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The War Risk Insurance Act

Creator: Paul H. Douglas (author)
Date: May 1918
Publication: Journal of Political Economy
Source: Available at selected libraries

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The War Risk Insurance Bill (1) (H.R. 5723) which was approved October 6 last is one of the most important items in our list of wartime legislation. It embodies a comprehensive program for: (a) the support of the families of the men in service; (b) compensation for those killed, disabled, or enfeebled in service, together with provision for the re-education of the disabled; (c) voluntary insurance at low rates, administered by the government.

(1) The War Risk Insurance Act here under discussion is to be distinguished from the War Risk Insurance Act of September 2, 1914, which pertained to shipping.


Prior to the present Great War governments had taken few steps to relieve, distress in the families of soldiers, or to provide in advance for the future of those who returned from the front, or for their families should they not return. In every past war the soldiers and their families have indeed suffered more than perhaps any other section of the population. There was some relief by the individual states during our Civil War, (2) but decentralized administration combined with scanty knowledge of scientific relief decreased the effectiveness of the aid offered. The pension system adopted by the government has been notoriously abused: the five billion dollars spent for this purpose have been used for political aggrandizement rather than for adequate relief.

(2) See an article by Carl R. Fish, "Social Relief in the Northwest during the Civil War," American Historical Review, XXII (January, 1917), 309-24.


All the belligerent countries, realizing the necessity of protecting living standards at home and of freeing the soldiers from anxieties, have provided some form of government aid to the families of men in service. The amounts of these allowances vary widely, but they are usually graduated according to the size of the family. (3) In Great Britain and Russia government allowances are paid to the wives and children of every man in the service irrespective of economic need, while in other countries aid is given only if the families are actually in need of assistance. (4)

(3) Canada provides a flat separation allowance irrespective of the size of the family. This is supplemented, however, by grants from the Canadian Patriotic Fund graduated according to the size of the family and the relative cost of living in the locality. For a description of the Canadian system see S. Herbert Wolfe, Care of Dependents of Enlisted Men in Canada, Children's Bureau, "Miscellaneous Series," No. 10; Paul U. Kellogg, The Patriotic Fund of Canada, American Red Cross Bulletin 155; H. R. Y. Reid, "War Relief in Canada," National Conference of Social Work (1917), pp. 126-39.

(4) For a description of foreign systems see S. Herbert Wolfe, Governmental Provisions in the United States and Foreign Countries for Members of the Military Forces and Their Dependents, Children's Bureau, "Miscellaneous Series," No. 11.


In 1916, Congress took tardy steps to relieve the distress among the families dependent upon enlisted men in the Army during their service on the Mexican border, but the relief offered was poorly co-ordinated, (5) and the payments were made irrespective of the number of dependents.

(5) A total of $6,250,000 was appropriated by Congress for this purpose. The allowance varied according to the amounts the soldiers had been previously contributing to the support of their families. The maximum monthly grant to any family was $50.00. (39 Stat. L., 649, 801, 859.)


Soon after our formal declaration of war the American government took steps providing for the families of men in service. The Council of National Defense appointed Judge Julian W. Mack, of Chicago, to draft legislation to provide not only government allowances but also compensation to the disabled, together with pensions for widows and dependents.


Secretary McAdoo, pursuing an independent investigation, called a conference of life insurance officials on July 2 to consider whether insurance should be offered by the government or by the private companies. The private companies had been compelled to levy prohibitive premiums because of the great extra risk and the lack of any adequate war mortality tables. In some cases the yearly premiums ran as high as $100 per $1,000 of insurance. (6) At this July conference Vice-President Woodward, of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, alone made a definite offer. He stated that his company would write a total of $300,000,000 worth of insurance at a yearly premium rate of $58.00 per $1,000. By a vote of 103 to 4 the insurance men finally approved the issuing of insurance by the government. (7) A committee of insurance experts appointed by Secretary McAdoo to advise the government, however, later expressed itself as opposed to the method of insurance proposed. The nature of this opposition will be discussed later in this article.

(6) Commercial and Financial Chronicle, July 7, 1917.

(7) Ibid


Judge Mack, with the assistance of S. Herbert Wolfe, Julia C. Lathrop, and others, drafted the bill during the month of July. It was then submitted to Secretary McAdoo, who gave it his hearty approval; transmitted to President Wilson, who in turn expressed his appreciation; and was introduced simultaneously in the House and Senate on August 10. Representative Alexander and Senator Simmons were its sponsors in the House and Senate respectively.

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