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By Lukas Pleva August 17, 2010

Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson says Social Security slashed poverty among the elderly

Aug. 14, 2010, marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act, and in the run-up to that landmark anniversary, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, praised the program in a speech on the House floor.

"On the third anniversary of the Social Security Act, President Roosevelt said, 'We have come a long way. But we still have a long way to go. There is still today a frontier that remains unconquered — an America unclaimed. This is the great, the nationwide frontier of insecurity, of human want and fear. This is the frontier — the America — we have set ourselves to reclaim.' Today, much of that dream has been realized. While we may never completely eradicate poverty, great strides have been made. In 1935, more than 50% of the elderly population lived in poverty. Today that poverty rate stands officially at 9.4%," she said on Aug. 10, 2010.

We don't have the expertise to judge the effectiveness of social safety net programs, but we did want to check Johnson's claim that "in 1935, more than 50% of the elderly population lived in poverty. Today that poverty rate stands officially at 9.4%."

We began with the latter statistic. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, which has been collecting official poverty data for the past several decades, the poverty rate for individuals 65 and older in 2008 -- the latest year for which data are available -- was 9.7 percent. That's pretty close to the figure that Johnson cited.

The second number was a bit harder to verify. The U.S. Census Bureau did not begin tracking the poverty rate until 1959. On top of that, data for individuals aged 65 and older are not available for the years 1960 through 1965.

We spoke with Deborah Johnson, a senior editor and writer at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Johnson told us to check out a 1987 study from Eugene Smolensky, Sheldon Danziger, and Peter Gottschalk. The three researchers used data from the 1940 and 1950 Censuses to extend the poverty line back to 1939. How did things look back then?

Among men 64 and older, the poverty rate in 1939 was 78 percent. For women, it was 77.5 percent. But what about 1935?

"Even ... 78% would probably be a slightly conservative estimate since poverty for all persons in 1939 was considerably lower in 1939 than in 1935," Smolensky wrote us in an e-mail. He said that by his estimates, in 1935, the poverty rate for all families was 69.4 percent. For the elderly, it could have been up to 20 percent higher. Still, the paper also notes that due to changes in the survey methodology, "data presented here for 1939 are not directly comparable to the data for later years."

We also looked at research from Robert Plotnick, professor of public affairs at University of Washington. Plotnick and his colleagues (including Smolensky) extended the poverty threshold, adjusting for inflation, back to 1914. In 1935, the poverty rate for the entire U.S. population was 64.9 percent. Plotnick told us that he does not have a breakdown by age, but "since poverty among elders was consistently higher than for the overall population until the mid 1970s, it would be reasonable to assume poverty among the elders in 1935 was at least 50 percent."

We asked Johnson's office for a source for the claim and were told that it comes from material that references Growing Old in America, a 1978 publication by David Fischer, now a history professor at Brandeis University. Page 226 contains the statistic that Johnson may have been talking about: "Dependent poverty among the old grew inexorably, from 23 percent in 1910 to 40 percent in 1930, and 50 percent in 1935."

The term "dependent poverty" puzzled us, and we tried to reach Fischer to clarify what he meant by that, but he did not respond to our query. Plotnick said it is not a standard term currently used in academic literature. After some research, we did find an instance of the term in the writings of Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century English economist known for the Malthusian theory that population, left unchecked, outstrips food supplies and leads to disaster. Malthus used "dependent poverty'' to describe someone who depends upon charity for survival.

That may be similar to what Johnson was talking about, but it is not the same concept. During her speech, she specifically referenced the U.S. "poverty rate," which is a formal term from the U.S. Census. We talked to some of the top researchers in this field, and they all agreed: the best estimates show that the elderly poverty rate in 1935 was probably somewhere in the range of 70 to 90 percent.

So, to review, Johnson said that "in 1935, more than 50% of the elderly population lived in poverty. Today that poverty rate stands officially at 9.4%." We found no official statistics for the rate of elderly poverty for the year 1935, only academic projections, and making apples-to-apples comparisons between eras is difficult. But those estimates indicate that Johnson may have seriously underestimated the level of poverty for older Americans amid the Great Depression.

Still, Johnson's underlying point stands. The poverty rate among the elderly has dramatically declined. Whether that was the result of Social Security or other factors is beyond the scope of this review. By the best available measures the rate in 1935 was, as she stated, more than 50 percent. And she was just a fraction off on the current level of 9.7 percent. So we rate her statement True.

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Our Sources

Congressional Record, Eddie Johnson's speech, Aug. 10, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau, Poverty Rates by Age, accessed Aug. 16, 2010

U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Poverty Rates -- People, accessed Aug. 16, 2010

The White House, Presidential Proclamation--75th Anniversary of the Social Security Act, Aug. 13, 2010

E-mail interview, Thomas Ahn, Assistant professor of economics at the Gatton College of Business and Economics at University of Kentucky, Aug. 13, 2010

E-mail interview, Robert Plotnick, Professor of public affairs at University of Washington, Aug. 13, 2010

E-mail interview, Eugene Smolensky, Professor of public policy at University of California-Berkeley, Aug. 13, 2010

E-mail interview, Janet Currie, Professor of economics at Columbia University, Aug. 13, 2010

E-mail interview, Deborah Johnson, Senior Editor, writer, and public information contact at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Aug. 13, 2010

Google Books, Preview: Growing Old in America (page 226), by David Hackett Fischer, accessed Aug. 16, 2010

Library of Economics and Liberty, An Essay on the Principle of Population, by Thomas Malthus, accessed Aug. 16, 2010

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