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Economic Security: Part I

A Brief History of Economic Security: Part I

NoteThis account of Economic Security is a portion of a report entitled “Historical Background and Development of Social Security” prepared by the Office of the Historian in the Social Security Administration.  The entire report can be viewed at

Introduction: All peoples throughout all of human history have faced the uncertainties brought on by unemployment, illness, disability, death and old age. In the realm of economics, these inevitable facets of life are said to be threats to one’s economic security.

For the ancient Greeks economic security took the form of amphorae of olive oil. Olive oil was very nutritious and could be stored for relatively long periods. To provide for themselves in times of need the Greeks stockpiled olive oil and this was their form of economic security.

In medieval Europe, the feudal system was the basis of economic security, with the feudal lord responsible for the economic survival of the serfs working on the estate. The feudal lord had economic security as long as there was a steady supply of serfs to work the estate, and the serfs had economic security only so long as they were fit enough to provide their labor. During the Middle Ages the idea of charity as a formal economic arrangement also appeared for the first time.

Family members and relatives have always felt some degree of responsibility to one another, and to the extent that the family had resources to draw upon, this was often a source of economic security, especially for the aged or infirm. And land itself was an important form of economic security for those who owned it or who lived on farms.

These then are the traditional sources of economic security: assets; labor; family; and charity.

The Rise of Formal Systems of Economic Security: As societies grew in economic and social complexity, and as isolated farms gave way to cities and villages, Europe witnessed the development of formal organizations of various types that sought to protect the economic security of their members. Probably the earliest of these organizations were guilds formed during the Middle Ages by merchants or craftsmen. Individuals who had a common trade or business banded together into mutual aid societies, or guilds. These guilds regulated production and employment and they also provided a range of benefits to their members including financial help in times of poverty or illness and contributions to help defray the expenses when a member died.

Out of the tradition of the guilds emerged the friendly societies. These organizations began appearing in England in the 16th century. Again organized around a common trade or business, the friendly societies would evolve into what we now call fraternal organizations and were the forerunners of modern trade unions.

In addition to the types of economic security provided by the guilds, the fraternal organizations and some trade unions would begin the practice of providing actuarially-based life insurance to their members. The friendly societies and the fraternal organizations would grow dramatically following the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the 19th century one of out every nine Englishmen belonged to one of these organizations.

Among early U.S. fraternal organizations that we are familiar with even into the present day were: the Freemasons (which came to America in 1730); the Odd Fellows (1819); Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (1868); Loyal Order of Moose (1888); and the Fraternal Order of Eagles (1898).

The English “Poor Laws:” As the state began to assume responsibility for economic security, the English began the development of a series of “Poor Laws” adopted to provide help to the poor, as the problem of economic security was seen primarily as a problem afflicting the poor.

The English Poor Law of 1601 was the first systematic codification of English ideas about the responsibility of the state to provide for the welfare of its citizens. It provided for taxation to fund relief activities; it distinguished between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor; relief was local and community controlled; and almshouses were eventually established to house those on relief. The law was at once both generous and harsh. Generous in that it acknowledged the government’s duty to provide for the welfare of the poor, but harsh in that it viewed the poor as highly undesirable characters and treated them accordingly.

There were a series of changes and “reforms” of the “Poor Laws” over the years, but this essential structure was the tradition the pilgrims brought with them when they journeyed to the New World.

Economic Security in America: When the English-speaking colonists arrived in the New World they brought with them the ideas and customs they knew in England, including the “Poor Laws.” The first colonial poor laws were fashioned after those of the Poor Law of 1601. They featured local taxation to support the destitute; they discriminated between the “worthy” and the “unworthy” poor; and all relief was a local responsibility. No public institutions for the poor or standardized eligibility criteria would exist for nearly a century. It was up to local town elders to decide who was worthy of support and how that support would be provided.

As colonial America grew more complex, diverse and mobile, the localized systems of poor relief were strained. The result was some limited movement to state financing and the creation of almshouses and poorhouses to “contain” the problem. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries most poverty relief was provided in the almshouses and poorhouses. Relief was made as unpleasant as possible in order to “discourage” dependency. Those receiving relief could lose their personal property, the right to vote, the right to move, and in some cases were required to wear a large “P” on their clothing to announce their status.

