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1915-1934: State Old Age Assistance Programs

By 1928, just prior to the start of the Great Depression, only 6 states and territories had old-age assistance laws. A big contrast to the senior assistance programs that exist today. As the Depression deepened, that number increased, until there were 28 states and 2 territories (Alaska and Hawaii) with old-age assistance programs by 1934, most just enacted in the prior year or two. Unfortunately, the plans were quite limited, and inconsistent from state to state. As summarized in the final report of the Old Age Security Staff to Chairman Witte, the state plans included the following features and restrictions:

  • All but Arizona and Hawaii refused to make payments to older people who had children or relatives who could support them.
  • Most limited assistance to elderly people who were age 65 or older, but quite a few set the limit even higher, at age 75.
  • Most required that beneficiaries must have been citizens and residents of the state for 15 years, some had even longer residency requirements than that.
  • Many required that the beneficiary must transfer to the pension authority any property they possessed before any payment would be made.
  • Most had property and income caps to limit eligibility, generally a maximum of $3,000 in property and $300-$365 a year in income.
  • Most required that benefits would be denied to anyone who gave away property in order to qualify for public assistance.
  • Most required that a lien be placed on the estate of the beneficiary to be collected upon their death.
  • Most required that recipients be “deserving”, and benefits were denied to anyone who deserted a spouse, failed to support their families, had committed any crime, or had been a tramp or beggar.
  • Benefits were denied to inmates of jails, prisons, infirmaries, and insane asylums, although a few permitted the payment of assistance for inmates of a benevolent fraternal institution.
  • Most set a cap on monthly payments at $30 a month, although they actually paid about half of that, or $15 a month on average.

The restrictions were so severe and the number of states that actually had launched their plans and committed funds to them were so limited that even in 1935, in the depths of the Depression, there were less than 200,000 people covered under state old-age assistance plans.

History of State Old Age Assistance Legislation

A summary taken from the staff report:

“The first state law was passed in Arizona in 1915 by an initiative act, which abolished almshouses and established old age and mothers’ pensions in their stead. However, it was worded so loosely that it was declared unconstitutional on account of its vagueness. In the same year Alaska passes a law, providing assistance to its aged pioneers. This law, though it has been amended on different occasions, is still in effect at the present time.

“No action was taken by any state until 8 years later, in 1923. In that year three states, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, passed old age assistance laws, but only one of them, that of Montana, has remained in the statute books. In 1925 the Nevada state legislature passed a bill repealing the 1923 law, and putting another one in its place. The Pennsylvania law was declared unconstitutional in 1924 on the basis of the state constitution, which prohibited the legislature from making appropriations for charitable, benevolent and educational purposes. Pennsylvania proceeded immediately to take steps to amend its constitution, but it was not until 1931 that the amendment passed the legislature. Since this amendment had to be repassed in 1933 and then submitted to a referendum vote for approval, it was not until 1934 that Pennsylvania secured action. Thus the decision of the court deferred legislation for ten years in Pennsylvania.

“Ohio, too, took some first steps in the year 1923. The question of old age pensions was submitted to a referendum vote, but it was decided adversely by a vote of almost 2 to 1.

“By 1925 the movement had gained considerable impetus. Although only Wisconsin passed a law which has remained effective since that time; there was much activity in a number of the states. California passed a law, which, however, was vetoed by the Governor. Bills were introduced in the legislative sessions of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas. In Indiana and Illinois the bills passed the lower house, but were not acted upon by the upper chamber. In four states, Colorado, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Utah, commissions were appointed.

“In 1926 one law was added, that of Kentucky. In the same year, the Washington Legislature approved a bill, which was vetoed by the Governor.

“In 1927 Maryland and Colorado passed bills.

“At the end of 1928, after six years of agitation, there were only six states and one territory which had made provision for their aged. They were Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Wisconsin and Alaska. All the state laws were of the optional type, i.e., they left the adoption or rejection of an old age assistance system to the discretion of the counties. For this reason these laws had very limited effect only. In these six states, there were slightly above 1000 pensioners, and these were found almost exclusively in Montana and Wisconsin, the former having 884, the latter 295 old people on their pension rolls. The total amount spent by the six states in 1928 was, in round numbers, $200,000.(1)

“From 1929 on, the trend in the pension legislation has been toward making the adoption of the old age assistance systems mandatory upon the counties. This type of legislation proved much more effective, especially when it was accompanied by a provision by which the state shared in the expense of the county. Of this latter type was the California law which was passed in 1929. In the same year, Minnesota, Utah and Wyoming passed laws, which did not provide such state assistance, although those of Utah and Wyoming made the adoption of the system mandatory upon the counties.

