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Remember "The Old Days," Before Social Security

Alexa's picture

Social Security Card - Illustration
Social Security Card -- Illustration
Illustration: 3D Social Security Card. SSA# 000-00-000, This number has been established for Jane Doe.
DonkeyHotey's photostream, flickr

Rarely do folks in this community "just opine," and I promise, I won't make a habit of it. But as I'm trying (still) to put together a coherent blog on Social Security reform policies, I thought I'd take a break from it. And I feel compelled to make a point about the importance of protecting Social Security from draconian cuts.

You see, even though I'm not even old enough to file for "early age" Social Security benefits, I've got a bit of experience with a situation that many folks my age don't have.

Because I was born to very much middle-aged parents (both), I had a glimpse into a bygone era. You see, one of my Grandmothers was 90 years old while I was still a college student. And if my parents were alive today, they would be 100 and 107 years old.

You're probably wondering: Where the H**l is she going with this? So here's my point.

I actually had parents (as well as grandparents) who lived as adults during the Great Depression. I guess because of this, I probably feel a bit more of a "connection" with with this era, and the austerity associated with it.

And, at least some of the lessons of the Great Depression were not lost on me. My Grandmother outlived her husband by well over 40 years. By time she was in her sixties, Social Security had not been around that long. [As best I can figure, she was born around 1882.]

At any rate, she and my Grandfather had lost a general mercantile business during the Great Depression, and they never fully recovered from that loss. He died in his fifties. And she received a Social Security check. But again, they hadn't paid into the System that long, so it wasn't a very large check. Therefore, after my Grandfather died, she lived with her two surviving children.

I guess my point is this: If the PtB enact the cuts that the Bowles-Simpson proposal call for, I truly believe that we'll definitely be going back to another era, for many folks. Obviously, some people will not be affected in this way. But I believe that it will be relatively commonplace within the next 10, to 20 or 30 years to see many intergenerational family situations, just like we had in the thirties and forties.

Some folks might think this is for the better. There actually are some very good, constructive and helpful aspects to this type of living arrangement. But with so many households being two-income households, I'm sure that this type of scenario will likely present some difficulties for many families. After all, years ago, many, if not most women were homemakers, so caring for their elderly and infirm parents was somewhat more manageable.

I especially worry that Medicare cuts will be severe, and that families will not have adequate access to skilled nursing facilities, or nursing homes, when their parents really need the care that only they can offer.

I'm bringing up this topic as a reminder of just how important Social Security is, when it comes to the "independence" of our elders.

I remember several years ago that I accidentally tuned my car radio into a conservative talk radio show of the Christian genre. I recognized the show host to be the former President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Richard Land. He 'was on a tear' about just this topic. Except that he was decrying the fact that we don't live as intergenerational families, and that we "look to the government" for help.

Well, Dr. Land--looks like you may get your way.


Stephanie's picture
Submitted by Stephanie on

I've read that before Soc Sec was enacted, old people w/no families, no income, were often forcedto live in poorhouses, even tho they "preferred" to live on their own, however badly off they were.

Also people w/disabilities were forced into mental institutions, which would have been pretty awful back in/before the 30's.

The government website for Social Security has some history. I tried doing a search, but couldn't find the story of the history I was looking to share.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

a great deal of history, but I would imagine that is true.

I may check out the "history" of poor houses in the U.S. someday. You almost have to wonder if they won't come back into "vogue" eventually. I think that the main reason that people with disabilities are no longer institutionalized is because (if I'm not mistaken) Reagan pretty much dismantled our public mental institutions.

It will be a tragedy if the PtB get away with the dismantling of the social safety net programs. And it's not looking good.

But we can't give up. I'll continue to harp on it (Social Security reform, etc.) at least until the ink is dry on a new Social Security law. Too much is at stake, to quit now.

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

went to one and we used to visit. It was a big, brick hospital-like building with linoleum floors and rooms for the residents, very institutional, as opposed to residential. It was like prison for people whose crime was being poor.

I was pretty young, but recall it always being a sad day when we went to visit. None of grandpa's children could take him home, because he was a hard-core alcoholic, always begging and pleading for just one drink, like just one drink had ever been a possibility for him. Poor guy, I don't think he wanted to be that way, but he was.