Support outside the institutions was called “outdoor relief” and was looked upon with distrust by most citizens. It was felt that “outdoor relief” made things too easy on the poor who should be discouraged from the habit of poverty in every way possible. Nevertheless, since it was expensive to build and operate the poorhouses, and since it was relatively easy to dispense cash or in-kind support, some outdoor relief did emerge. Even so, prevailing American attitudes toward poverty relief were always skeptical and the role of government was kept to the minimum. So much so that by as late as 1915 at most only 25% of the money spent on outdoor relief was from public funds.

Old Age in Colonial America: Although the need for economic security affects all ages and classes of society, one particularly acute aspect of this need is the problem of old age and the possibility of retirement after a long life of labor. Retirement, a feature of life we now take so much for granted, was not always readily available, and it was a struggle to develop adequate systems of retirement.

One of the first people to propose a scheme for retirement security that is recognizable as a forerunner of modern social insurance was Revolutionary War figure Thomas Paine. His last great pamphlet, published in the winter of 1795, was a controversial call for the establishment of a public system of economic security for the new nation. Entitled, “Agrarian Justice,” it called for the creation of a system whereby those inheriting property would pay a 10% inheritance tax to create a special fund out of which a one-time stipend of 15 pounds sterling would be paid to each citizen upon attaining age 21, to give them a start in life, and annual benefits of 10 pounds sterling to be paid to every person age 50 and older, to guard against poverty in old-age.

Civil War Pensions: America’s First “Social Security” Program: Although Social Security did not really arrive in America until 1935, there was one important precursor, that offered something we could recognize as a social security program, to one special segment of the American population. Following the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, and hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans. In fact, immediately following the Civil War a much higher proportion of the population was disabled or survivors of deceased breadwinners than at any time in America’s history. This led to the development of a generous pension program, with interesting similarities to later developments in Social Security. (The first national pension program for soldiers was actually passed in early 1776, prior even to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Throughout America’s ante-bellum period pensions of limited types were paid to veterans of America’s various wars. But it was with the creation of Civil War pensions that a full-fledged pension system developed in America for the first time.)

The Civil War Pension program began shortly after the start of the War, with the first legislation in 1862 providing for benefits linked to disabilities “…incurred as a direct consequence of . . .military duty.” Widows and orphans could receive pensions equal in amount to that which would have been payable to their deceased solider if he had been disabled. In 1890 the link with service-connected disability was broken, and any disabled Civil War veteran qualified for benefits. In 1906, old-age was made a sufficient qualification for benefits. So that by 1910, Civil War veterans and their survivors enjoyed a program of disability, survivors and old-age benefits similar in some ways to the later Social Security programs. By 1910, over 90% of the remaining Civil War veterans were receiving benefits under this program, although they constituted barely .6% of the total U.S. population of that era. Civil War pensions were also an asset that attracted young wives to elderly veterans whose pensions they could inherit as the widow of a war veteran. Indeed, there were still surviving widows of Civil War veterans receiving Civil War pensions as late as 1999!

In the aggregate, military pensions were an important source of economic security in the early years of the nation. In 1893, for example, the $165 million spent on military pensions was the largest single expenditure ever made by the federal government. In 1894 military pensions accounted for 37% of the entire federal budget. (The Civil War pension system was not without its critics.)

But these figures based on the federal budget exaggerate the role of military pensions in providing overall economic security since the federal government’s share of the economy was much smaller in earlier times. Also, there were features of the system which meant that many veterans did not receive any benefits. For example, former Confederate soldiers and their families were barred from receiving Civil War pensions. So in 1910 the per capita average military pension expenditure for residents of Ohio was $3.36 and for Indiana it was $3.90. By contrast, the per capita average for the Southern states was less than 50 cents (it was 17 cents in South Carolina).

Despite the fact that America had a “social security” program in the form of Civil War pensions since 1862, this precedent did not extend itself to the general society. The expansion of these types of benefit programs to the general population, under Social Security, would have to await additional social and historical developments.

The Company Pension: Prior to the rise of company pension plans, paternalistic companies sometimes “graduated” older workers to token jobs at reduced pay. A few paid some form of retirement stipend—but only if the company was so inclined, since there were no rights to any kind of retirement benefit. Most older workers were simply dismissed when their productive years were behind them.

