mean, as Bob was quick to point out, that the Social Security program was bankrupt, or that benefit checks would not go out. There would still be the payroll tax generating new revenues and covering most—but not all—of the promised benefits. But there would be a shortfall in funding, and that was, as Bob also urged, a real problem that required serious policy change.)

Ball served as the leader of the Democrats on the Commission, and as the personal representative of House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Time and again, the work of the Commission seemed stymied, and Ball, with his patient, gentle but persistent efforts at reasoned suasion, managed to forge an unlikely consensus. By the end, the work of the Commission came down to a series of private meetings between White House officials, a couple of key Senators, and Ball, representing Speaker O’Neill. The pivotal (secret) meetings took place in January 1983 at the home of White House Chief of Staff James Baker. As everyone understood, the deal that had to be struck was basically between the White House and the Speaker, and Ball was the indispensable go-between in that negotiation.

At the time, the Balls were living in Alexandria, Virginia, in a house overlooking the George Washington Parkway. As television news crews were camped out on the front lawn of Ball’s home, hoping to ambush participants in the meetings, Ball—nearing his 70th birthday—put on his galoshes, heavy winter coat and gloves, and fairly slid down the steep snow-covered hill behind his house and slipped unnoticed through the 200 yards of woods to the Parkway where a black limousine had mysteriously stopped on the side of the road. Ball hopped in and was whisked away to James Baker’s house, with the media none the wiser.

Ball’s success was so complete in the 1983 legislation that even Ronald Reagan ended up as a staunch rhetorical supporter of Social Security, saying at the bill’s signing: “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to social security. It assures the elderly that America will always keep the promises made in troubled times a half a century ago. It assures those who are still working that they, too, have a pact with the future. From this day forward, they have our pledge that they will get their fair share of benefits when they retire.” Bob Ball couldn’t have said it better; and he admitted to me that he was pleasantly surprised to hear these words coming from Ronald Reagan.

In the years after the 1983 triumph, Ball worked—patiently and persistently—as a defender of the traditional principles and ideals of the Social Security and Medicare programs. In 1986 he founded the National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) in Washington. NASI serves as a kind of “think-tank” for the many policy experts who specialize in social insurance. It was Bob’s way of further institutionalizing support for Social Security and Medicare, much as he had done while in government by making the Social Security Administration a premier administrative agency.

During the push by the Bush Administration to introduce a partial privatization of Social Security’s retirement program, Ball worked the phones, the fax machines, and the op-ed pages as one of the most articulate defenders of social insurance. He once said to me that he might like to retire (I think he was kidding himself) but that people keep attacking Social Security and Medicare and so he had to keep working to defend them.

One of the amusing aspects of Bob’s work ethic was the unself-conscious way that he enlisted so many of us as unpaid assistants on his various projects. “Well,” I would often find myself confiding to a colleague, “I just got my latest work assignments from Bob Ball.” Of course, I didn’t mind in the least (none of us did I think) as it was both my duty as a civil servant and my distinct personal pleasure. Researching some fact or date or person’s name for something Bob was working on, made me feel that in some small way I was contributing to the very large work that he was about.

Bob’s doling-out of chores was not limited to policy matters. For several months during 2007 I was seriously ill with some undiagnosed malady. My doctors were stumped. When Bob found out about my condition, not only did he call me regularly with advice about which medical experts to consult, and with offers to introduce me to this administrator at Johns Hopkins Hospital, or that executive over at the National Academy of Medicine, Bob even gave related assignments to others. He had Syracuse University professor Eric Kingson (who had written a book about his late wife’s struggles with her terminal illness) call me and offer his expert council on navigating the health care system. Although I am certain Bob did this in large measure out of genuine concern for a colleague, I am not in the least hurt by the thought that he was also doing it as part of his work, as part of taking care of his professional resources—as he frequently said to me during this period, “We need you to stay healthy, we can’t get along without the work you are doing.”

Although certainly a Democrat, Ball’s real devotion was to the cause and ideals of social insurance. Indeed, he told me, “I’m not really a partisan Democrat, the way some people are. I just believe in Social Security, and the Democrats support Social Security more consistently than the Republicans. I imagine that if this was the other way around, I might be a Republican.”

