Ainslie Embree’s Thoughts on Robert Ball, Social Security and Collington’s “Unsung Heroes of American Governance”

This coming Saturday, October 31, at 4 PM in our Auditorium, there will be a Memorial Service for Doris Ball, who died recently.  In honor of Doris and her husband Robert, the Collington Residents’ Blog asked resident Ainslie Embree, who with his wife Suzanne, had known both of them very well, to write an appreciation.  All of us, all Americans (broadly defined) owe an incalculable debt to this couple, and we thank Ainslee (and Suzanne) for this aid to memory and reflection.


Collington  has had the good fortune to be the home of many outstanding citizens, with many  of them entitled to belong to the category of what has been called  by  Professor Mashaw  of Yale Law School, “unsung  heroes of American governance.”  Four who come immediately to mind, without selective judgment, are Admiral Bill Crowe, Elliot Richardson, Senator Chuck Percy and Robert Ball.  Each of them, as Kipling put it, walked with kings, but did not lose the common touch, exemplified in their fondness for small parties with fellow residents in their own homes or in those of other residents. Admiral Crowe took enthusiastic  part in amateur dramatics, notably in a recreation of the famous painting  of Washington crossing the Delaware.  He is shown standing upright in a small boat, and Admiral Crowe remarked afterward that no sailor would have done that.  Elliot was especially proud of his mint  juleps,  made with mint from  mint from his own garden. Some of us were foolish enough when he was gone to take mint cuttings to plant in our own small gardens to remind us of our old friend.  I recall Gertrude Mitchell asking me, in good neighborly fashion,  if I knew how mint spreads; I didn’t, but I know now.  When Senator Percy and his wife, Loraine, moved to Collington they were pleased to discover  how many Collingtonians  had worked in India, for relations between the US and India were then at a low ebb.  Both of the Percys had travelled many times to India and were friends of Mrs Gandhi, the Prime Minister, and other prominent  Indians. They wondered,  since Indians were allegedly  the most prosperous foreign  migrants in the United States,why we didn’t  attract some of them to Collington.  An interesting question!

Robert Ball, the fourth of Collington’s “unsung heroes of American governance,”  is much on our minds as we attend a memorial for his  wonderful wife,  the  Doris McCord Ball, to whom he always  gave grateful and gracious thanks for her editorial assistance in his numerous  books and articles. The Balls’ children, son Jonathan and his wife, Faith, and daughter, Jacqueline Ball Smith, visited regularly, and these visits were always occasions for small parties, at which Doris presided with her accustomed grace and elegance. These frequent visits continued after Bob died. At a recent one, knowing her birthday was near, I asked Doris how old she was. Her daughter-in-law answered for her: “To-day  is her hundredth birthday.”  Doris exclaimed in surprise: “My God, am I that old?”

Bob Ball was born in Manhattan in 1914, the son of a Methodist minister, to whom he attributed his early awareness of the need for fairness and equality in society. He always insisted, however,  that those needs could not be met by private welfare, but only by national government social programs. In 1947 he wrote the key statement showing why this was so, and why insurance programs must be America’s primary income programs.  He fought long and hard against those who favored privatization of social security and while he was successful in his struggle he was always aware that it was a battle that would need to be continually fought by succeeding generations.  This was why the chairman of the National Academy of Social Insurance could declare that “no individual has done more to advance American social insurance programs than Robert M. Ball.”

It is always a little mysterious how people achieve greatness, but Robert Ball gives rewarding and convincing hints of the trajectory of his long career. Family was one factor in his career, but he became interested in the Social Security program during his senior year in 1935 at Wesleyan University where he majored in English literature. This was followed by an MA in economics at Wesleyan, with his subsequent career confirming the recent eloquent appeal by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences[i] for the role of the humanities as a “catalytic resource for (achieving) life-long learning.”[1]

Robert Ball‘s employment in the Social Security Administration began in1939 by working as a field assistant in New Jersey. For a few years he worked in other social insurance programs but he rejoined the Social Security Administration in 1949 and in 1962 President Kennedy appointed him Commissioner, a position to which he was reappointed for an unprecedented third term by Presidents Johnson and Nixon. During this period, he was a principal architect of the other great social programs, Medicare and the social disability program. He retired as commissioner in 1973, but he remained active in preserving Social Security, and many of his former associates visited him at Collington, seeking his advice. “Social security,’ he wrote in The Washington Post, “is the nation’s most effective antipoverty program. But it is much more than that. For every worker it provides a solid base on which to build an adequate level of retirement income. To weaken that foundation would be grossly irresponsible.”

In 1998 Robert Ball summed  up the major issues confronting Social Security in a report  to the Twentieth Century Fund that is, in effect, a summary of the nine guiding  principles of  his long and influential  life  on behalf of the American people. Despite his insider’s knowledge of the seamy side of American politics he remained till the end of his days an old fashioned patriot believing that the American destiny was to be a light to the world, a city set upon a hill. The founders, Ball wrote, wanted to make a decent retirement attainable for millions of Americans who would otherwise become dependent on their families or on public assistance… they wanted to put an end to the poor house.  These nine principles, very sketchily summarized, but in Ball’s own words are as follows:

(1) Social security would be universal  – all persons in paid employment would be covered, with both workers and their employers contributing, (2) Social Security payments are an earned right, with benefits based on the individual’s past earnings. (3) Being waged related, benefits are related to one’s standard of living. While higher paid workers get higher benefits, lower paid workers get more in benefits than they paid in.  Ball saw this as a measure of equality and social justice. (4) Since the system is contributory and self-financed, Ball insisted that workers have a moral claim beyond statutory rights. All benefits are paid from dedicated taxes without support from general government revenues. (5) The system is redistributive, with poorly paid workers getting better benefits through a redistributive formula. (6) There is no means test, meaning that workers will not be penalized if they add to  their savings. (7) Social security benefits are portable, following a worker if he seeks a better paying  job.  (8) Benefits are protected against inflation by periodic Cost of Living  Adjustments  (COLAs) linked to the consumer price index. (9) Social Security is compulsory – Ball insisted that a voluntary system simply would not work.

Ball knew that in the midst of the Great Depression members of Congress would not be easily persuaded to pass the needed legislation nor would it be easy to administer such a complex new system.   That the needed legislation was passed was due to his finding allies in both parties and in recruiting able  staff who accepted his vision of what needed  to be done.  A closing message from Bob: “We simply cannot afford to reduce the protection that Social Security currently provides. Social Security benefits are the major source of support for two out of three beneficiaries and are vitally important to nearly all the rest.’ (Written by Robert M Ball. 9/5/2006)

After  his death the Social Security Administration Building in Baltimore was named the Robert M. Ball in his honor.