The federal government invents Social Security

Our final post in the series on whether the federal government is capable of guarding the public health and well-being focuses on Social Security.

The reputation of the federal Social Security program is tarnished today because it is being strained by huge numbers of retirees and near-retirees, and there are justifiable fears that it will go bankrupt. But this cannot make us forget how important, how groundbreaking the program was. What, after all, is the fuss all about? Why care if Social Security goes bankrupt? The answer is that the Social Security program created and managed by the federal government was the first, and remains the only, safety net for elderly and other at-risk members of our U.S. citizenry.

The Social Security Act of 1935 was a response to the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the only form of financial support for the elderly was a government pension. You received a pension if you had served in the U.S. armed forces or worked for the U.S. government. This, of course, meant that only men could receive pensions. Widows and children of pensioned men could receive their male relative’s pension once he died, but only if they applied for it. And men who were not veterans or former federal employees had nothing unless their employers offered pensions, which was not usual.

These pensions were nothing to write home about. They were extremely small. Elderly people, widows and children with pensions lived very meagerly, and those without pensions had to have relatives willing to support them and even take them in. If you had no pension and no family to fall back on, you were forced to beg for public charity. End of story.

After the stock market crash in October 1929, many elderly, widows, and children lost their pensions and/or the support of their families. Their families had lost their income and were now penniless as well. It is estimated that by 1934 over half of all elderly Americans were unable to support themselves financially. That’s over half of Americans over 65 living on charity—charity that was drying up fast. Thirty states set up state pensions to try to relieve elderly poverty, but the states themselves were poor and the relief was slight, and only about 3% of elderly Americans were receiving any state money by 1935, when the Social Security Act was passed.

There was resistance to the idea of Social Security. Americans had convinced themselves that they weren’t a people who accepted charity, or even a helping hand, especially from the government. People were reluctant to admit that they had no family to depend on for help. One of the ingenious components of the Act was that it paid the elderly with money taxed on wages, taxes that would begin to be collected in 1937 so payments could begin in 1942. In other words, workers paid into the fund, so that when they retired, they would simply be taking back money they had set aside, rather than taking charity from others. This overcame the reluctance to lose face by taking a handout.

In a way, it wasn’t even the payments the elderly received that were so groundbreaking. It was the idea that the federal government, the government of any nation, would make it one of its responsibilities to provide for people in their old age. Government policies for the poor up to that date had consisted of various “poor laws,” which usually mandated prison for those poor who were deemed able to work but did not have jobs and those unable to work, or work farms/workhouses where the poor performed slave labor. If workers were to be taken care of once they grew too old to work, which was not a popular idea at all, then the companies they had worked for should provide a pension, but no one thought those companies should be forced to do so. Basically, no country thought the elderly poor needed or deserved special care, and in the U.S. there was an especially powerful idea that Americans could take care of themselves that foiled any attempt to help the vulnerable.

The Social Security Act included all workers, male and female. It was expanded in 1939 to include widows and children of working men. These people—the elderly, widows, and their children—quickly came to depend on Social Security, and the whole nation supported the idea that they should be reimbursed in their old age for the work they did in their youth. There was no shame attached to accepting Social Security by the 1950s, and the program came to be an accepted part of the American system.

Social Security was well-managed by the government that created it, although it is in serious danger now simply because of our massive population growth. It is perhaps the most important of the government programs put in place in the U.S. for the protection and care of its citizens. It is proof, along with federal highway safety programs and the FDA, of the ability and desire of the federal government to protect the public health and well-being. The fears expressed in 2009 about the federal government becoming involved in health care are just another example of Americans wishing to believe that we are different from all other nations and peoples, that we alone can always take care of ourselves without any help, and that we alone need to keep our federal government constantly at bay, as if it were a dangerous threat to our liberty.

But it is our federal government, our system of representative democracy, that truly makes us unique by creating our liberty. We should give it every opportunity to protect our equality of opportunity (that is, access to good and affordable health care) and justice for all (who seek health care). Our government is as good and as just as we demand it to be, and it is only by continually engaging with it, not fending it off, that we remain American.

The federal government–can it run health care? Check with the FDA

The uproar over the proposed health care legislation that is ongoing in the summer of 2009 is puzzling to the historian. Americans who oppose the legislation seem to feel, when you boil their arguments down, that the main problem is that they don’t want the government running any health care program. The government has neither the experience nor the ability, nor even the humanity to oversee any health care program. (This, of course, when the federal government already runs a health program, namely Medicare.)

