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May 1930

State Pensions or Charity?
by Alice Hamilton

I must … join with those who stand for state pensions for the aged poor rather than support given through private charity …

Not long ago I was in an iron foundry, watching the pouring of molten iron into moulds. I noticed one man, older than the rest, staggering along with his heavy ladle, which he could only just carry, although, arrived at his moulds, he did a neat job. He was plainly in constant fear that he could not make it; he was straining every muscle to keep up with the others, to hold on to his job. As I watched him, sensing keenly his fear and his desperate effort, I heard my guide say: ‘Come back here in three months and you won’t see any of these men. I’ll show you what we are doing now.’ He took me to another building and there I saw an automatic machine pouring iron into moulds, doing the work of a dozen men and under the charge of three slim lads of less than twenty years. The man I had been watching had no need to strain his heart over his work—he was doomed to be scrapped in any case …

In thinking of old-age pensions we must take into consideration a great new class of needy people. These are not men who have lived all their lives on the edge of poverty; they are self-respecting artisans, skilled workers, men who have made good wages and held their heads high. At a moment when such a man still possesses all his old skill of eye and hand, and the gains of long experience, he finds himself no longer wanted, of less use in our American social system than his little feather-brained daughter with a year’s training in a business school …

It will be harder and harder for him to find any sort of job, even if he dyes his hair and makes pitiful efforts to hide the senility of fifty years … Personally, I am very loath to accept the verdict that a dependence on the benevolence of the uppermost class toward the lowest class is the only possible American way of solving the problem of the poor, or even that it makes for a healthy state and contentment at the bottom of society …

The American workman may earn high wages … but even if he does, he must live all his working life under the shadow of three Damoclean swords: sickness, loss of his job, and old age, and against these our country, the richest in the world, gives him no protection.

Would generous gifts to organized charity remedy this lack? Well, let him who asks that question imagine for a moment that he himself is faced at sixty-five with the alternatives of private charity, administered with the greatest tact and understanding, and a state pension administered as a matter of official routine. I think there can be no doubt of his choice.

Vol. 145, No. 5, pp. 683–687

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