Nelson Cruikshank was the first director of the AFL-CIO Department of Social Security, founded in 1955. A Methodist minister, labor lobbyist and government official, he is best remembered as a leading voice for Social Security and health insurance, particularly for the elderly and people with disabilities. Due in large part to Cruikshank's lobbying efforts, Congress passed Social Security Disability Insurance in 1956, an amendment to the Social Security Act that provided Social Security benefits to people with disabilities for the first time. He was also a chief architect of Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly, and he championed its eventual passage in 1965. As President Jimmy Carter's adviser and counselor on the aged and as chair of the Federal Council on Aging, Cruikshank led successful efforts to preserve and expand Social Security benefits for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Born in Bradner, Ohio, on June 21, 1902, Cruikshank grew up in Texas and Ohio, the son of a respected grain merchant. His father 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. After working on Great Lakes freighters as a deckhand and a member of the Seafarers' Union, Cruikshank settled into college life, studying first at Oberlin College and then graduating from Ohio Wesleyan with a degree in economics and theology. In 1926, Cruikshank entered Union Theological Seminary, where his encounters with Reinhold Niebuhr and others fired his passions for applied Christianity and social reform. He met Florence Emma Crane, whom he married in 1928, at a series of lectures on Christian socialism that he organized as a student pastor.
Cruikshank graduated in 1929 with a master's degree in divinity and assumed the assistant pastorship of a small Methodist church in Brooklyn. As the Depression deepened in the early 1930s and with public relief programs virtually nonexistent, he spent as much time addressing the economic and social needs of his poor and unemployed parishioners as their spiritual needs. As director of social services for the Brooklyn Federation of Churches, and later as a pastor in New Haven, Conn., Cruikshank increasingly turned to the labor movement as an ally in these efforts. In Connecticut, Cruikshank divided his time between church work and labor organizing, working closely with Frank P. Fenton (later director of organization for the AFL-CIO) and other leaders in the Connecticut State AFL-CIO to help organize a range of enterprises from machine shops to luncheonettes. He also served briefly as the elected business agent for the workers at the Whitney-Blake Manufacturing Company.
In 1936, with FDR's New Deal programs in full swing, Cruikshank joined the Farm Security Administration (FSA), convinced he could make a contribution to solving the problems of the poor through government service. He first worked as a labor relations officer for the FSA and later directed the Migratory Farm Labor Program, setting up some 200 mobile camps for migratory farm workers in a program made famous by John Steinbeck's novel Grapes of Wrath in 1939. When World War II erupted, Cruikshank accepted an appointment to the War Manpower Commission.
Cruikshank returned to the labor movement in 1944, taking a position with the AFL as a lobbyist. He remained with the AFL, and later the AFL-CIO, until 1965, leaving for only a year in 1951–1952 to head the European Labor Division of the Marshall Plan. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, both the AFL and the CIO supported 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. Appointed to the Social Security Board Advisory Council in 1947, Cruikshank quickly earned a national reputation as labor's articulate and persuasive spokesman on these issues. He lobbied strenuously for national health care, repeatedly taking on its principal opponent, the American Medical Association, in the print media and on widely aired radio debates.
In 1955, Cruikshank became director of the newly organized AFL-CIO Department of Social Security, and in that capacity he helped forge the political coalition that passed Social Security Disability Insurance in 1956. In the late 1950s, Cruikshank also organized a special labor committee to press for medical assistance to the elderly; finally, during the Johnson presidency, his efforts culminated in the passage of Medicare in 1965.
Cruikshank retired from the AFL-CIO in 1965, but he continued his work on behalf of the elderly and people with disabilities for the next two decades. He served as president of the National Council of Senior Citizens (forerunner of the Alliance for Retired Americans) and as chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Health for the American Hospital Association. He was also a visiting professor at Penn State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Appointed President Carter's chief adviser on the aged in 1977, Cruikshank led the successful efforts to preserve Social Security benefits for the elderly and people with disabilities. In the words of President Carter, he was "a wise and caring man" as well as a formidable advocate for the rights of those in need.
Cruikshank died at the age of 83, a man who had lived to see his vision of improving life for older and disabled Americans become a reality.