You're right, this is probably how a lot of us will end up, all the Alzheimer's patients who don't have $6k a month for a nursing home, and the millions of chronically ill who need assistance. Probably better than living on the street, but basically just warehouses for the unwanted. The management will probably demand your entire Soc Sec check in exchange. The Republicans are probably investing in some euphemistically named poor house scheme right now to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rob millions of elderly and sick people all at once!!

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

gotten way behind in replying to comments.)

It was very touching, and very distressing. I do ascribe to the notion that alcoholism is an illness, not a character defect. I'm sure that your Grandpa did the best that he could. It is a shame if he was treated "as a lesser," for having an illness.

My understanding is that many of our public institutions (don't no about poorhouses, because honestly, if I've ever seen one, I didn't know it). Mr. Alexa and I were talking about this, and we sort of figured that they probably were mainly in the cities. (But we don't know, for sure.)

Arguably, it is worse today, since "you're own your own." And unless you're lucky to have family, who can and will care for you, you wind up under a bridge, or worse.

Look at what Wikipedia has to say on this topic:

"A poorhouse or workhouse was a government-run facility in the past for the support and housing of dependent or needy persons, typically run by a local government entity such as a county or municipality."

As was depicted by Charles Dickens, a workhouse could resemble a reformatory and house children, either with families or alone, or a penal labour regime to give the poor work at manual labour and subject them to physical punishment. As the 19th century progressed, conditions improved.
Often the poorhouse was situated on the grounds of a poor farm on which able-bodied residents were required to work; such farms were common in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries; it could even be part of the same economic complex as a prison farm and other penal or charitable public institutions.Poor farms were county or town-run residences where paupers (mainly elderly and disabled people) were supported at public expense. They were common in the United States beginning in the middle of the 19th century and declined in use after the Social Security Act took effect in 1935 with most disappearing completely by about 1950.

Residents were expected to provide labor to the extent that their health would allow, both in the fields and in providing housekeeping and care for other residents. Rules were strict and accommodations minimal.

Poor farms were the origin of the U.S. tradition of county governments (rather than cities, townships, or state or federal governments) providing social services for the needy within their borders; the federal government did not participate in social welfare for over 70 years following the 1854 veto of the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane by Franklin Pierce. This tradition has continued and is in most cases codified in state law, although the financial costs of such care have been shifted in part to state and federal governments. Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher was raised in such a facility during the 19th century before leaving it for the Perkins School for the Blind and afterwards to become Helen Keller's teacher and later lifelong companion. The novel The Miracle Worker, its 1957 TV play, 1959 Broadway play, and its 1962 film adaptation and 1979 and 2000 television adaptations included harsh descriptions of the conditions therein."

That does sound very stark. But, again, I doubt we'll even have these in the US in the future, no matter how bad things get.

All the more reason that we've got to fight for Social Security benefits to be kept whole.

Submitted by lambert on

... or intergenerational families back in the 30s! The reason we have social insurance is that they weren't doing the job.

Not too much despair though. I know it and feel it... But it can prevent action.

tom allen's picture
Submitted by tom allen on

Because the prisons and workhouses aren't full enough yet.

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned -- they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Submitted by mgmonza on

(Note to administrators: please feel free to moderate if too long!)

They're as punitive and pitiless as the old style ones.

In my late fifties, with no prospect of reemployment, I recently had my first experiences with two of these.

I've worked all my life and been my only support all my life. It was my preference to do this, rather than derive any part of my upkeep from the wages of the person I slept with. My "crime" was doing this while female. Since sex discrimination has become legal again, I was forced out of a profession that's been redefined as historically male, and have not been hired for female entry level positions due to my age and "overqualified" background.

I did everything I could, including backpacking into legal sites in the state parks in the mountains here, to keep from going into a shelter, but in the end could not even afford the gas to drive the fifteen or so miles round trip to the park from where any prospect of work existed. ("Obamaville" tent villages are not possible the way Hoovervilles were - the times are so much more pitiless that almost every city has ordinances against such places, and where they're allowed, they're controlled to the point of being worse than the shelters. The infamous "tent in the woods" near any urban area is out of the question for a woman unless she attaches herself to a homeless male for protection).

