Washington Post profiles UW faculty who helped create unemployment insurance

Black and white photo of the Raushenbushes.

MADISON, WI (April 20, 2020) — Since mid-March, more than 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment assistance. Washington Post reporter Michael S. Rosenwald goes back in time to reveal the largely forgotten origin story of unemployment insurance — the brainchild of University of Wisconsin alumni and faculty Elizabeth Brandeis and Paul Raushenbush.

Rosenwald’s article, “The nation’s first unemployment check — $15 — and the love story that led to it,” starts in 1923 when Brandeis and Raushenbush met on campus. Paul was the son of Walter Rauschenbusch, a prominent theologian and key figure in the Social Gospel movement. Elizabeth was the daughter of Louis Brandeis, the progressive Supreme Court justice.

“Their story is absolutely staggering to think about right now,” said their grandson Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, a Baptist minister and senior adviser for public affairs and innovation at the nonprofit Interfaith Youth Core. “It was their life’s work to make laws like this available to everyone.”

By 1930, Paul and Elizabeth (known as E.B. by friends) were both teaching economics at the University of Wisconsin. They had become friends with Philip La Follette, the local district attorney, whose parents were friends with Justice Brandeis. La Follette invited the couple, along with another Wisconsin economist, Harold Groves, to his house in Madison. La Follette told them he planned to run for governor, that he planned to win, and that he wanted to pass legislation instituting unemployment compensation. He asked the trio to come up with a plan.

The result was known as the Groves Bill, intended to stabilize Wisconsin’s economy and help workers by providing a rate of benefits based on their previous salary. This legislation was a starting point for the rest of the nation and a model for the unemployment insurance provisions of the draft of the Social Security Act of 1935, largely written by another UW economist, Edwin Witte.

Paul Raushenbush would remain director of the Wisconsin Unemployment Compensation Division for 34 years, from 1934–67. E.B. Raushenbush taught at the University of Wisconsin for more than 40 years and researched many labor and social issues.

Click here to read the full Washington Post story (subscription may be required).

Read more about other UW–Madison alumni who helped develop the nation’s social safety net:

Edwin Witte: Tasked by President Roosevelt to develop “social insurance”. Became father of Social Security

Arthur J. Altmeyer: Guided Social Security Administration through its infancy and the subsequent broadening of its focus.

Media Information

Contact: Tod Pritchard, tod.pritchard@supportuw.org, 608-609-5217, @WisAlumni