State Pensions or Charity?

"It is time for us to devise ways of meeting the inevitable disaster of old age and the almost equally inevitable disasters of sickness and unemployment, and these must be ways that will not fail when the stock market breaks or a new machine is invented, that will function in the lean years as in the fat years, and that can be accepted without loss of self-respect.

In the February number of the Atlantic, Mr. Walter Gifford discusses the present-day movement for state pensions for the aged poor and sees in it an attack on our characteristically American method of dealing with the problems of poverty, a method which consists in the employment of trained social workers to administer charitable funds provided by the free-will gifts of the well-to-do. He believes that, whatever may be true of other countries, this method of voluntary action for meeting the welfare needs of our people is in keeping with our social and political philosophy, a philosophy that has made us not only politically stable and economically prosperous, but contented. 'It is as sound a principle in welfare work as it is in other activities that in America governmental agencies should do nothing that other agencies can and will do.' He pays a very fitting tribute to the social agencies which 'have done so much to keep American society healthy at the bottom,' and he is convinced that if they were to be abolished suddenly, immediate and serious discontent would arise. To prevent this, and to provide for such new demands as old-age pensions, he urges business men to be generous in their gifts to organized charity.

Mr. Gifford's tribute to the high character of the social work done in this country is not only deserved, it is needed, for there is far too little public appreciation of the knowledge, the resourcefulness, and the human understanding and tact that trained social workers bring to bear on the difficulties with which they must deal. There is truly a quality about it which, as Mr. Gifford says, is lacking in the relief given by state agencies, but then there is also a quality about state aid which makes it more acceptable to certain kinds of people. For this reason and for others I must take issue with Mr. Gifford and join with those who stand for state pensions for the aged poor rather than support given through private charity.

Let me first speak of the attitude of the social workers themselves toward these two alternatives. The list of members of the American Society for Old Age Security contains a number of names prominent in social work, such as Jane Addams, Jacob Billikopf, Alexander Johnson, Florence Kelley, John A. Lapp, John A. Ryan, Mary K. Simkhovitch, and I feel sure that most social workers will not think that in urging the State to provide a pension system for the old we are implying a lack of confidence in voluntary charity. They would probably be the first to say that this new demand would impose upon them a burden too great to bear, even if they thought that private charity was the best way of dealing with the problem. Mr. Gifford says that the only truly American way of meeting the need is by voluntary gifts, but he must have forgotten the many fields of welfare work which have already passed from private hands into those of the State. It is only necessary to mention the care of the insane poor and the feeble-minded, the greater number of the sick poor and the blind, even the pensioning of widows to ensure a home and proper care for fatherless children. No one would suggest turning these back to the private  charities. Moreover, what agency but the State now deals with the aged poor? The great majority, if destitute, must go to public almshouses, for the privately supported homes for the aged are pitifully inadequate. What we are asking is not that the State assume a new role, but that it perform an old role better and more completely. To ask the charities to care for all the needy old people is to give them an impossible task, even if we assume that the increasing generosity of business men toward organized charity, upon which Mr. Gifford counts, will really materialize.


Why is it that so suddenly this question of old-age pensions has come to the fore and movements for state insurance have sprung up in so many parts of the country? To my mind it cannot be explained as simply a cumulative result of years of work with the aged poor. There is a new element in the situation, and I believe this new element is a realization on the part of employers of labor as well as friends of the poor that we are faced with a new problem, of rapidly increasing importance, for which we can see no solution except perhaps in the dim future. It is the problem of premature old age, of the forced idleness of men and women still in the prime of life, of the establishment of a dead line at forty years, after which one is classed as unfit for work. This is, as we all know, the dark side of the amazingly rapid increase in labor-saving machinery since the war, as the new, complicated machines call, not for skill and experience and judgment, which are the gifts of middle age, but for quickness and adaptability, which are the gifts of youth.

'Technological unemployment' this condition is called, to make it sound a little less disastrous, and our public men assure us that it will surely disappear, for these machines will increase our riches, and we shall buy more luxuries, and the luxury trades will 'take up the slack.' But of course the luxury trades have no demand for the skilled mechanics who have been discharged; that solution of the problem belongs admittedly to the remote future, and we of this generation must deal with the immediate present, a present filled with workers thrown on the scrap heap at forty years of age.

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.

Another factor in this new situation which also tends to eliminate the middle-aged is the increasing use of group insurance for employees against sickness and accident, furnished by industrial insurance companies. It is our American way to leave social insurance to commercial companies which operate for profit and find the middle-aged worker a poor risk. Therefore employers have had to adopt a strict rule against taking on new men who are over forty years of age, for only in this way can they get favorable rates from the insurance companies.

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