The shelter itself was physically considered to be one of the best in the state. It administers most of the charitable and many of the government resources for five counties. It is new, the fixtures are more than adequate and the meals are very good. A major problem was precisely the punitive "poor house" attitude: the Calvinistic view the women who administered the shelter had towards those who needed its services (and those women's freedom to spend their time this way depended on the high wages of the men -they- slept with). Residents must line up to take a breathalyser test in the common area when coming in in the late afternoon, everyone must be inside the shelter by 6:00 p.m., no one is allowed out after that time without written permission, and everyone is locked out of their rooms at 8:00 a.m. on weekdays and 9:00 a.m. on weekends. Women's rooms had four permanent beds and lockers, but usually had two more folding beds crammed into the walkway at the foot of the beds. The men's rooms were larger but had eight residents.

All the shelter's maintenance, from cleaning to cooking (when that was not done by church or other charity groups) to grounds-keeping, was done by the residents through required "chores". Every resident was required to "volunteer" for one or more such chores every day or be made to leave. I did not mind at all doing part of the upkeep, but did mind the indentured labor aspect of being made to do it. In addition, administering such requirements became part of the petty abuse the more vindictive of the regular staff considered one of the major perks of their job.

Residents were required to work on a "plan" towards permanent housing with one of the administrators. Such "plans" necessarily required a job. These women reproduced the sexism of the larger society: in addition to there being more beds for men than for women, living conditions were kept as much as possible from interfering with any man's job who has one. Their "plans" for men were much more realistic as well, in that the men had more of a chance of finding work, even when they had, as the majority there did, a prison record. Their "plans" for women pretty much amounted to: you screwed up by not selecting a good enough (or any) husband, any job is better than no job at all, no matter how ill paid, discriminatory or demeaning, and your stay limit without a job is 30 days. Their ranking for women was below men in services, respect and resources and within that ranking, women with children came first and women without children were at the very bottom.

Uncontrolled aggression from other residents and uncontained illness were the primary factors that made living there not possible. There were decent, generous, responsible residents, but not unlike middle and high school, the lowest common denominator ruled. Due, again, to the sexist ranking of the administrators, I lost the job I had found after a great deal of effort on my part and no help at all on theirs. It was a suitably gender stereotyped job cleaning bathrooms from 5 pm until 2 to 4 am at the local university's stadium after athletic events. Any man there who had a second or third shift job was allowed complete privacy to sleep during the day; the rule was emphasized in the obligatory "house meeting" held every evening. The administrators kept letting a woman with a baby into my dorm room for trivial reasons and allowed her to keep me awake to the point where I had less than five hours sleep in forty eight and could not work. Their justification was that women with children had priority for any reason, even though that was supposed to be only an adult women's room. They had put a woman who had just had a miscarriage into the family room, where this woman should have gone, as "therapy" and because the other woman with children did not want to share the room with another child. They dismissed my need to sleep for my job as "just shared living" (always said with a smug little smirk by the administrator) and said I could leave if I had a problem with it. I was also attacked on other occasions by two women who were later expelled for being on illegal drugs; their initial unprovoked aggression towards me was dismissed, again with a smile, as "shared living".

Women with dangerous mental problems were also put into the regular woman's dorm. One had kept the other women in the room terrorized before I stayed there. She also kept them up all night because she alone was allowed to sleep there during the day (due to her mental illness!), while they had to be up and out on the streets or at their jobs, as one resident was, by eight. She had been committed before for cutting up residents' clothes with a knife; she was recommitted again just after I got there.

The official policy towards aggression and threats among residents was zero tolerance. The actual policy was to let the rats eat the other rats and to shoot the ones that came running to the administrators. The administrators had their favorites, usually those that made the class divide most evident, and the less well off and less educated paid staff did as well, usually those most expert at currying favor and those with whom they identified. The atmosphere resembled a combination between what I imagine prison must be and the type of unskilled job where the boss just above entry level uses his or her position more for petty gratification than anything else.
The justification certainly resembled those types of jobs: "You can always leave if you don' t like it".

During the month I was there, I had maybe four days where I got a solid eight hours sleep. I was sleep deprived and hurting the days I could not make it up in my car. I was also, as the cold season hit in September, sick most days, as one or the other of the women in my room always had some virus and residents were almost never allowed, even when sick, to stay in bed during the day.