Point taken, but I doubt if it would have been that simple for Ball to shift parties. Consider this Washington Post op-ed from April 1980, on the cusp of the Reagan Revolution. It was entitled “One Willing Taxpayer,” and it described Ball’s views of government:

As I was making out my income taxes, it occurred to me that I would get a better bargain if I spent a little more of my money on those things that benefit us all and a little less on what I selected individually. . . . there is nothing I can do in the marketplace with my money that will do as much to help create the conditions of a safe and stable world as what the federal government can do if it spends some of that money for me. And I feel the same way about area after area in the federal budget. . . . how can I as an individual help protect the food and drug supply through expenditures in the private market? How can I buy the new knowledge to reduce disease and promote health? How can I buy in a way that prevents water pollution and promotes clean air? I like the Forest Service, the Park Service and hundreds of other services I get for my federal tax dollar. I want to buy more of these public goods. In my opinion, they do much more toward creating the kind of world I want to live in than anything further I can buy in the private marketplace. . . . It seems to me, therefore, that the government, expressing the collective will of the people, has the responsibility to take back for broad social purposes a significant share of what we like to think of as our own earnings.

That’s an attitude which not many Republicans would find agreeable.

In 2001, I did a series of oral history interviews with Ball, which is when I really got to know him.3 Mrs. Ball (I could never bring myself to call her Doris, it seemed impertinent somehow—although Bob insisted I call him Bob) served as a kind of informal hostess for our sessions. She fielded the frequent phone calls, knowing which ones to deflect and which ones to interrupt us for Bob to take; she managed our time, making us break for lunch when she thought we should; and she even prepared our lunch each day. Our sessions thus had three parts: we would do a morning interview; break for a leisurely lunch; then do an afternoon interviewing session. The lunches were a highpoint in their own way. Mrs. Ball and Bob would charm me with stories from their long and rich lives; they would engage me with insightful discussions of current events and with anecdotes about people we knew in common; and, in general, shower me with the pleasurable conversation of delightful luncheon companions. I can still see in my mind’s eye Bob carving slices off a Bartlett pear and laying them on a piece of cheese—a favorite combination of his—as the desert for his lunch.

Another gracious service Mrs. Ball provided was to keep me company during the (frequent) interruptions in our interviewing, as Bob often had to pause to take a call or respond to urgent fax messages from the media or important political figures. It amazed me that during every one of our seven sessions together throughout the course of 2001, we were invariably frequently interrupted in this way. Once I got to listen as Ball phoned in some remarks to CBS radio. On more than one occasion, Senator Ted Kennedy was on the line, calling for advice, counsel, and information about health care and Social Security policy. During one visit he was busy faxing his reply to a recent letter from Senator Moynihan, who had lately taken to advocating Social Security policies that Ball thought faintly heretical for a supporter of social insurance.

In one session in May 2001 (the day before President Bush announced the appointment of his “bi-partisan” commission on Social Security reform) we were interrupted by a phone call from Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt (who were at the time, respectively, the Senate and House Democratic leaders). Although the Bush commission was technically bi-partisan, the President reserved for himself the right to appoint all the members—and to insist that they all agree to certain of the President’s policy preferences before being allowed to join. In a transparently political maneuver Bush offered to let the Congressional Democrats pose as co-sponsors of the commission. This was of course an offer designed to be refused, so that the Administration might claim it had reached out in bi-partisanship but the Democrats had refused to go along. This ploy required a carefully crafted response, and Daschle and Gephardt turned to Ball to help them draft their letter of reply. That afternoon, they were reading their final draft to Ball, and he was busily correcting them on various points and dictating final language for their letter to the President. That is how I found out, the day before the announcement, that there was to be a Social Security commission. And that is how I found out that—at age 87—Bob Ball was still an active player in Social Security policy and politics.

Although Bob was 93 at the time of his death, he was still working as hard as anyone I know. Thus the irony: although Bob Ball did as much as any single person to help millions of Americans enjoy a comfortable retirement, Ball himself never really paused to take advantage of the fruits of his labor. He simply never stopped working. Until recently, Ball only allowed himself one summer vacation each year, when he and Doris retreated to the family home on Bear Island in Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Although the island could only be reached by boat, and had daily mail service, also by boat, Bob seemed to do as much work on his “vacation” as he did any other time of the year. On many occasions I found myself mailing materials to Bear Island “Via Mail Boat;” and my fax machine was often humming in harmony with Bob’s fax machine on the island.

Ball’s patience and persistence were a marvel to behold, and an impossibility to emulate. He had a gentle manner about his policy advocacy. He taught, he didn’t advocate. And he was willing to wait for decades, if necessary, to persuade the nation to go where he thought it should.

Another signal Ball trait was his amazing attention to detail. When the Social Security Administration moved to a new headquarters building in 1960, Bob personally chose the terrazzo floor tiles, the marble for the walls in the lobby, and even the drapes for the executive suites. Anyone who drafted a memo for his signature, or a paper on Social Security policy, or even just a letter that Bob had to review, would find themselves on the receiving end of very detailed edits and suggestions for improvements.

