At the University of Wisconsin Law School, these two idealists — Elizabeth Brandeis and Paul Raushenbush — noticed each other immediately. She was brainy and shy, her hair long and dark. He was handsome and outgoing. On hikes and canoe outings, they fell in love romantically and intellectually — a partnership instrumental in passing the nation’s first unemployment compensation law.
The story of how they did it is largelyforgotten, but the 22 million people who have applied for unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic — and, of course, the millions before them — have this unlikely couple to thank. The law they conceived of and helped pass in Wisconsin laid the foundation for unemployment insurance throughout the country.
“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 Interfaith Youth Core, a nonprofit organization. “It was their life’s work to make laws like this available to everyone.”
Raushenbush, who lives in New York, has spent the last few years writing a history of his family, including interviewing his father, Walter, who is 92 and lives in McLean, Va. Raushenbush was working on the unemployment insurance section as the coronavirus pandemic arrived in America.
As part of his research, Raushenbush has been reading a privately published book his grandparents wrote based on interviews they gave to a Columbia University oral history project. The book is the story of the legislation — where the idea came from, the characters involved, how the law was ultimately passed.
“It really reads like a novel,” Raushenbush said.
The main characters, of course, are his grandparents.
His grandmother moved there to attend law school. She had lost her job as a researcher for the D.C. Minimum Wage Board following the Supreme Court’s ruling that the minimum wage for women was unconstitutional. Justice Brandeis, who as a lawyer and jurist was renowned for his progressive stance on social issues, did not cast a vote because of his daughter’s job.
E.B., as she was known to family and friends, wanted a career at the intersection of economics, labor and the law. She hoped to attend an elite East Coast law school, but those programs, including Harvard, where her father studied, didn’t accept women. With her father’s approval, she chose the University of Wisconsin, where the “Wisconsin Idea” — fusing academic research to solving social problems — was flourishing.
“I have no doubt that the Wisconsin Law School is good enough for your purposes,” E.B.’s father wrote to her, “and should think it probable that you would find economics instruction, and doubtless, other considerations more sympathetic there than at Yale.”
Her future husband chose Wisconsin for the same reason. There, the couple studied under professor John R. Commons, an influential social economist who crafted Wisconsin’s workers’ compensation law. Commons tried and failed several times to pass legislation protecting unemployed workers, whose numbers were soaring, especially after the stock market crash in 1929.
Commons took a particular interest in his graduate students, inviting them for regular dinners on Friday nights to discuss societal problems.
“I suppose the characteristic thing about Commons was that he was trying to use his brains and enlist the brains of his students in attempting solutions of economic problems,” Raushenbush said during the Columbia University oral history interviews. “This was no ivory tower guy. Sure, he did research and wrote books, but perhaps the main interest that attracted his students was that they were being invited to participate in an attempt to deal with difficult problems on an intelligent basis.”
By 1930, E.B. and her husband both were 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. One day in June, 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.
And did they ever.
They spent the weekend hiking along the Wisconsin River batting around ideas. Their key idea — one that survives today — was that the benefits should be funded entirely by employers, thus giving them the incentive to maintain steady levels of employment or bear the cost of not doing so. The economists also decided that Groves, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm, should run for the State Assembly and introduce the legislation.
La Follette and Groves were elected, and the legislation was introduced in 1931.
The bill came under intense criticism from employers, who balked at providing 100 percent of the funding. E.B. at one point wavered on this idea, according to her grandson’s research, wondering if passage would be more assured if employees also contributed. Her husband disagreed and wrote to Justice Brandeis for his advice.
“I agree with you,” the Justice replied. “Think the suggestion would be dangerous.”
The legislation passed in early 1932. Along with Commons and Groves, E.B. and her husband stood by La Follette as he signed the measure into law. Raushenbush became director of the Wisconsin’s unemployment department, a position he held until 1967. He issued the first unemployment check to Neils B. Ruud, an engraving company employee left jobless by the Great Depression, for $15.
A few years later, Congress approved a national unemployment insurance policy as part of the Social Security Act of 1935. It was modeled on the Wisconsin program, and the Raushenbushes helped write the language.
E.B and her husband never sought acclaim for their work.
“They were both raised in families that were extremely practical,” their grandson said. “There was never any bravado about them. They were very much about the work.”
They had one child, Walter, who became a law professor at the University of Wisconsin. His son, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, remembers the simple pleasures they all enjoyed together. Games of bridge. Sailing. Croquet.
“They taught us a certain kind of life that was about service,” their grandson said. “And they were just wonderful, wonderful mentors.”
In 1966, at E.B.’s retirement party, Groves summed up their careers, noting how they had long been known as “Mr. and Mrs. Unemployment Compensation.”
“They well deserve the title,” Groves said. “They were partners in the conception of the idea, delivered the child at birth, defended it in childhood and nourished it to manhood.”
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