Nelson Cruikshank

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Nelson Hale Cruikshank (June 21, 1902 - June 19, 1986) was known nationally in the United States as an expert on Social Security, Medicare and policy on aging. He was a Methodist minister, labor union activist and the first director of the Department of Social Security at the AFL-CIO before entering government service in his mid-60s.[1]

Cruikshank is considered the most important non-legislator responsible for the enactment of Social Security Disability Insurance in 1956, which for the first time provided Social Security benefits to people with disabilities, and of Medicare in 1965.[2][3] Later, as President Jimmy Carter's adviser and counselor on the aged and as chairman of the Federal Council on Aging, Cruikshank led successful efforts to preserve and expand Social Security benefits for the elderly and people with disabilities.[4]

Early life and career[edit]

Cruikshank was born in Bradner, Ohio in 1902 to Jesse and Jessie (Wright) Cruikshank. His father was a grain dealer who modeled fair business practices and taught the young Cruikshank to respect the value of the labor of the farmers and workers with whom the family did business. The family eventually moved to Texas.[5] Cruikshank worked as a deck hand on freighters on the Great Lakes and was a member of the Seafarers Union[6] before attending Oberlin College. He transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University, where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics and theology.

He married Florence Crane on August 30, 1928. They had one child, Alice, who went on to become a labor historian.[7]

A devout Methodist, Cruikshank entered Union Theological Seminary in 1926 and obtained a Master of Divinity degree in 1929. During his time at Union Theological Seminary, Cruikshank became acquainted with the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.[8] Niebuhr's teachings about the social gospel as well as his deep involvement in the labor union movement (he was an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and allowed union organizers to speak from his pulpit on union issues) were highly influential in forming Cruikshank's personal beliefs and life.

After graduation, Cruikshank was ordained. He became an assistant pastor at a Methodist church in Brooklyn. He rose to become director of social services for the Brooklyn Federation of Churches. His experiences working with the poor and elderly convinced him of the need for legislation to address the problems of these groups.

Cruikshank was later transferred to a Methodist church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he continued his social work. Cruikshank worked closely with local labor unions, eventually splitting his time between pastoral work and union organizing. He became close friends with Frank Fenton, who later became the director of organizing for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Working with the Connecticut AFL-CIO, he organized unions at a number of local businesses—even serving briefly as the business agent for a local of the UE at the Whitney Blake Company. He also became tangentially involved in the Workers' Education Bureau of America. But Cruikshank was dissatisfied with pastoral work. He saw his career as a pastor taking him away from felt that people's needs were so great that in 1936, Cruikshank moved to Washington, D.C. and took a series of government jobs. He first worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) as a labor relations officer. He later transferred to the FSA's Migratory Farm Labor Program, where he worked to establish several hundred camps for farm workers migrating out of the Dust Bowl—a program later made famous in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.[9]

When World War II began, Cruikshank took a position in 1942 with the War Manpower Commission.

AFL-CIO career[edit]

Cruikshank began working for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1944 as the director of social insurance after working as a lobbyist. He worked closely with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer George Meany, and became influenced by Meany's internationalist outlook.

Cruikshank was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Social Security Financing in 1947, where he became the AFL's point-man on old age and health issues. He earned a national reputation as labor's persuasive spokesman on these issues. He lobbied strenuously for national health care, repeatedly taking on its principal opponent, the American Medical Association (AMA), in the print media and on widely aired radio debates.[10]

Cruikshank left the AFL in 1951 and returned to government service. He became director of the European Labor Division of the Office of the Special Representative of the President for Europe, which was part of the Marshall Plan, but returned to the United States after just a year.

Role in enactment of Social Security Disability Insurance[edit]

Cruikshank returned to the AFL in 1953. He performed various duties for Meany, who was then running what would become the AFL-CIO behind the scenes as president William Green's health declined. In 1955 Cruikshank was named director of the AFL's newly formed Department of Social Security. He continued in that role after the AFL and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955. Cruikshank used his position to protect and enhance Social Security as part of the union movement's commitment to a comprehensive legislative package of federal social insurance programs, including national health care insurance and income supports for the poor, people with disabilities and the unemployed.[11] He created the AFL-CIO's Social Security Advisory Committee as a political group to press for higher and expanded benefits. In 1956, Cruikshank's efforts were instrumental in winning passage of the Social Security Disability Insurance amendments, which provided income assistance to permanently disabled workers.