After a month, I went to a women's only shelter in a larger city where I thought living conditions and job prospects would be better. I think I set the record for their shortest stay - less than twelve hours. The administrators, again educated professional level women, were great, but the regular and after hours staff were worse than the former shelter's. Residents were required not only to be out of their rooms during the day, but to tell the desk attendant where they were going during every part of the day. They were required to sign in when they got back, and -this was the worst part- to take a urine drug test every day, or whenever the desk attendant, whose day job really was as a prison guard, felt like it. When she decided I needed to be tested at the end of my first day and insisted on remaining in the room where I was to do this, I refused and was told to leave. She and the other uneducated after-hours attendant took great pleasure in making me pack my clothes into the prototypical homeless black plastic bags, leaning against the wall watching me the whole time, telling me to get a move on and making the other residents jump, obey them and get a move on too with they tried to talk to me.

Every other shelter in this region (southeast) has the same demeaning requirements, and, I imagine, the same vindictive staff and the same pack behavior from the lowest common denominator among the residents. Even without money, without hope, without prospects, I have been physically better off living in my tiny car and camping where I can safely. I was well again two days after leaving the last shelter and have gotten a glorious eight hours sleep whenever I can be horizontal and warm enough.

Submitted by mgmonza on

is not poor houses, but some kind of worker's (or prospective worker's) living quarters.

Just the basics: somewhere to bathe, somewhere to get enough sleep, somewhere to store food and cook it, somewhere to keep a minimum of possessions absolutely safe. But absolutely too, somewhere with dignity, somewhere that doesn't assume everyone who must live there has some kind of addiction or character flaw, somewhere where their "betters" aren't allowed to control most aspects of their daily lives.

That's it. That's what I had with the little one room efficiency where I slept on the floor, but was so grateful to have it - until my layoff, with the ladies of the shelter refusing me the rental aid they also administered because of their eerily accurate prediction that my situation was "unsustainable" and that I would soon be homeless.

Well, at least one part was accurate - I was evicted but did land another short term job just after the notice from my very kind and regretful landlady came in the mail.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

If anything, this comment deserves to be a "stand alone" blog, IMHO. That's up to you, of course.

If I may ask a couple of non-personal questions, please. Were these shelters affiliated with religious organizations, or were they secular institutions? Did they receive government monies?

I had no idea that shelters drug tested clients. Or at least not without some reason to believe that a client was inebriated. (And I'm not sure that would be appropriate, unless someone had the "training" to make that judgment. And the clients' behavior put others at risk, in some way.)

I am sorry that it was much a demeaning situation. I have lived in the southeast, and well know the conservative Bible Belt mentality (and that is not a slam against religion or spirituality, frankly. Some of the finest and kindest human beings I've ever known had strong religious or spiritual beliefs). My emphasis was on "conservative."

I hope things get better for you. I imagine that I would think just like you--preferring to camp out (when weather permitted) or sleep in my car.

From what I've read, you are so right--being down on your luck in America has been criminalized, in the past 10-20 years. Further, so-called progressive cities like San Francisco even have very "punitive" laws which affect folks doing no more than trying to find a place to lay their head.

Some days, I don't recognize this place. It is such a far cry from the country that I grew up in. It's greatness--so diminished by the greed and corruption of the Elite.

I hope you continue to check in here. Your story (and others like it) needs to be told. It bears witness to what happens when there is no social safety net.

And it reminds me (and it should), just as my parents always taught my sibling and I, "There, but by the Grace of God, go I."

They believed that, and they demonstrated it in the way that they lived their lives, showing a deep and abiding compassion for all living things. But their generation was the one, of course, that suffered mightily through the Great Depression.

I keep wondering if this "Great Recession" will ever have the same affect of today's populace. Unfortunately, I don't see much indication that it has, thus far.

Since Reagan's "reign," compassion has gone out the window. I think it's up to us (the Boomer generation, and the children of "The Greatest Generation") to try and "bring back compassion, as a mainstream value in America."


athena1's picture
Submitted by athena1 on

Think of it in terms of GDP. Once homelessness is completely criminalized, huge growth in the private prison sector can be expected. This will be great for "the economy".

