I’ve been coming across the words poorfarm or poorhouse in issues of the Red Bank Register. I recently came across this editorial about how the poor were treated before Social Security was enacted.
More than 100 years ago, on May 17, 1911, the Town Talk column noted: "When our aged people become unable to support themselves, we send them to a poorhouse, or we dole out to them a small sum for their maintenance. This money comes from the local taxes and is known as the poor fund."
The article goes on to explain that the money is given out by men who are appointed to care for the poor "regardless as to whether they have been frugal and industrious or not."
How humiliating it sounds to me. The words poor fund and dole out, along with the men who make the decision as to who is deserving and who is not, stinks of paternalism and superiority. No wonder there were people who would rather die than take the money.
The 1911 article, published more than 20 years before the establishment of social security insurance, sets the stage for the arguments that ensued over who is responsible for the welfare of older people:
"The tax is raised and the money is given out because it is believed to be a duty of society to care for those who are too old or too feeble to take care of themselves. Almost every country except the United States has an old age pension law. The pension is paid only to those who have no means of support in their old age.
"The pension ranges from about $1.50 to $4.50 in various countries. If the pensioner has an income equal to the amount of the pension he would receive, he gets no pension at all; if he has a small income, less than the amount of the pension provided by the government, he receives from the government only so much, as will bring his total income, including the amount received from the government, up to the amount of the pension allowed.”
The fear was that the granting of an old age pension would make people spend all of their earnings and not save for old age; but, the article states, "It has not worked that way in the countries where it has been tried. People are just as eager to lay-up something for their old age as they were before a poor fund was ever thought of. The amount of the pension is small, and there is hardly a young man or a young woman in the world today who does not hope to have more than the amount of the pension as an income in old age.
"But the payment of an old age pension would help in many ways. It would relieve many a woman and many a man from the haunting fear of penniless misery in old age. Relieved from this thought, they would be able to live stronger and happier lives, they would be more useful to the community, and they could face old age, with its griefs and sorrows, more whole-heartedly."
I remember my mother telling me a very sad story about her father, my grandfather. It must have happened sometime in the mid 1930s when my mother was a young woman who worked for Long Island Lighting Company and her father was an elderly retired fireman.
It was Christmas time and he came to her with tears in his eyes and said that all he had in the bank was $5. Here was a man who worked hard all of his life, loved his wife and I don’t believe ever cheated, didn’t drink or gamble, raised eight children of whom my mother was by far the youngest and adored his grandchildren.
I’m assuming he had a small pension from the New York City Fire Department, but it was barely enough to support himself and his wife, who had no pension because she stayed home to raise their large family.
My mother gave her father what she could and then contacted her seven siblings who, for the most part, did nothing because they, too, were struggling. My grandparents' struggle may have been somewhat alleviated by the signing of the Social Security Act in 1935 and then WW II ended the depression and my grandmother died.
It the meantime, my mother married and had to live with her in-laws because they, too, were old and needed help. After she was married about three years, my grandfather moved in with my mother and father who had gotten an apartment by then because my father was making good money working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
My grandfather was still alive when I was born and lived with us until he died, after a prolonged and painful illness, when I was 7 years old.
In a December 1921 issue of the Register, there was a brief article that two men from the Red Bank lodge of Elks "paid a visit to the county poor farm near Wayside on Sunday morning as agents and messengers of Santa Claus. There are about fifty inmates at the poor farm, at present.
"The trip was made in Mr. Long's big truck. A lot of gifts were taken in the truck and the quests at the pour farm received presents of apples, oranges, candy and similar things. Smoking and chewing tobacco were given to those who use tobacco. Two little children, a boy and a girl, were at the poor farm and they received toys. Considerable improvement was noted at the poor farm over the conditions of a year ago."
