Some food for thought on this cold Friday night—which will no doubt be a cold Saturday morning by the time I am finished writing it: How did the idea for pensions develop?     

Sometimes to understand how to deal with a thing, we have to go back into history to figure out why our ancestors created it in the first place, and in doing this we realize that maybe they were onto something, and maybe we ought to pay heed.

The ideas for pensions, unemployment insurance and health insurance all emerged in working Americans’ lives at roughly the same time, in the late 1800s, according to Ann Shola Orloff, a political scientist and sociologist at Northwestern University. In her book, “The Politics of Pensions: A comparative analysis of Britain, Canada and the United States,” Orloff explains what existed before pensions: The poor house.

Yes, that phrase that our parents threw around actually had its roots in reality and the reason they used it with such dire dread was because “poor houses” became synonymous with degradation and the destruction of families. Every working person—particularly men, who tended to be the breadwinners—lived in constant dread of becoming too sick or too old to work, to do so might mean living in public housing of some sort, which in those days was segregated by gender so that husbands and wives could not live under the same roof, and there they would be constantly without privacy and reduced to whatever skimpy meals might be doled out. Anyone who’s seen the musical “Annie” or read Charles Dickens’ vivid indictments of Victorian England’s poverty, has some idea of what a poor house might be like.

No wonder the parents in every blue collar household used the phrase as anxiously as they did: “You’re going to put us in the poor house.”

Eventually, the public conscience became bruised by tales of such humiliation and despair that some leaders began to feel that if someone had worked their whole lives and had simply become an undesirable employee by virtue of age, or the infirmities that come with it, then society in fact owed them at least a decent level of existence. Here are a couple of excerpts cited by Orloff to illustrate the pre-pension situation.

The first is from a speech given in 1898 by John Keller, head of the New York City Department of Public Charities, to the National Conference of Charities and Correction (note that charities and correction were blatantly grouped together in those less enlightened times when several famous observers said that it appeared that being poor had itself become a crime).

“The other day, going to the island [the location of the city’s poor house], there was a sleety rain falling; and down from the city hospital came two men bearing a stretcher on which was an old woman. The icy rain fell on her face and they put her down on the pier and left her lying there, exposed to the storm while the prisoners in stripes were carrying bags of potatoes under shelter. They would have left her there ‘til the whole cargo had been put on the boat if I had not happened to see her and ordered her brought under cover.”

Keller’s intent was clear—he wanted to show that in the eyes of some an old woman was less important than bags of potatoes. Whatever her usefulness may have been when she was younger, her worth had diminished to far less than that of an edible tuber in her old age.

The next year, Charles Henderson, a charitable organization founder in Terre Haute, Indiana, noted that uncertainty about the future might well be a factor in social unrest. After all, if we can’t count on our hard work finally paying off to the extent that it will cover our needs when we or old, or if we should fall ill, then why do it? Henderson saw the toll that worry over the future took on American workers:

“When we consider the anxiety, the terror with which the average, thoughtful wage earner regards the problems of accidents, sickness, and the infirmities of old age, and when we take into account the grave social unrest which springs from the solicitude about the future, we may well give a large place in our social studies to the modern inventions for distributing the burdens of provision for the emergencies of the workman’s life.”

Those “modern inventions” were pensions, unemployment insurance and health insurance.

Just something to mull over the weekend. SR

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  1. Another mother further says:


    When will you learn that their’s no margin worrying about or advocating for wage earners. This ain’t the 1900′s and you’re not Upton Sinclair. We are all now financially secure and poor people are a thing of the past.

    Why don’t you focus your literary talents on helping the affluent acquire an ever larger share of the pie? Only then will you be accepted inside the hallowed establishment media walls and be given your meager scribe’s share.

    After all darlin, you can’t eat the appreciation of poor folks.

    Love you though!


    • SM says:

      What dream world do you live in AMF? If you think we are all financially secure, please take a look around you next time you’re out – you might notice there are still homeless people – they’re not just in the movies; If you rolled your eyes, follow this: there are people right now who have homes who are on the verge of losing them because they can’t make payments because they are unemployed; check out the community hospitals, the poor are prevalent there. Do you know any old people? Have you talked with them about the toll rising prices are taking on them, their health and their fixed incomes (what would they do without a pension AND social security)? Not to mention for young working families who are barely bringing in enough to feed and clothe their kids, pay the bills and do it again the next month. Grow up and wise up. Perhaps you are so privileged you just don’t see. Try volunteering at a community hospital or working in a discount store. I think it might change your perspective.

      • admin says:

        Hi SM, good to hear from you. Actually, AMF was being sarcastic and he emailed to tell me that he wanted to move that comment to the blog post “A Declaration of Independence” but my website software doesn’t allow me to manipulate comments beyond editing for obvious goofs or deleting entirely (which I do in cases of obscenity, libel, etc.) He would have to re-post. So, I think you two are in lockstep, it just doesn’t necessarily appear that way right off the bat.