The importance of the field office was known from the earliest days of social security. On December 2nd, 1935, the social security board appointed a field office committee to determine optimal locations for offices to provide direct public service. E.J. McCormick chairman for the field office committee stated that regardless of the construction of the act, there remains the obvious fact that its administration, particularly in the field, will either make or defeat the entire program.
In selecting sites for the field offices, the committee considered such factors as ease in administration, convenience to the public, and uniformity in the distribution of the workloads. The committee studied population and population densities, it addressed questions of accessibility in different geographical areas, and considered trading zones, and shopping areas that people frequently traveled. It also considered the number of wage earners living in that area, transportation facilities available, nature of employment and the availability of space and costs. In January 1936, the committee presented a plan to the SSB calling for the establishment of 89 district offices and 517 branch offices. However, due to budget constraints the total number was reduced from 606 to 397 offices. Each of the 397 offices were assigned to one of 12 geographic regions that made up the field organization. The first field offices were the 12 regional offices. These would service command centers across the U.S. With the task of sharing the workload of enrollment so that the SSB administrative headquarters in Washington, D.C. Would not be overwhelmed. By the end of 1936, 12 regional offices were open in Boston, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Birmingham, Minneapolis, Kansas City, San Antonio, Denver, and San Francisco. There were also two territorial offices. One in Honolulu Hawaii and the other in Juneau, Alaska.
The first field office properly known as a district office opened in Austin, Texas on October 14th, 1936. Why Austin Texas? To understand this decision we need to go back to august 1935. Following the passage of the social security act, the budget appropriation bill was filibustered in the senate by senator Huey Long, a democrat from Louisiana. Long was a staunch opponent of president Roosevelt and the social security act. Congress adjourned without approving a budget for social security. As soon as the new session of congress convened in January 1936, house appropriations committee chairman, James Buchanan, a democrat from Texas, raised questions regarding the social security board’s budget estimates. SSB chairman John Winant met with congressman Buchanan; and much to his surprise, learned that the representative wanted to cut the SSB’s budget by 25%. Toward the end of the meeting, Buchanan raised the issue of the placement of the SSB’s 12 regional offices. Chairman Buchanan informed Winant that he wanted one of the regional offices to be placed in the chairman’s hometown of Austin, Texas. The congressman made it clear that if Winant wanted his help on the SSB’s budget request that this was the quid pro quo that he had in mind. This presented a problem for Winant since the board had already selected San Antonio as the regional office for the southwest and had made a hiring commitment to the individual who would serve as the regional director. Eventually, SSB executive director Frank Bane stepped in and negotiated a compromise. The deal agreed upon was that Buchanan would stop his insistence that a regional office be located in Austin in exchange for the placement of the first field office in Austin. The final social security appropriation passed and was reduced by slightly less than 20%. Former foreign service employee Fred Rogers completed his training in Washington, D.C. And was named district manager for Austin. When Fred turned the key to the old post office building on October 14, 1936 he found a musty interior and equipment that consisted solely of dilapidated desks and chairs left behind by the post office. Three people visited the Austin office on opening day, including two reporters and congressman, James Buchanan. Fred spent more than a month as the sole employee before a staff of 50 was eventually hired.
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