The Past and Future of Entitlements

Conservative reformers should remember that FDR didn't impose social insurance on the country—Americans wanted it


In the autumn of 1933, a newspaper in Long Beach, Calif., published a letter submitted by Francis Everett Townsend, a broke 67-year-old who'd failed as a physician, a manufacturer of dry ice, and a real estate salesman. In his telling, he looked out his window one morning and saw three elderly women going through garbage cans in search of food. "A torrent of invectives tore out of me, the big blast of all the bitterness that had been building in me for years," he wrote. "I swore and I ranted, and I let my voice bellow with a wild hatred I had for things as they were."

Vowing to his wife that he would shout "until the whole country hears," he formulated a plan, sending it to The Long Beach Press Telegram. In order to provide for the 15 to 20 million Americans over age 60, he proposed, every last one should be granted a pension of $150 per month -- enough for a middle class existence at the time. They'd be required to spend the sum within the month, affording economic stimulus that would revive the nation's economy. A national sales tax of two percent would fund the plan.

Readers loved the idea.

"Living on fixed incomes in simple cottages, the Long Beach elderly -- the majority of them Folks from Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest.... had come to Southern California to enjoy a simple life of churchgoing, potluck suppers, and checkers in the park, having earned, in their opinion, the right to enjoy the eleven years actuarially remaining to them in 1930," Kevin Starr writes in Endangered Dreams, his history of the era. "The Depression destroyed their plans as pension trusts shrank or, in some cases, as they went under entirely.... Fully 50 percent of the elderly in America were in need of some form of outside aid if they were to make it through the slump."

A recent Kevin Drum post reminded me of that anecdote. The conservative movement is continuing its decades long quest to shrink or repeal Social Security and Medicare, Drum argued, and in doing so their behavior is surprisingly quixotic:

America, as always, is ideologically (moderately) conservative and operationally (moderately) liberal. This hasn't changed much since the Nixon era, but Republicans just can't seem to wrap their heads around it. So Ronald Reagan implodes over Social Security in 1982, Newt Gingrich implodes over Medicare in 1995, George Bush implodes over Social Security in 2005, and the tea party Republicans implode over Medicare in 2011. Americans, in the least surprising news ever, still don't trust Republicans to screw around with Medicare or Social Security. Even Republicans don't trust Republicans to do it. Probably it's because Republicans have hated both programs from the beginning and keep trying to wreck them every time they get their trigger fingers anywhere close to the levers of power.

What makes this even weirder is that in just the past decade Republicans have helped their political cause by standing up for Medicare: first in 2003 when they passed the prescription drug plan and then in 2010 when they won a big House majority by beating up Democrats for cutting Medicare. But despite all this, they still don't get it. They're still convinced that someday Americans are going to blink their eyes and suddenly agree that Social Security and Medicare are liberal boondoggles that need to be privatized and slashed. It's just an astonishing unwillingness to accept reality.

On the whole, that political analysis is correct. Be it wise or unwise, the elimination of Social Security and Medicare isn't ever likely to happen. But the bigger failure among hardcore conservatives is their inability to perceive the certain consequences of repeal. Lots of old people would see a significant decline in living standards, spend their accumulated savings on medical care, and rely much more heavily on their adult children. Besides being bad consequences in themselves, is it realistic to imagine an aging America in which that didn't create pressure to pass some sort of new entitlement? Repeal would create the conditions for reintroduction of the very legislation just vanquished.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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