ARBOR WEALTH: Poor laws, Tom Paine, and Airstreams

Margaret R. McDowell
Special to The Log
Published: Thursday, February 6, 2014 at 16:29 PM.

“Been working everyday since I was twenty; haven't got a thing to show for anything I've done.” — “Big City” by Merle Haggard

The idea that a worker would stop collecting a paycheck at an advanced age and enjoy a government-sponsored retirement benefit is a relatively new idea.   

Mary-Lou Weisman writes in the New York Times that once “… it was customary to carry on until you dropped … no shuffleboard, no Airstream trailer. When a patriarch could no longer farm, herd cattle or pitch a tent, he opted for more specialized, less labor-intensive work … or he moved in with his kids.”  Yikes. 

Greeks provided residents with jugs of olive oil and Rome carried unemployed citizens “on the dole.” The modern concept that the state has incumbent obligations to its citizens dates to the English Poor Laws, which spawned “poorhouses” for indigent citizens. Like me, you can probably remember your parents telling you to watch your spending or you’d end up there. That is, in the poorhouse. 

According to the U.S. Social Security website, Thomas Paine’s “last great pamphlet, ‘Agrarian Justice’ published in 1797,… was a controversial call for the establishment of a public system of economic security … ” Paine’s plan paid “annual benefits of 10 pounds sterling … to every person age 50 and older, to guard against poverty in old-age.” 

Military pensions actually represented the first U.S. government sponsored economic support for retired citizens. Benefit payouts after the Civil War were limited to select Union veterans and families. Many veterans received no pensions at all. 

During the industrial revolution, extended American farm families dissolved into nuclear families, as younger generations left the farm and sought jobs in the cities. Early in the 20th century, folks began to live longer, creating a “critical mass” of older citizens needing economic assistance. So, in time, the English Poor Laws evolved into a more specific U.S. government economic obligation to citizens in retirement.



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