One of the first formal company pension plans for industrial workers was introduced in 1882 by the Alfred Dolge Company, a builder of pianos and organs. Dolge withheld 1% of each workers’ pay and placed it into a pension fund, to which the company added 6% interest each year. Dolge viewed providing for older workers as being a business cost like any other, arguing that just as his company had to provide for the depreciation of its machinery, he should also “provide for the depreciation of his employees.” Despite Mr. Dolge’s progressive ideas and his best intentions, the plan proved largely unsuccessful since it required a worker to spend many years in continuous employment with the company, and labor mobility, then as now, meant that relatively few workers spend their whole working career with one company. Not only was the Dolge Plan one of the first formal company pension systems in industrial America, it was also one of the first to disappear when the company went out of business a few years later.

The biggest problem with company-provided pensions was that the percentage of workers anticipating an employment-related pension from their company or their union was tiny. Indeed, in 1900 there were a total of five companies in the United States (including Dolge) offering their industrial workers company-sponsored pensions. As late as 1932, only about 15% of the laborforce had any kind of potential employment-related pension. And because the pensions were often granted or withheld at the option of the employer, most of these workers would never see a retirement pension. Indeed, only about 5% of the elderly were in fact receiving retirement pensions in 1932.

So the company pension was an option not available to most Americans during the time prior to the advent of Social Security.

The March of Coxey’s Army: The Great Depression of the 1930s was not the only one in America’s history. In fact, it was the third depression of the modern era, following previous economic collapses in the 1840s and again in the 1890s. During the depression of the 1890s unemployment was widespread and many Americans came to the realization that in an industrialized society the threat to economic security represented by unemployment could strike anyone–even those able and willing to work. Protest movements arose–the most quixotic and notable being that of “Coxey’s Army.”

Jacob Coxey was an unsuccessful Ohio politician and industrialist who, in 1894, called on the unemployed from all over the country to join him

Jacob S. Coxey
Jacob S. Coxey Source – Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number, LC-DIG-ggbain-15534

in an “army” marching on Washington. Ten of thousands of unemployed workers started marches, but by the time Coxey and his group finally made it to Washington only about 500 hard-core believers remained. Coxey himself was promptly arrested for walking on the grass of the Capitol Building and the protest fizzled out. Coxey later became an advocate of public works as a remedy for unemployment and ran for president as the Farmer-Labor party candidate in 1932 and 1936. (Coxey was also an ardent proponent of the free-silver monetary policy and an opponent of the gold standard. Perhaps to demonstrate his earnestness on monetary issues he even named his son Legal Tender Coxey!)

Although his march failed, Coxey’s Army was a harbinger of an issue that would rise to prominence as unemployment insurance would become a key element in the future Social Security Act. (Ohio would continue to play an important role in the development of unemployment insurance as its state program was one of two looked to as models for the new federal program–the other being the program in operation in Wisconsin.)

State Old-Age Pensions: Following the outbreak of the Great Depression, poverty among the elderly grew dramatically. The best estimates are that in 1934 over half of the elderly in America lacked sufficient income to be self-supporting. Despite this, state welfare pensions for the elderly were practically non-existent before 1930. A spurt of pension legislation was passed in the years immediately prior to passage of the Social Security Act, so that 30 states had some form of old-age pension program by 1935. However, these programs were generally inadequate and ineffective. Only about 3% of the elderly were actually receiving benefits under these states plans, and the average benefit amount was about 65 cents a day.

There were many reasons for the low participation in state-run pension systems. Many elderly were reluctant to “go on welfare.” Restrictive eligibility criteria kept many poor seniors from qualifying. Some jurisdictions, while having state programs on the books, failed to actually implement them. Many of the state-passed pension laws provided for counties within the state to opt to participate in the pension program. As a result, in 1929 of the six states with operating pension laws on the books only 53 of the 264 counties eligible to adopt a pension plan actually did so. After 1929, the States began enacting laws without county options. By 1932 seventeen states had old age pension laws, although none were in the south, and 87% of the money available under these laws were expended in only three states (California, Massachusetts and New York).