NEWCASTLE – When I first met Frances Perkins at Cornell in early 1960, I asked her what she regarded as her most important contribution. Her immediate reply: “Social Security.”

As we commemorate the 77th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it is worth asking how this first woman Cabinet member was able to secure this keystone in the arch of the New Deal.

Kirstin Downey, my co-editor of the book “A Promise to All Generations,” has helped us comprehend Perkins’ pivotal contributions to our social safety net in her highly regarded biography, “The Woman Behind the New Deal.” Because the New Deal safety net is under attack in the current political struggles over the federal deficit, with Social Security more vulnerable than it has ever been before, a brief survey of Perkins’ career may be instructive in understanding key issues in our present struggle.

When Al Smith became governor of New York in 1919, he named Perkins to the five-member Industrial Commission. At the time she assumed this position, women had not yet secured the right to vote.

Throughout the Smith administrations, New York state was ahead of all other states in addressing employee working conditions as well as regulations governing industries.

Perkins was at Smith’s side as his proactive leadership on such problems helped secure him the Democratic nomination for president in 1928.

When Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor of New York in 1929, he continued Smith’s progressive policies, which were now even more urgently needed as the Great Depression hit the nation’s largest and most powerful state.

Perkins was the policy bridge between the two administrations, becoming the commissioner of labor under Gov. Roosevelt. Her pivotal role in the development of public policy to deal with the crises created by the Great Depression came into sharp focus when the president-elect urged Perkins to become his secretary of labor, and, thereby, the first woman Cabinet member.

As she had done when Roosevelt asked her to be state commissioner of labor, Perkins had her list of legislative objectives, which she required him to support if she were to accept his offer. FDR assured Frances Perkins of his support. Over the next 12 years, they achieved all of their goals, except national health insurance.

A serious student of old-age pension plans in European countries, Perkins in 1934 recommended that President Roosevelt appoint a Committee on Economic Security.

Under very tight time constraints plus growing agitation in the country for various radical old-age pension proposals, the committee, which Perkins chaired, met the president’s Christmas deadline in 1934 and presented him with the proposal that, with some modifications, became the Social Security Act of 1935.

With FDR’s own critical input, Social Security was set up as a social insurance program, relying on payroll taxes as the individual’s premiums, which would guarantee a pension for retired or disabled individuals or for widows and children when their breadwinner died.

In its provisions, which saw modifications over the years, including extension of benefits to categories of workers initially excluded, President Roosevelt and his secretary of labor, along with their allies in Congress, sought, in FDR’s words, “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”

In our present debate over the future of Social Security, it is clear that this vision is not shared by the opponents of Social Security, who focus instead on the individual’s responsibility to care for himself or herself under all conditions.

Our debate today is on the proper role of government and the importance of government investment in our infrastructure — our roads, bridges, schools, hospitals — as well as in protecting the quality of our rivers, lakes, streams and air and the health of our people.

For Frances Perkins, the present Great Recession would be a chance to bring together the country’s infrastructure needs with the need for jobs for unemployed men and women.

For those on the other side of this debate, the effort to move Social Security toward a needs-based welfare program, while those with more “smarts” take over their own pension investments through the stock market, symbolizes the effort to put the full responsibility on the individual for his or her well-being, even in old age.

Frances Perkins captured the larger vision of what she and FDR understood to be the proper role of government. “The people are what matter to government, and a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.”

Christopher N. Breiseth is the immediate past president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute in Hyde Park, N.Y. He serves on the board of directors of the Frances Perkins Center, a Newcastle-based nonprofit.