Wilbur D. Mills began his political career as White County Judge at the height of the Great Depression. The Democrat was later elected to Congress, representing Arkansas’s Second District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Marking the 80th anniversary of Social Security, KUAR’s Chris Hickey recently spoke with Kay C. Goss, author of Mr. Chairman: The Life and Legacy of Wilbur D. Mills about how the congressman affected social welfare legislation, like Social Security and Medicare, during his tenure.
Using his considerable power as chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, Mills was instrumental in shaping many acts of Congress throughout the middle part of the 20th century.
It was this political influence, and his experience of witnessing the poverty of rural Arkansas, that likely drove his interest in social welfare programs, Goss says.
“[Social Security] was a basic program but it was nothing like the program that we take for granted today and Mr. Mills was largely the architect of what we now know as Social Security,” Goss says.
Mills is credited with advancing disability coverage through the program. When the legislation was first passed, Goss says, “it applied strictly to people who were on payrolls of companies... But he changed it so that it also applied to farmers, which made a great difference.” She notes that he pushed for the program to apply to public employees as well.
Though initially opposed to Medicare, in 1965 Mills reversed his stance and advocated for its passage.
Mills remained chairman of Ways and Means for many years, until 1974, when a scandalous affair and revelations of alcoholism forced an early political retirement. He died in 1992.