Role in enactment of Medicare[edit]

Cruikshank immediately turned his attention to health care for the elderly. In 1960, as planning for the first White House Conference on Aging got underway, Cruikshank worked with Meany's friend, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, to secure the appointment of a liberal Republican as chairman of the conference. He also won placement for senior citizens' health care issues in a favorable committee, to protect it from the AMA (which was vehemently opposed to national health insurance). The 1960 presidential election occurred concurrently with planning for the conference, and Cruikshank used the AFL-CIO's involvement in the election to build an organization of more than 500 health care and seniors' groups. When the White House Conference on Aging convened in 1961, Cruikshank mobilized his campaign group to defend and advance the national health insurance program and win the Conference's approval.

In July 1961, at the urging of Rep. Aime J. Forand (D-Rhode Island), Cruikshank transformed the coalition he had created into the National Council of Senior Citizens (NCSC). Forand, now retired from Congressional service, became its first president.

From 1961 to 1965, Cruikshank worked closely with NCSC. In April 1963, the group won a presidential proclamation establishing "Senior Citizen's Month" (now Older Americans Month). But his most important accomplishment was working behind the scenes to win passage of Medicare—national health insurance for the elderly. Cruikshank played a critical role in coordinating the lobbying efforts of NCSC, the AFL-CIO and other groups, and helped engineer a nationally-televised speech by President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden on May 20, 1962.[12]

Cruikshank was a critical lobbyist for passage of Medicare. He helped eliminate any role for insurance companies as underwriters of national insurance. Medicare had been bottled up in committee for years, never having enough votes to be reported out onto either chamber's floor. After the 1964 presidential election, President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded that Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-Arkansas), chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, enlarge his committee and stack it with members who would approve Medicare. Mills co-opted the AMA and grafted Medicaid onto the bill, which then easily passed the House.

But in the Senate, Cruikshank had to work quickly to avoid disaster. Sen. Russell B. Long (D-Louisiana) offered an amendment in the Senate Finance Committee that would have turned Medicare into a catastrophic health insurance plan, rather than a general insurance program. Long misused a proxy vote[13] from Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) to help win passage of the amendment, and misled Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Illinois) that he could vote to approve the amendment because another vote would be held later after costs had been calculated (a vote Long had no intention of seeking). Knowing that the Long amendment would not pass the House nor be backed by the AFL-CIO, Cruikshank convinced Douglas to exercise his parliamentary rights and ask for reconsideration of the Long amendment.[14] Efforts were made to find a compromise between the Long amendment and the original bill, but backers of the original bill felt they had already compromised too much. Working with Sen. Clinton P. Anderson (D-New Mexico), Cruikshank mustered a majority in the Finance Committee in favor of the original bill. The deciding vote came from Sen. Harry F. Byrd (D-Virginia, who had openly voted against Medicare in the past. Cruikshank made the critical decision to ask Anderson to go ahead with the vote after receiving assurances that Byrd would vote for the bill in committee but would, on principle, vote against the bill on the Senate floor.

The Medicare legislation passed the Senate, was approved by a conference committee, and was signed by President Johnson on July 28, 1965.

Cruikshank retired from the AFL-CIO in 1965.

Later career[edit]

Cruikshank did not leave the labor movement entirely, however. The year that he retired from the AFL-CIO, he became executive director of the NCSC, the AFL-CIO's retiree organization affiliate and forerunner of the Alliance for Retired Americans.[15] In 1969, he was elected president of NCSC following Aime Forand's retirement.

Cruikshank's wife died in 1967.

In 1969, Cruikshank obtained a position as a visiting professor at the Labor Studies Center at Pennsylvania State University.

From 1971 to 1974, he served as chairman of the American Hospital Association's Citizens Advisory Committee on Health.

Cruikshank retired as NCSC president in 1977 to become President Jimmy Carter's advisor on aging. He was appointed chairman of the Federal Council on Aging. Cruikshank had a rocky tenure as a Carter administration official, often speaking publicly against various administration legislative efforts.