This too makes me squeamish. First of all, these men are doling out gifts to poor people as though they were children, or worse inmates in a prison. And the part about conditions at the poor farm makes me wonder what they were like the year before. I can just see these old people required to take gifts from someone dressed as Santa Claus and expected to be grateful, but wanting to crawl into the grave.
This method of caring for the elderly and poor members of society came to us, as so many things have, from dear old England. According to Social Security Online, when the English-speaking colonists arrived in America, they brought with them the ideas and customs they knew in England, including the so-called Poor Laws:
"They featured local taxation to support the destitute; they discriminated between the 'worthy' and the 'unworthy' poor; and all relief was a local responsibility … 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 … 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.”
As far as I’m concerned the people discriminating against the poor should have been wearing the P, because they were punitive, priggish, parsimonious, pawns of the patriarchy.
Here is where my grandfather was left behind: "Following the outbreak of the (not-so) 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 percent of the elderly were actually receiving benefits under these states plans, and the average benefit amount was about 65 cents a day."
With the coming to office of President Roosevelt in 1932, the idea of social insurance, which was already widespread in Europe, would become an innovative alternative. "The Social Security program that would eventually be adopted in late 1935 relied for its core principles on the concept of social insurance, which was a respectable and serious intellectual tradition … " the Register column said.
One of the first American books on social insurance was by a Columbia University economics professor named Henry Seager. Seager explained the principle of old-age security based on social insurance in his 1910 book, "Social Insurance, A Program of Social Reform."
He wrote: "As changing economic conditions are rendering the dependence of old people on their descendants for support increasingly precarious, so, on the other hand, new obstacles are arising to providing for old age through voluntary saving ... The proper method of safeguarding old age is clearly through some plan of insurance ... for every wage earner to attempt to save enough by himself to provide for his old age is needlessly costly. The intelligent course is for him to combine with other wage earners to accumulate a common fund out of which old-age annuities may be paid to those who live long enough to need it."
When President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, he said, "We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family …"
There is a fight going on today about how to fix the cash-strapped Social Security program, especially now that the huge baby boomer population is beginning to collect. I believe there is a relatively painless fix; to raise the maximum taxable amount that people pay into social security. Right now the maximum taxable amount, based on earnings, is $106,800.
I know that is a tax increase for some in the upper income brackets, but would probably not be felt by most. The 2011 social security contribution rate for 2011 is 4.2 percent for employees, 6.2 percent for employers, and 10.4 percent for self-employed people.
The Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 reduced 2011 Social Security tax rates for employees and self-employed people by two percentage points, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent for employees and from 12.4 percent to 10.4 percent for self-employed people. Without further changes in the law, these tax rates will return to 6.2 percent and 12.4 percent, respectively, beginning in 2012. I believe they should be allowed to return to the higher percentage.
Another cost saving method would be to raise the age that people can start collecting from 65 years to 70 years old since people are living longer, and are healthier than in the past. However, it should be done in a way that takes into consideration those who work in industries where they cannot work until age 70 because they work in labor intensive jobs or for those who are physically incapable of continuing in their jobs past 65, but are not so disabled that they would be eligible for Social Security Disability payments.
It is my experience that the Social Security program works very well. Millions of people across the country get their checks on time every month and never have to worry about when their payments will come. Fortunately for my mother, Social Security was established long before she retired so she never had to come to me or my sister for help. She was a proud woman, so I know it would have bothered her very much.
She was very pragmatic about money and didn’t live above her means, but she also did not live a life of denial. She saved as much money as she could on her small salary as a secretary and was healthy enough that she could work until she was 70 years old, thereby increasing her retirement income.
Poorhouses are a thing of the past. Now, when the elderly and disabled don’t have family able to take care of them, or simply want to be independent, they have options like Luftman Towers in Lincroft, one of a number of affordable housing buildings in Middletown.
I would hate to see this country revert back to a time when a decent person like my grandfather has to ask for a handout from a family member, or worse yet, take a handout from a man dressed like Santa Claus who works on Wall Street.