... Let us start with the basics. Until the middle of the twentieth century, becoming too old to work meant falling into dependence and poverty, and the onus for preventing this rested entirely on the family, the primary social, economic, and (in many ways) political institution of premodern times.
Most communities had poorhouses or some other form of poor relief, but these were reserved for unlucky persons who had no local relatives to care for them: widows, orphans, the disabled, and the mentally ill, in addition to the elderly. But town fathers were always concerned about keeping the poor rates low, so unattached people who might need care were often simply warned out and sent to go live or die someplace else. Benjamin Franklin sold Philadelphia’s first true institutional solution to this sort of suffering, the Hospital for the Sick Poor, as a way to save on the poor rates. David Hackett Fisher’s Growing Old in America (an early synthesis on the subject that still bears the Harvard Coop price tag from when I purchased it during grad school) provides examples of indigent old sleeping under piles of brush, foraging along the docks, and being left by the crew of a coasting vessel on an uninhabited island. Even if they did not meet quite such lonely fates, the unattached elderly, especially old women, often became social outcasts, the beggars and wise women and scary old crones who often provided needed community services but also inspired occasional spasms of community fear and disgust. It was witchcraft, baby.
Family responsibility for the elderly meant that adult children's lives were dominated by their parents’ needs in ways we cannot even imagine today. Any number of common social arrangements and legal doctrines revolved around the imperative to concentrate power and wealth, especially power over wealth, in the hands of older people, partly to make sure that they would be supported in their declining years. Multigenerational families lived close by each other if not actually in the same house, and the elders were not there to provide free babysitting and emotional support. They were patriarchs and matriarchs wielding the authority of age. Dear Old Dad controlled the family landholdings and held tight to the power this conferred over his children as long as he decently could, with quite lax standards of decency. An eldest son might have to delay his independence and work as Dad’s underling until his forties before he finally got control of the farm. Even then he could count on having to care for his parents as long as they lived, often as a contractual condition for the son’s getting title to the land. The contracts sometimes specified exactly what food and fuel the parents were to be furnished. Youngest daughters (like Emily Dickinson) might be denied the chance to get out of the house at all if their parents required care. Most children could count on the key decisions of their lives being made for them: whether to move west or to take on debt to acquire a larger plot of land; whether to be apprenticed to a trade, or bound out as a servant; whether to be married off to a convenient relative or neighbor, and so on. While the social historians I read sometimes waxed a little nostalgic about these traditional families, they also showed what a pressure cooker of tension they could be, to the point, some suggested, of pushing young Americans toward revolution. Fischer argued that the American Revolution wrought a "revolution in age relations" that delegitimated the superior status of elders, even if their economic power lingered for a while.
While it is not clear that anything radical changed in the material lives of elderly people after the Revolution, my impression is that the traditional system of home care either broke down or never worked very well. The demand for cash relief seems to have been quite high when an opportunity presented itself. Embarking on my own research on early American political history, I was at first shocked at the countless letters that came to government officials and political leaders from destitute veterans, widows, and others begging, wheedling, or demanding pensions, the settlement of claims against the government, minor appointments that might serve as pensions, and just plain money. The Revolutionary War veteran father of one of the newspaper editors I followed pestered the government to supplement his Virginia land bounty for decades, essentially for cost-of-living adjustments. This sort of piecemeal relief seems to have taken a sizable chunk of the government’s time in the early republic, and not a few politicians came to see the American people as a pack of beasts ravening after public assistance. When Congress considered a bill to allow disabled veterans to apply for pensions in 1803, Federalist Roger Griswold saw the deluge coming: "It opened a door for every one who had received the least wound . . . to enter a claim; . . . in every case where . . . the situation of the person was disagreeable, if he was not wealthy, his neighbors would feel for him, and would recommend him to the Government, in order to be freed from the trouble of providing for him themselves."
During the nineteenth century, demographic and economic trends combined to create a growing population of superfluous older people who commanded less respect than they used to and gradually lost both their former power and the family-based support system—such as it was—that went with it. Life expectancies rose while a greater and greater proportion of the population moved far from families and other relatives in search of wage-paying jobs in factories and offices. At the same time, the middle-class ideal of the nurturing nuclear family, focused on child rearing and mutual affection rather than economic production or the provision of social services, became more powerful, making extra members of the household, such as indigent parents, increasingly unwelcome. For the working class, there was no choice but to labor for as many years as physically possible, sometimes progressing through more menial but less taxing and less remunerative jobs, before spending the rest of their last years in penniless degradation.
By the later part of the nineteenth century, Fischer writes, old age became publicly identified as a social problem that needed to be solved. The perception was that a large surplus population of superannuated workers had developed, but no one quite knew what to do with them. Private pensions were beginning to appear in some industries, but never for the most vulnerable workers or in significant amounts. Other industrialized nations began establishing national old-age pension systems, while in the U.S. the pressure was relieved by the vast but temporary pension system for Civil War veterans and their immediate survivors. Reformers helped design some state programs, and Theodore Roosevelt, embarrassed that "even the Ottoman Turks" were getting ahead in the compassion race, pronounced the lack of provision for the elderly "a reproach to us as a nation." However, in general the Progressive Era made little impact on the problem.
It took a world-historical crisis and Franklin Roosevelt’s deft political hand to finally remove the blocks. The Great Depression threw more than half of the elderly into dependent poverty while only an estimated 5 percent of them had access to pensions. By the mid-1930s, the Civil War pension system that had once served some two-thirds of the elderly population was mostly gone.
Driven to the political edge, the elderly became a huge constituency for many of the radical movements and crackpot nostrums that roiled the country. This was most obvious in the case of Dr. Francis Townsend’s Old-Age Revolving Pension organization, which favored a $200-per-month government pension for every person over sixty. Townsend clubs sprouted up all over the country, and national conventions full of angry gray champions were held. Dr. Townsend himself was not a threatening figure, but his movement overlapped those of Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and other "radical aspirants to dictatorship" (as many critics saw them), and his followers joined many of the other groups in the failed Union Party challenge to FDR in 1936.
Social Security in its initial form was weak tea that hardly satisfied the acolytes of Townsend and Coughlin. It did not bring down these movements on its own, or even do much to alleviate poverty among the elderly in its early years, but it probably did help forestall more dire political upheavals. More important than its initial impact as a social reform was the ideological sea change Social Security signaled. It became the precedent and institutional basis for the federal government to finally take long-term responsibility for the fate of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. FDR took one of the sticking points that had prevented a national pension system from being enacted in the past—the ideological opposition to permanent, universal poor relief—and turned it into an advantage. Call the retirement assistance "insurance," paid for with money from a worker’s paycheck, and it became a purchase rather than charity. Make it available to all workers, rich and poor alike, and the charges of socialism and class legislation that had doomed other retirement assistance proposals were easily turned aside....