In 1980, Cruikshank left the Carter administration to head up an education and research effort with the organization Save Our Security (SOS). SOS was established in 1979 by Wilbur Cohen, one of the original drafters of the Social Security Act. SOS was a coalition of more than 200 organizations — primarily labor unions and advocacy groups for the disabled and the aged — formed in response to efforts to weaken Social Security. Later, SOS proposed expanding Social Security disability payments and Medicare benefits, and fought to secure benefits for so-called "notch" beneficiaries.[16] Cruikshank directed the Nelson Cruikshank Social Insurance Study Project for SOS. The project developed curricula and educational materials for elementary, secondary and post-secondary students to increase awareness of social insurance.

Concurrently with his role in SOS, Cruikshank served as NCSC's president emeritus.

Cruikshank moved to Philadelphia in 1984. His health began to fail, and he died in a nursing home in 1986.


  1. ^ Alice M. Hoffman and Howard S. Hoffman, eds., The Cruikshank Chronicles. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1989, pp. 1-2, 150
  2. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 161
  3. ^ Wilbur Cohen is another non-legislator widely acknowledged as equally important in the passage of Medicare. See Koff, and Park, Aging Public Policy: Bonding the Generations, 2nd ed., 1999.
  4. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., pp. 183-185, 186
  5. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 11
  6. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 2
  7. ^ Biographical Note, Alice M. Hoffman Papers, 1920-1998, Penn State University Libraries, (accessed 21 February 2015).
  8. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 49
  9. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 88
  10. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op cit., pp. 121, 125
  11. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 147
  12. ^ Kennedy's speech was one of the worst of his career. He discarded his prepared speech while in his limousine on his way to the Garden, and attempted to write a new one. Kennedy spoke extemporaneously and badly, making numerous misstatements of fact. The tone of his remarks addressed the senior citizens in the Garden, who already knew the importance of national health insurance. But on television, where most viewers were not familiar with the issue, the president's performance fell flat. See Weeks and Berman, Shapers of American Health Care Policy: An Oral History, 1985.
  13. ^ A proxy vote allows a senator to cast a vote in committee for an absent senator. Senate Rule XXVI provides that proxies may not be voted when the absent senator has not been informed of the matter on which his proxy may be cast, and has not requested that his proxy be cast for that matter.[1]
  14. ^ Senate Rule XIII provides that any senator voting with the prevailing side or who has not voted may move to reconsider the bill, resolution, report, amendment, order, or message upon which a vote has been taken. Every motion to reconsider is decided by a majority vote.[2]
  15. ^ Hoffman and Hoffman, op. cit., p. 105
  16. ^ For a description of Social Security "notch" problem, see "Understanding the Social Security Notch," AARP, no date. accessed January 7, 2007.


  • Brown, Michael K. "Bargaining for Social Rights: Unions and the Reemergence of Welfare Capitalism, 1945-1952." Political Science Quarterly. 112:4 (Winter 1997-1998).
  • Fink, Gary M., ed. Biographical Dictionary of American Labor. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984. ISBN 0-313-22865-5
  • Hoffman, Alice M. and Hoffman, Howard S., eds. The Cruikshank Chronicles: Anecdotes, Stories, and Memoirs of a New Deal Liberal. North Haven, Conn.: Archon Books, 1989. ISBN 0-208-02250-3
  • Koff, Theodore H. and Park, Richard W. Aging Public Policy: Bonding the Generations. 2nd ed. Amityville, N.Y.: Baywood Publishing Co., 1999. ISBN 0-89503-195-7
  • "Nelson H. Cruikshank." New York Times. June 25, 1986.
  • "History: Nelson Hale Cruikshank (1902-1986)." AFL-CIO, no date. [3] accessed January 7, 2007.
  • Weeks, Lewis E. and Berman, Howard J. Shapers of American Health Care Policy: An Oral History. Chicago: Health Administration Press, 1985. ISBN 0-910701-09-1
  • Whitaker, Joseph D. "Nelson Cruikshank, Adviser on Elderly, Dies." Washington Post. June 21, 1986.

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