Old Age Pensions
A 1934 Speech by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt Before the D.C. Branch of the American Association for Social Security, the Council of Social Agencies, and the Monday Evening Club and published in Social Security 8 February 1934: 3-4.
I do not feel that I have to discuss the merits of old age pensions with my audience. We have come beyond that because it is many years now since we have accepted the fact, I think, pretty well throughout the country, that it is the right of old people when they have worked hard all their lives, and, through no fault of theirs, have not been able to provide for their old age, to be cared for in the last years of their life. We did it at first in what I consider a terrible way–through poorhouses–but now we have become more humane and more enlightened, and little by little we are passing old age pension laws in the various states.
The state that I am most familiar with is New York. A pension law was passed there during my husband’s administration. I would like tonight–because there is a law here under consideration for the District of Columbia, and because I feel that the law should be as nearly a model law as possible because the eyes of the nation will be focused on it–to discuss a few of the things that have come up in the administration of our law there.
No fixed sum is specified either in New York or in Massachusetts. I think that is a very good thing because it allows the investigation of every individual case by trained workers. It saves money, I believe, to the taxpayers and yet allows the needs of each case to be met. But it requires a good administration and it means that you are more dependent on having really good trained case workers; otherwise you will have unequal administration and unfairness in many ways, and, of course, the minute you have that, you have unfairness on the part of the people who are benefitting.
But we have an age limit: the age limit is 70 in New York State and I think that is a bad feature. I have found that in many cases where people have appealed to me much suffering might have been saved if it had been possible to have more elasticity. There are people at 70 who are better able to get along than some people at 65 or even 60, and it seems to me that in considering a law there should be some arrangement made for flexibility as to age and some other consideration besides age alone.
I also think that our law has another disadvantage: it is dependent on yearly appropriations. The expense is met half by the locality and half by the state. I believe that we should depend, when this becomes universal, on some method of insurance–some fund which is paid into over a whole period of a person’s life, or earning life at least.
The reason that I am not discussing the necessity for this law is that I feel that most of us have had personal experiences which have brought that necessity home to us. But I will tell you what first made me feel what it would mean if old people could have enough money to stay on in their own homes: There was an old family–two old sisters and two old brothers–who had lived on a farm not far from us in the country just as long as I could remember. I was away a great deal and I didn’t see them often, but on Election Day either my husband or I usually drove them to the polls, and we always talked about farm conditions and whatever the happenings in their lives had been during the year. Well, I did not see them for two or three years. Then, one Election Day, I went to get them and I found one old lady in tears because that day one surviving brother had been taken to the insane asylum because the worry of how they were going to get enough to eat and enough to pay their taxes had finally driven him insane, and she was waiting to go to the poorhouse. The other old sister had already gone, and the other brother had died.
Well, I can hardly tell you how I felt. In the first place, I felt I had been such a bad neighbor that I did not know just what to do. I felt so guilty, and then it seemed to me as though the whole community was to blame. They had lived there all their lives; they had done their duty as citizens; they had been kind to the people about them; they had paid their taxes; they had given to the church and to the charities. All their lives they had done what good citizens should do and they simply had never been able to save. There always had been someone in the family who needed help; some young person to start; somebody who had gone to the city and who needed his rent paid. Somehow or other there was always some demand and no money was saved. And if I had needed any argument to settle the question for me–that the community owes to its old people their own home as long as they possibly can live at home–these old neighbors would have supplied it. And I think it costs us less in the end. We may, of course, run our poorhouses very inexpensively; we may find that institutional care is inexpensive, but I think our old people will live at home as cheaply as they possibly can.
We can hardly be happy knowing that throughout this country so many fine citizens who have done all that they could for their young people must end their days divided–for they usually are divided in the poorhouse. Old people love their own things even more than young people do. It means so much to sit in the same old chair you sat in for a great many years, to see the same picture that you always looked at!
And that is what an old age security law will do. It will allow the old people to end their days in happiness, and it will take the burden from the younger people who often have all the struggle that they can stand. It will end a bitter situation–bitter for the old people because they hate to be a burden on the young, and bitter for the young because they would like to give gladly but find themselves giving grudgingly and bitterly because it is taking away from what they need for the youth that is coming and is looking to them for support. For that reason I believe that this bill will be a model bill and pass without any opposition this year.
Source: Republished with permission from Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University: Social Security 8 February 1934: 3-4. More information is available at: http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/documents/