Remembering Frances Perkins: An Interview with Dr. Christopher N. Breiseth and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall

by Brad Forenza, MSW, The New Social Worker

Photo courtesy of the Frances Perkins Center. Secretary Frances Perkins testifies before the Congressional Naval Affairs Committee in 1942.

If the aim of social work is to alleviate human suffering, there are few whose reach has been as wide as Frances Perkins’. Perkins was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor and an architect of modern-day social welfare policy. Much of the New Deal’s enduring legacy—the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week, the primary concept and components of Social Security—are the brainchildren of Perkins.

In 2008, Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall founded the Frances Perkins Center to advance the legacy of his late grandmother. Chairman of the Center’s Board is Dr. Christopher N. Breiseth, who lived with Perkins and 39 other young men at Telluride House, when Perkins was teaching at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations during the final years of her life. In honor of National Social Work Month, Coggeshall and Breiseth reflect on Perkins, her chosen profession, and her impact, exclusively for The New Social Worker.

“My grandmother had a strong faith,” says Coggeshall. “She had a professor at Mount Holyoke who brought her to the mills of Massachusetts, where she was privy to some reprehensible working conditions… Even before getting involved in government, she wanted to improve the lives of others.”

Perkins subsequently worked at settlement houses in Philadelphia and Chicago, including Hull House, where she befriended Jane Addams. Through those formative experiences, Perkins saw it possible to effect broader social change. As Breiseth notes: “It wasn’t enough for her to minister to individuals… she saw policy as an opportunity to work systemically.”

Breiseth and Coggeshall highlight historical events of the early 20th century—mass migration and child labor among them—as factors that likely colored Perkins’ macro awareness. Most notable, perhaps, was her eyewitness account of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which caused the deaths of almost 150 garment workers. In response, Perkins—by then a prominent New York City social worker—chaired a special legislative commission to examine factors related to the fire. “That was her ‘on-ramp’ to a political career,” Coggeshall suggests.

Indeed, Perkins went on to serve in the administration of New York State Governor Al Smith, where many of the policies that eventually informed the New Deal were given their tryouts. Upon the election of Governor Roosevelt, Perkins was appointed New York’s Industrial Commissioner. When Roosevelt was elected President, she become his Secretary of Labor, lasix pills and—by proxy—the first female to hold a cabinet-level office.

“Because of the faith that my grandmother and FDR shared,” begins Coggeshall, “they had the ‘courage of their conviction’ to work tirelessly at finding and implementing ways to help their fellow man.”

“As a commissioner in New York State, she was concerned with policies that were fair to both labor and the public interest. That was also true in the cabinet, which is how the labor coalition became so vital to the New Deal,” says Breiseth. “The Social Security Act initially included healthcare,” he continues. “Pursuing national healthcare was one of the conditions under which she accepted the job.”

Of course, healthcare was not included in the original 1935 Social Security Act, but—more than 75 years later—Breiseth believes that the Affordable Care Act fulfills Perkins’ intention of making healthcare accessible to all Americans. As for the sustainability of Social Security: “She lived long enough to see it include more people,” Breiseth says. “Today, she might advocate some tinkering, but the policy was always designed to be permanent.”

“I was 11 years old when my grandmother died in 1965,” Coggeshall recalls. “I remember going to visit her at Cornell—I remember Dr. Breiseth and the other boys teaching me to play ping pong in the basement of Telluride House—but my grandmother always kept her professional and personal lives separate… I didn’t know just how much she had accomplished until they named the Department of Labor building for her in 1980.”

When asked what Secretary Perkins—a career social worker—might see as the greatest social problem of 2014, Breiseth postulates that the growing inequality between rich and poor would trouble her. On the flip side, however, Breiseth acknowledges that Perkins would be heartened by the revived discourse around, and interest in, increasing the minimum wage.

During National Social Work Month, it seems fitting to reflect on the life and legacy of Frances Perkins, the Godmother of modern-day social welfare policy. And as we reflect, may we reaffirm her chosen profession’s commitment to alleviate human suffering through the broadest means possible.

Brad Forenza is a doctoral candidate at the Rutgers University School of Social Work, where his research foci include social policy, civil society, and youth development. Brad’s career is accentuated by (1) direct social work practice at youth & family development agencies, (2) applied research/program evaluation for clients in the human services, and (3) public policy analysis & advocacy.