25th Anniversary

"Facing Old Age"; Some Reminiscences


thumbnail of Lansdale One aim of this special issue of PUBLIC WELFARE is to share with the thousands of workers engaged today in administering the services of the social security program all across the country a little of the richness of experience of some of those who "have been around since the beginning." Here Mr. Lansdale, who is now Professor, School of Social Welfare, Florida State University, recalls some early steps toward assistance for the aged and attitudes at that time.


In the mid-twenties, while in graduate school, I picked up a book entitled "Facing Old Age" at a second-hand shop. This volume grew out of Abraham Epstein's pioneering study of the needs of the aged conducted for the Pennsylvania Commission on Old Age Pensions in 1919. The presence of a book with this title on my shelves often evoked jibes from my friends: "Aren't you rushing things?" "Already?" "A little pessimistic, aren't you?"

Never did it occur to me that within a decade I would find myself very much engaged in "facing old age." Nor could I have foreseen that the Epstein book would so soon, as it seems now in retrospect, be joined by personally inscribed volumes such as Francis Bardwell's delightful "The Adventure of Old Age" and William H. Mathews' autobiography, "Adventure in Giving," with its barbs at the voluntary agencies for their opposition to measures in behalf of old people and widows with small children. Nor could I have anticipated the succession of books and pamphlets on aging that today has grown to a mass of printed material so great that I cannot keep it properly sorted.My own engagement in affairs of the aged did not grow from a conviction that I had a "call" to do something about the needs of older people. Rather, I was plunged headlong into the field by the practical fact that I needed a job at a time when an intriguing offer in this area came along. As a result, I had an opportunity to observe old age assistance administration in its infancy and to become engaged in a field that has been a major interest ever since.Shortly after the passage of the Social Security Act, the Committee on Public Administration of the Social Science Research Council embarked upon a series of studies aimed at capturing the experience to date in the administration of federal aid to states in various fields, and in the administration by the states of employment services and of old age assistance. It was my privilege to be asked to take charge of the latter enterprise in February, 1936,. This inquiry covered six state-local programs of old age assistance that had been operating prior to the Social Security Act (California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Washington and Wisconsin) and four more recently established systems (Colorado, Florida, Iowa and Mississippi).

Most of the early state old age assistance program were administered apart from other public aid in accordance with the intent of the legislation. The leaders in these programs were trail-makers in pointing up the special needs of older people. Since they were not generally recognized in social work circles, their principal rallying point was the annual meeting of the American Association of Social Security at the Hotel Astor in New York City. It was not until the 1937 session at Indianapolis that the National Conference of Social Work devoted separate program time to the subject of aging and even then somewhat reluctantly. A special subcommittee was allowed to schedule two meetings but the hours allotted were the least desirable--two to four on Friday afternoon and eleven to one on Saturday morning, by which time most delegates would ordinarily be on the way home. Much to everyone's astonishment, both meetings brought out a full house.

Most of the early programs of old age assistance were locally administered with financial aid from the state on a per-case basis. State officials insisted that a high degree of local autonomy prevailed. But the only way they knew to protect the state dollar was to review the action taken on each individual case by the localities. They seemed not to be aware of the high degree of centralization that developed through this system. Few of them appreciated that smart local "operators" would pass along to the state for decision cases on which there was local pressure. The Federal Social Security Board in its early years of operation carried this system a step farther by sending fiscal auditors to county offices throughout the land to review cases. For a time it looked as though federal rulings on cases would become the crux of administration. Happily we have developed more constructive methods of inter-governmental relationships in public assistance.The financial aspects of assistance administration bothered many of the early public welfare workers while others merely chose to ignore this part of the job. At a session of the National Conference of Social Work in 1936, a distinguished public welfare leader, whose experience had not encompassed public assistance, stated that a public welfare administrator did not have to know about finance--all he needed to do was to hire a good chief clerk. To the credit of this person, there was such a strong come-back from public assistance workers in the audience that the statement was deleted from the text that appeared in the printed proceedings.One large local old age assistance unit which I observed was outstanding for its skilled social work leadership. A highly imaginative program had been developed, including the use of foster homes for old people as early as 1935. Yet in this department it took six weeks from the time a case was approved until the initial check was issued. The fiscal operations had been left entirely to an accountant who antedated business machines and who was of no mind to find out about them. In contrast was a unit of comparable size but with less skilled social work leadership where new grants or changes in payments could be processed in a few hours with modern machine equipment. It took us a few years to learn the social advantages of IBM and Remington Rand.

In Colorado and on the Pacific Coast one found more general concern for old people than was encountered in the East. The social economists who have written the history of the old age pension movement in this country have looked largely to the industrial nations of Europe for origins because that was the source of their own ideology. They have never satisfactorily accounted for the fact that California had a program of state aid for the aged in the 1870 s and 1880's and that the first two old age pension laws in this country were passed by Alaska and Arizona in 1914. This early action did not arise in an industrial economy. For want of a better explanation, I ascribe this movement in the West to a concern for the pioneer. In the East, down to the Great Depression, economic success was generally attributed to individual acumen, and failure to personal inadequacies. In the Far West, it appeared to me that there was greater tolerance for the old person who had not "struck it rich," attributable perhaps to the fact that those who had, knew that good luck rather than superior virtue accounted for their success.

In no section of the country did things happen as rapidly after the Social Security Act as they did in the South. Only one Southern state, Kentucky, had had an old age pension law prior to the Social Security Act and that had been in effect in only one county. The state unemployment relief organizations provided the trained personnel and the machinery to plan and execute the new public assistance programs after 1935. On a visit to Tallahassee in August 1932, I had found a state welfare department consisting of two professionals and one clerical worker with functions limited to child welfare. Less than five years later, I observed the workings of a vigorous new public welfare department in Florida. Largely as a result of a Human Relations Week, a well organized public information program carried on through press, radio, and the pulpits of the churches of the state, under direction of the department, a constitutional amendment waspassed by the voters in November 1936 which gave the legislature authority for the first time to establish permanent state-wide programs of assistance. To provide aid for old people in the meantime, the public welfare leaders had persuaded each one of the 67 counties to appropriate funds to establish a program to run until the 1937 legislature could set up a permanent system.

In no other respect has the climate with regard to old people changed so much as in the attitude of social workers toward the field. In the mid-thirties there were very few social workers engaged in work with the aged. Some even voiced the opinion that good social workers could not be interested in work with old people because they needed to see results and thus preferred to work with children or young families. There was also a wide divergence of opinion on the question of the age group most suitable for work with older people. Some maintained that only mature persons with considerable life experience were acceptable to the elderly. Others supported an entirely opposing view, namely, that old people preferred to make known their needs to young people who approached them more sympathetically and less judgmentally than workers more nearly their contemporaries. Work with the aged has become eminently respectable--and we have learned that attitude, not age, is the significant attribute of the worker in this field.

Enough of these reminiscences. Perhaps I should have called this piece, "When We Were Very Young."