OVER THE HILL TO THE POOR HOUSE
By Norris Chambers
A few of the old folks might not fully appreciate the benefits that are now available for them. I remember when there was no social security, no senior citizen centers, no rest homes and no available Medicaid benefits. When a person became too old or too feeble to work there was absolutely no income. Because of the depression or low wages usually there were no savings to contribute to the old one’s survival. Most families were large in those days and ordinarily there was a son or daughter glad to furnish the old folks a home and the necessities of life. Occasionally there was an old person with no family, or a family that was unable to provide care for the aging parent. In this case the old person faced a serious situation.
Some counties in the state operated what was known as a “poor house” or a “poor farm”.
The poor house was not a desirable place to live. Many of them were more like prisons than homes. Actually, in many cases, the residents, because they were homeless, were sentenced by the court to stay in the care centers. To be sent to the “poor house” was considered by most of the population to be about the worst thing that could happen to an old person.
The “poor farm” was even worse because the residents were supposed to do enough work here to raise crops and support the establishment. Some were forced to work in the fields when they were not physically able to perform such duties.
When we went to Brownwood we passed an area where we were told the poor farm had been. It was no longer in operation but some of the old timers remembered it and knew men and women who had been forced to live there. Some sort of relief program was available for those in dire need.
After I graduated from high school in 1935 some of the old folks were excited about a new program proposed by President Roosevelt and passed by Congress called SOCIAL SECURITY. This program was to take a small amount from the wages of most workers and distribute it to the old folks as a monthly payment when they reached retirement age. The original proposal was not popular with many in our area because it excluded agricultural workers, women and several other classes of workers. Those who were nearing retirement age had never contributed and would not be eligible to receive benefits.
Another form of aid to the elderly was proposed as a state function and it was referred to as OLD AGE PENSIONS. Of course this was very popular with those who would need it and with families with aging mothers and fathers. For several years candidates stated, in their fervor for election to state offices, that they would support the old age pension program. In most cases those elected because of these promises were unable to get such a program approved. Eventually, in the late thirties, Texas did begin helping indigent seniors with a small monthly check! Some of the elderly in our farming community were eligible and appreciated the windfall.
The old person was not the only beneficiary! The recipient’s family looked forward to the monthly check as a supplement to a very low family income. As a result of the pension checks a song became very popular:
“When our old age pension check comes to our door,
We won't have to dread the poor house anymore.
Though we're old and thin and gray,
Good times will be back to stay,
When our old age pension check comes to our door.”
Social Security did not actually start until 1937. It had been enacted and gone through the courts a few times and was finally ready to help the old folks. I was working for an oil company at the time and the deduction was just a few cents. At about the same time the minimum wage law took effect. The new law at that time required certain employers to pay at least twenty-five cents per hour. The wages we were receiving amounted to a little more than twenty-five cents. They didn’t reduce our wages but they did increase our hours. We were only working a half day on Saturday and with the new law we were required to work during the afternoon. The law didn’t call for this action but the company saw an opportunity to profit. This brought us down to the minimum wage! So the minimum wage law was not a good thing for everyone! It did benefit many low paid workers.
Did folks have fun with the poor houses and the old age pensions? It was a lot of fun! If you would like to have similar fun just live to a ripe old age and tell folks how bad things were back in the early two-thousands and how great they are in the early twenty-one hundreds!