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Old Age Security: Abraham Epstein’s View (1934)

1934: National Advisory Council Conference: Committee on Economic Security


Chairman Mary W. Dewson
I.M. Rubinow
Lester H. Loble
Royal Meeker
Abraham Epstein


Ed. Note: Abraham Epstein, Executive Secretary, American Association for Social Security, New York City was the final presenter.  Epstein had published many books on aging and became an expert on social insurance on the lecture circuit. He left state employment in 1927 to organize the American Association for Old Age Insurance that was one of the two most influential organizations advocating social insurance during the 1930s. He served as the executive secretary of the organization (which changed the name to American Association for Social Security in 1933) until his death. He was also the editor of “Social Security,” the official publication of the association.  Epstein is generally recognized as the person introducing the phrase “social security” in place of “economic security.”

MR. EPSTEIN: Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen: I am sorry as I am just recovering from a serious illness that I cannot liven up this discussion a little bit. I think this discussion needs a little life, but I am afraid I am not up to the test today.

There is one thing that strikes me in both the discussions today, this morning and this afternoon; it has struck me too during all my years of interest in this subject, and that is, that the chief difficulty, probably, that prevails in the United States, is the idea of perfection.

We can never discuss one problem by itself. We want to solve all the problems of the universe. And not only do we want to solve all the problems of the universe, but we want to solve the problem in a perfect way. If you had a suggestion that would solve a problem 90 per cent, there would be a demand for a remedy that would solve all the problems 100 per cent. If we in this country get to that stage which our forefathers reached, that is, to stick to one thing at a time and discuss one thing at a time, feeling even a 60 or 70 per cent solution of a problem is worth doing, better than doing nothing, we could make some progress.

While I am not disagreeing with Mr. Hopkins, I do know from my many years of experience that it is dangerous to emphasize that no program of social security is complete unless it has this or that.

We all know, of course, that any program of social security will be complete if complete security is provided and the best kind of security. But I believe that since we are just imperfect human beings, and most of us are imperfect, we should confine ourselves for the present to one problem, at least try to solve one problem at a time, not 100 per cent, or even 90 per cent. If you can only get over that philosophy to the legislatures, I think that all of our problems on social security in this country will be solved.

The reason that there is no perfect remedy for making old age absolutely secure, no matter what principle is adopted, no matter what legislation we enact, is that there will always be certain flaws to make it at least just below 100 per cent perfect, if for no other reason than the fact that the members of the Senate and House of Representatives are fallible people. Some may not believe that, but at least most of us agree on it. Therefore, we cannot expect infallible laws.

We are not going to have perfect old age security legislation, but I do believe that kind of old age security legislation that will meet present conditions, is the best kind of legislation.

This is the subject on which most people become confused. In my 18 to 20 years of hard work, I don’t think I can point to a single person whom I have been able to make understand. They all get confused. Even congressmen who have been sponsoring bills have gotten mixed up and gone in the other direction. People do not understand, but it is as simple as a, b, c’s.

You have a problem today of millions of people who have no jobs, and their children cannot support them. That is simple.

All we can do is to get a scheme–not a perfect scheme–but a scheme that will best provide with some decency. I think that everybody in this country and in Europe realizes that the old age pension system, as it is known in this country, whether called this or that, or whether it is a perfect thing or not, can be improved. At least, the idea of keeping all the people in homes on a small pension from the government is a better system, both from the point of view of economy, social and spiritual, than any previous system we have had in this country.

Now, I think that all of us can agree also that in the case of a man 65 or 70 years of age with no job and no children to support him, there is only one thing to do and that is to get him a straight pension. Can’t we settle that matter for once and stop this talk about contribution? These contributions mean or presuppose the earning of wages.

Remember most of the people of that age have no wages and no money. Let’s not talk about it any more and for once come to the agreement which we already ought to know, because for seven years we have had a bill–seven years is supposed to be the ripening age for a bill to mature–and it should have matured last year. Now then we have a bill in which we said to accomplish this thing we will need the federal government to subsidize some of the states making provisions for the aged, because some of the states cannot do it themselves. There should be universal agreement on that.

It seems to me before devising the most perfect scheme, we should at least do this. We are not going to have 100 per cent perfection, but I for one will be darned happy to see 60 per cent of the problem solved.

I come in contact with dozens of old men and women in New York drawing $30 or $35 a month from the city. I can see the change in these people, and I confess even in my sickness, I get cheer out of it. It makes me quite happy over this accomplishment, although we do know that there are other people in New York who are entitled to it and not getting it. But there are 52,000 more getting it now than before.

Let us first of all understand that there is no other way, no better way of meeting the present problem than improving the existing pension legislation through federal subsidy. That was provided on the O’Connor Bill maturing in Congress, and there is absolutely no reason for a bill of that sort having to go through again this year. It should have gone through last year.

There is another problem. That is in relation to the taxpayer. Do we wish to continue this kind of system? Let me suggest as Dr. Rubinow suggests, that you can’t relieve yourself of this problem in the future by establishing a contributing pension system, which will not mature for a good number of years. Until that system matures, give the people straight pensions and ultimately establish a fund which will be able to improve a great deal of the present handicaps. Eliminate the “means test,” and all sorts of things will be automatically eliminated. Take the burden from the government and put it on the people themselves.

This seems to me very simple and yet here are 20 years of educational work on this thing, and I challenge you to find six people in this country who understand the matter. We have not been able to get Congress to understand it in spite of its simplicity.

I only hope the Committee on Economic Security will be able to reach the nation with this very simple proposition–not with the aim of getting a perfect scheme. Even the Committee is fallible. I at least think so. I don’t expect the perfect thing, not even from the White House. But let us be contented with half-perfection for even half is better than none at all. Thank you.

Source: Volume VIII. Committee Activities: Conference on Economic Security – November 14, 1934

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