This lack of faith in government programs is odd. It’s historically unfounded in three major consumer areas: food safety, car safety, and social security. These are three 20th-century areas which the federal government completely overhauled, improved, and maintains well to this day. We’ll look at all three, starting with food safety and the founding of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

In 1906, the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act. By that time, Washington had been petitioned for decades to create and enforce food safety laws. It’s hard to imagine today what food was like at the turn of the 20th century. We think of that time as a time of pure, wholesome, real food—the kind of food we’re trying to get back to now, in a 21st century filled with pre-packaged, trans-fat adulterated food substitutes.

But the early 20th century was actually little different from—and in many ways, much worse than—today. Here is a description of a meal served by a respectable woman to house guests in the early 1900s, which Dr. Edward A. Ayers  included in his article “What the Food Law Saves Us From: Adulterations, Substitutions, Chemical Dyes, and Other Evils”: 

“We had a savory breakfast of home-made sausage and buckwheat cakes. The coffee, bought ‘ground,’ had a fair degree of coffee, mixed in with chicory, peas, and cereal. There was enough hog meat in the ‘pure, homemade’ sausage to give a certain pork flavor and about one grain of benzoic acid [a chemical preservative] in each [serving]. I also detected saltpetre, which had been used to freshen up the meat. [Either] corn starch or stale biscuit had been used as filler…

“The buckwheat cakes looked nice and brown [from the] caramel [used to color them]…. and added one more grain of benzoic acid to my portion. The maple syrup [was] 90 percent commercial glucose… one-third a grain of benzoic acid and some cochineal [red dye derived from insects] came with the brilliant red ketchup. [At lunch] I figure about seven grains of benzoic acid and rising. …The ‘home-made’ quince jelly, one of the ‘Mother Jones Pure Jellies’…worked out as apple juice, glucose, gelatin, saccharin, and coal tar.

“I had to take a long walk after lunch; having overheard the order for dinner, I figured on about 10 to 15 grains more of benzoic acid reaching my stomach by bedtime.” 

I looked up benzoic acid, which is still used today as a preservative, and found that the World Health Organization’s limit on the stuff is 5 mg per each kilogram of a person’s body weight per day. I don’t know how much a “grain” of benzoic acid was, but I think the poor houseguests described above were getting way more than that.

Why was food so awful in America at that time? Progress. As Arthur Wallace Dunn described it in his 1911 article “Dr. Wiley and Pure Food…”,

“During the preceding quarter of a century [from the 1880s to 1911], the whole system of food supply [in the U.S.] had changed. Foods were manufactured and put up in packages and cans in large quantities at central points where immense plants had been erected. To preserve the food all manner of ingredients were used, and to increase the profits, every known device and adulteration and misrepresentation was adopted. Many states passed strict pure food [and drug] laws, but they were powerless to [control interstate shipping–any state could ship its impure foods and drugs to another state]. Besides, many state laws were not uniform and were easily evaded.”

The Industrial Revolution brought mass production of foods to the U.S. As the population rapidly shifted from rural to urban, more people were in towns and cities where food was not locally grown, but shipped in to them to buy in grocery stores. Meat was shipped across the country with minimal or no refrigeration. Rotten foods were canned to disguise their state. Chemicals were added in enormous amounts to all types of food. Coal tar—yes, from real, black coal—was slightly altered and used to brighten the colors of ketchup, peas, coffee, margarine, and more.  Here is a short list of such “adulterations,” again from Dr. Ayers’ article:

Jams and Jellies: apple juice mixed with glucose and gelatine

Milk: diluted with water, bulked back up with starch or chalk (yes, chalkboard chalk)

Butter: made of carrot juice, turmeric, and coal tar

Worse yet, margarine, or “butterine”: made from oleo oil [this comes from beef fat], lard, coloring, and cottonseed or peanut oil

Filled cheese: skim milk injected with fat from oil

This was the state that modernization had brought American food production to. Eager to make as large a profit as possible, many food manufacturers basically used scraps, glucose, and oil to make a wide range of foods. Drugs were just as bad or even worse, with unhealthy or even fatal miracle cures constantly on the market. Coca-Cola contained not only real cocaine, but unimaginable amounts of caffeine.

Food manufacturers were not required to label their products. Most canned goods had the name of the product, the name of the manufacturer, and a lovely drawing on them. That was it. No list of ingredients. No expiration date.

How did Americans survive? Through the intervention of the federal government.

Part 2–the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906