Examining the Root Causes of America’s Unsustainable Fiscal Path

Prior to Social Security, Americans inevitably found themselves unemployed, unable to continue to work as they aged. In those circumstances, they routinely moved in with their adult children. Those who had no children or whose children were unable or unwilling to support them typically wound up in the poorhouse.

When Social Security became law, every state but New Mexico had poorhouses (sometimes called almshouses or poor farms). The vast majority of the residents were elderly. Most of the “inmates,” as they were often labeled, entered the poorhouse late in life, having been independent wage earners until that point. A Massachusetts Commission reporting in 1910 found, for example, that only one percent of the residents had entered the almshouse before the age of 40; 92 percent entered after age 60.

Nancy J. Altman