It'll take some serious incentives to enhance the productivity of the sick and frail elderly, tho. Someone will have to get creative there.

Submitted by mgmonza on

It was rude of me to post such a long comment. I appreciate your forbearance and am grateful for the chance to, as you said, "bear witness".

To answer your questions, the first shelter didn't require drug tests unless some cause were suspected. That I agreed with. One young woman was thrown out with her boyfriend to live in a tent just as the freezing weather started because he continued to use drugs while staying there and dragged her into it too. He was suspected of this long before it came to that point. She might have been spared that. Every other shelter I've talked to not only requires routine drug tests ("But it should make you feel safer!" is the usual justification), but requires someone in the room while it's done, Listening to even the residents rationalize this made me realize how little sense of the real freedom I used to associate with America remains for those who grew up under the constant propaganda following the World Trade Center attacks.

-All- shelters in the area are associated with religions, some more, some, like this was, less. It did have a lot of Christian activities and groups associated with it but didn't, like most of the others, actually require participation in some kind of religious activity.

Unbelievably, all food banks in the area are under the auspices of the USDA. This means you can no longer just go anonymously and get something to tide you over for a week or two, you must give them your Social Security number and other identifying information. This seems wrong to me. Government administered aid should be separate from charities like the ones I used to donate to (all secular, I thought then) when I had an income.

They should also be free from any religious requirement, being part of the government. During the month and a half that the ladies who made up the entire staff below director at the local Social and Health Services agency denied me any food assistance whatsoever after the layoff (bonus! I lost another 20 lbs.!), I had to use the food banks in the town to keep from starving. The shelter had its usual sexism problem (this was before I lived there), with the male running the food bank assuming I could live for two weeks on four chicken drumsticks and was gaming the system in trying to find more, but at least he didn't ask what prayers I wanted him to say for me.

Another did. This, on top of the non-enforcement of the laws that should have let me keep working, was too much. I did file a complaint against that food bank and the woman at the USDA office appeared to take it seriously, but I don't know what became of it after that. In case this sounds ungrateful, religious charities wanted and took over the functions of secular government aid and made it so that people like myself, who take religious freedom very seriously, have nowhere else to go.

Again too long an answer. I hope it at least answered you questions. There are, as you said, very many good Christian people, but they're never the ones who make people swallow a heapin helping of their beliefs along with the food necessary to live.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

your story.

I'm hoping to come back and comment a bit further on some of your excellent points above. We certainly see "eye to eye" on not mixing social services with "religious institutions," especially if doing so requires one to adhere (of pretend to) to someone else's religious beliefs.

You know that I mentioned taking up other matters like homelessness, the SNAP program, Section 8, etc., after the fiscal cliff. On second thought--that's stupid.

I feel obliged to write about Social Security during the lame duck, and into 2013 until the fiscal cliff farce, etc., is over.

But PLEASE, anytime you see my post or blog, jump in and bring up the shelters, etc. Use it as an opportunity--you are my guest, to do so. And I would be honored.

This is exactly what we need. I may not can look into some of the issues you've mentioned in order to write about them, but heck, if you can tell everyone from first hand experience on many of these matters--go for it!''

And BTW, make your comments as long as you'd like. I said that about the stand-alone, only to say that your comments were so "excellent" that they need to be on display, not buried in a blog.

Hope we'll be seeing you around, regularly.

Submitted by lambert on

Pixels don't take up space, ya know (well, within reason. But we're not talking a million word post, here).

I said this was post-worthy. The writing is fine. All Corrente posts must always meet that baseline, which is not so easy for everyone. So have at it.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

maybe we can collectively turn our attention to the other social safety net programs, and their inadequacies.

I have never seen a country like this one, where, for some reason, it is considered humane "to not help an adult, simply because the adult has no children" (or, I suppose, none who are still dependent on them).

When did that make a human being, "a lesser person?"

Submitted by mgmonza on

As Athena1 noted above, the sick and the frail elderly don't even have the possibility of a job, however remote - how are they to live at all if the Grand Bargain goes through?

Thank you for keeping the danger the social safety net is in front and center; it's too easy, like the erasure of the separation of church and state, to bury under all the propaganda until it's too late.