1920s >> 1929 >> no-300-august-1929

Old Age Pensions in U.S.A. (Letter from a reader in America.)



In recent years it has become a quite common occurrence for the various Capitalist newspapers in England and elsewhere to point to the U.S.A. as an example of unparalleled prosperity. A land in which the workers are enjoying a “Golden Age of Labour.” Where automobiles are owned by each and every worker who cares to own one. (Until he omits to pay the next instalment.) And where, in short, the problems that afflict the workers and the rest of the Capitalist world do not exist.

Those of us who are compelled to sell our labour power in the U.S.A., and who are interested in working-class conditions, can only smile and wish that the conditions of the working-class as set forth in the foreign press were real, instead of existing as the “suppressed desires” of so many journalists with whom the wish is “father to the thought.”

This kind of Capitalist propaganda is not limited to envious foreigners, for here in the U.S.A. the gospel of prosperity is preached far and wide.

The question of importance is : Do the American workers enjoy prosperity? In order to answer this question, I will quote from an article appearing in the “New York World” (Sunday, June 2nd, 1929). The article deals with the growing need for old-age pensions in the U.S.A. The author is Mr. Herbert H. Lehman, Lieut.-Governor of the State of New York. He is a leading member of the Democratic Party, and we are informed by his interviewer that Mr. Lehman has close contacts with industry and banking.

To begin with, the gentleman informs us that:—

“The prosperity of every country depends on the well-being of its workers. Although the United States is enjoying a period of great prosperity there are two major labour problems, already the cause of wide discontent, that will become more acute as production speed increases : the dearth of employment for able-bodied men between 45 and 65, who cannot meet the speed demands of industry ; and the condition of the dependent aged who have nothing to look forward to but the poorhouse.”

As further proof that this is not a future tendency, but an existing fact, our writer continues with :—

As production speed increases and labour-saving devices multiply, fewer and fewer jobs will survive that do not require the speed of youth. In addition to the decreasing value of the middle-aged man in speed work, the spread of group insurance increases the discrimination against him because he is a more expensive risk than the young man. The age employment

limit, now set between 45 and 50 by many industries, seems likely to be pushed even lower. In the meantime medical science is steadily increasing the span of life. Between the machine that takes his job and the achievements of science that make him live longer, the worker is caught between two millstones.”

The writer is not in favour of the poor-house, partly because he dislikes the stigma of charity, but mainly because he is one of the few members of the Capitalist class who realises the costliness of building and supporting poorhouses. In fact we are told that :—

“I am convinced that even if the poorhouse system of New York State could be enlarged adequately to meet the needs of our aged dependants, the cost would be considerably larger than that of an assistance system which would allow the old people to live in their own homes.”

As an alternative to poorhouses he suggests pensions for the aged.

This suggestion so far does not meet with the approval of the rest of the Capitalist class. Their arguments in opposing this measure range from its being “Socialistic” to the danger of its being responsible for the “loss of incentive” on the part of the workers when given such aid. But our writer is not at a loss for answers to all of these criticisms. To the first criticism his reply is :—

“Some of the opponents of old age pensions have been shouting about “Socialistic policies.” The pensioning of the aged is no more Socialistic than the care of the sick and the insane.”

Thus the demands of the English Labour Party find favour in the ranks of the American Capitalist Class. And as for the menace to working-class incentive we are informed by the writer that:—

Certain critics of old age assistance, argue that such a policy would withdraw all incentive to save and would tend to pauperise the labouring classes. This contention scarcely carries conviction when we remember that the maximum pension thus far considered is $1 a day in case the worker had no other income. This would be sufficient to supply only the barest necessities of Life. No one would deliberately choose such a state of poverty.”

No ! No one would. The amount of choice the American worker has in staving off the inevitable of poverty and destitution can easily be imagined when we are informed by the same gentleman that :—

I cannot see how the average worker can be expected to support his family and save enough money to take care of unemployed old age, regardless o£ apparently high current wages. The margin of earnings over the minimum cost of respectable living is too small.”

Just what he means by “respectable living” he does not inform us. Although our author is a business man, he is not altogether “hard-boiled.” In fact, it is because he is a business man and knows something regarding the workings of the Capitalist system that he lets slip his journalistic crocodile’s tear.

“All of us know personally cases of industrious small shop owners who raised large families and were useful citizens ; but when they became too old to work found themselves without resources and faced what seemed to them the disgrace of ending their days in the poorhouse.”

And between sniffs of sympathy we are left to wonder if their usefulness is to be found in their raising “large families.” The worst is yet to come, for—

Shoemakers, butchers, grocery storekeepers and bakers—they eke out a living but not enough to insure the future. In the next decade their plight will be worse than ever because many of them are exhausting the savings of a lifetime in a vain fight against the encroachments of chain stores.

So this is an example “of prosperity in America.”

The obvious and only conclusion one can draw is that the workers of the U.S.A., like the workers the whole world over, are faced with the self-same problems; the problems of poverty and destitution. These problems have a solution, and the solution lies in the abolition of the present social system that produces such conditions, and in its place the establishment of a system of society wherein the wealth of society shall be enjoyed by all in common.

I am,

Yours fraternally,


(Socialist Standard, August 1929)

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