“In 1930 the Massachusetts and New York laws were passed, which not only were of the mandatory type but also provided for the state sharing in the expense of the locality.

“In 1931 and 1933 the state legislatures were very active in the field of old age pensions. It is estimated that 100 bills were introduced in the legislatures of 38 states in 1931. In that year five new laws were enacted in Delaware, Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and West Virginia. Of these all except the West Virginia law were of the mandatory type, but only Delaware and New Jersey provided for state funds. Colorado and Wisconsin amended their laws making them mandatory upon the counties as well as making state funds available for the purpose of old age assistance.

“Ten more laws were added in 1933, in Arizona, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. With the exception of Hawaii, they were all mandatory upon the counties, and in Oregon and Washington the state does not share in the expenses of the locality. Arkansas passed a law in 1933, but it was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court.

“Iowa and Pennsylvania passed mandatory laws in 1934, the state sharing the entire cost.

“By the end of 1934, twenty-eight states and two territories had passes old age assistance laws.”

State Old Age Assistance Laws, 1934

Year EnactedType# Enrolled# Eligible% EnrolledAve. Monthly PensionAnnual Cost to State
Total180,0032,330,3907.7$15$31,192,492
Alaska1913M446(c)3,43711.1$20.82$95,705
Arizona1933M1,974(a)9,11821.6$9.01$200,927
California1929M19,300(a)210,3799.2$21.16$3,502,000
Colorado1927M8,70561,78714.1$8.59$172,481
Delaware1931M1,610(a)16,6789.7$9.79$188,740
Hawaii1931ONo information available
Idaho1931M1,27522,3105.7$8.85$114,521
Indiana1933M23,418(b)138,42616.9$6.13(b)$1,254,169(h)
Iowa1934M3,000(c)184,2391.6$13.50(c)$475,500(d)
Kentucky1926ONo pensions being paid
Maine1933MNot yet in effect
Maryland1927O141(e)92,9720.2$29.90$50,217
Massachusetts1930M20,023(e)156,59012.8$24.35$5,411,723
Michigan1933M2,660(e)148,8531.8$9.59(e)$306,096(f)
Minnesota1929O2,65594,4012.8$13.20$420,536
Montana1923O1,78114,37712.4$7.28$155,525
Nebraska1933MNot much being done due to lack of funds
Nevada1925O234,8140.5$15.00$3,320
New Hampshire1931M1,423(c)25,7145.5$19.06(g)$298,722(f)
New Jersey1931M10,560(g)112,5949.4$12.72$1,375,693
New York1930M51,228373,87813.7$22.16$13,592,080
North Dakota1933MNo pensions being paid
Ohio1931M24,000(e)414,8365.8$13.99(a)$3,000,000(f)
Oregon1931MAdministered by counties; no info available for state
Pennsylvania1934MLaw just being put into effect
Utah1929M93022,6654.1$8.56$95,599
Washington1931M2,239(b)101,5032.2No information available
West Virginia1931ONo pensions being paid
Wisconsin1925O1,969112,1121.8$16.75$395,707
Wyoming1929M6438,7077.4$10.79$83,231

M – Mandatory
O- Optional

1 – Where no special reference is given, the figures are as of December 31, 1933
2 – 1930 Census figures
3 – Where no special reference is given, the figures represent actual cost for the year 1933
(a) As of October 1, 1934
(b) As of August 1934
(c) As of December 1934
(d) Estimated from expenditures of April through November 1934 – $317,000
(e) As of November 1934
(f) Estimated from monthly figures
(g) As of September 1934
(h) Appropriation for 1934

All of the above information was taken from Old Age Security Staff Report, Barbara Nachtried Armstrong and Staff, 1934, from unpublished studies by the staff of the Committee on Economic Security (CES), Volume II.