Another example of Bob’s attention to detail arose with the publication of the Berkowitz biography of Ball. When Bob learned the title that the publisher was planning to use for the book, he was dissatisfied with it and so he enlisted me as a behind-the-scenes go-between to try and persuade my friend Ed Berkowitz to persuade his publisher to change the title to one Bob thought more suitable. Bob even took to faxing me lists of suggested alternative titles, and following up with me at regular intervals to get reports on my progress. Some small part of this was perhaps natural human vanity, but it was mostly that Bob could not understand why something that he saw as less than perfect, should not be improved. But Bob was also preeminently a pragmatist, who knew, as the saying goes, “when to hold them and when to fold them.” Eventually he gave up on this little project and when the book appeared Bob happily invited professor Berkowitz and me to his home in Mitchellville, Maryland so that Ed could sign copies of his book, which Bob distributed as Christmas gifts. And in typical Bob Ball fashion, he had prepared a list of names and relationships of all the people on his gift list, so that Ed could personalize each inscription.

This attention to detail was not micromanagement; it was instead the natural workings of a precise mind and of a character which propelled him to work on every detail, because he believed every detail mattered. At the same time, Ball was a visionary, a man with the ability to see the very big picture and to inspire others with his vision. In politics it is said that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. Bob Ball was a man who moved freely and easily between poetry to prose in his every endeavor.

His writing as well, was an expression of that precise mind. His written work was a model of concision and clarity. He authored or co-authored five books, a dozen book chapters, several dozen articles and essays, and he gave hundreds of speeches and countless interviews. His last op-ed appeared in the Washington Post on October 29, 2007, in which he patiently explained that restoring the solvency of the Social Security system did not require any cuts in program benefits.

Ball also developed his own detailed plan for the reform of the Social Security program. His plan—which sought to save the traditional program—was updated each year as the actuaries released their latest forecasts, and the latest edition of The Social Security Plus Plan would soon be in the mail to those of us on his (rather large) mailing list. (Ball’s plan was also the basis for the reform proposal put forward in 2005 by Nancy Altman in her book, and it had to be considered by any serious student of Social Security reform.)4

At the time of his death, Ball was at work on a dictated memoir of his career. The last version of it I saw ran to over 350 typed pages. Ball’s occasional collaborator, writer-editor Thomas N. Bethell, had been working on the project with him and has indicated that he hopes to finish the editing and publish the memoir. Thus, Bob is still giving us work assignments even after his death! (Ball entered the hospital two weeks before he died, with his final illness; less than 48 hours before his passing, he was on the phone with Bethell, discussing plans for the memoir.)

Although I am a child of the Sixties and Bob Ball was a child of the New Deal Era, and 35 years separated us in age, I was pleased to think of him as a professional colleague and friend.

Traditionally, historians have had two big competing theories of what drives the course of history: the Great Person Theory or the Great Events Theory. Is it great individuals who make great events happen, or is it great events which carry certain people along with them, like froth on top of a breaking wave? I can honestly say that from knowing Bob Ball, I knew at least one great man, and I know it was his special talents and qualities of character and intellect that drove so much of the development of social insurance in America. He truly was a great man who shaped history. It was one of the boons of my professional life as an historian that I was lucky enough to know him.

1 Edward D. Berkowitz, Robert Ball and the Politics of Social Security (Madison, Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2003): 99.
2 Although both Nixon and Ball supported automatic COLAs, they did so for somewhat differing reasons. Ball wanted to protect the purchasing power of benefits, while Nixon (and some other conservatives) thought that by providing automatic COLAs based on an actual calculation of inflation rates that this would bypass the frequent political bidding wars over benefit increases, with the net result being lower program costs. So Bob was concerned mainly about the beneficiaries and Nixon about the budget—both of which were legitimate concerns, to be sure, but, as sometimes happens, this was a policy change jointly supported by people with markedly different motivations.
3 These interviews are available online at: http://www.ssa.gov/history/orals/balloralhistory.html and more information about Ball’s career can be found at: http://www.ssa.gov/history/bobball.html
4 Nancy J. Altman, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble, (Hoboken, New Jersey, John Wiley and Sons, 2005). The most recent version of Ball’s reform plan can be found online at: http://www.robertmball.org/


One Response to Robert M. Ball Social Security Pioneer

  1. [...] Medicare, 93 percent enrolled by the summer of 1966. Social Security Administration Commissioner Robert Ball “enlisted the U. S. Forest Service to send Forest Rangers out into the woods in search of [...]

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