Dorothea Lange, the great documentary photographer, traveled to Oregon in 1939 as part of her ongoing project to record the plight of the rural poor for the federal Resettlement Administration. Among the many stunning, often heartbreaking images she captured was the one reproduced here. The exact location isn’t known, but it shows an unemployed lumber worker and his wife in the shelter they were then living in. The tattoo on his arm is his Social Security number.
Before questioning the necessity of any institution, it’s usually a good idea to review the conditions that made that institution necessary to begin with – and ask ourselves how much has really changed. When Dorothea Lange began her historic project in 1935, the Social Security Act was just clearing Congress and heading to Roosevelt’s desk. In budgetary terms, Old Age Insurance, the section that evolved into today’s national retirement system, was a tiny portion of the whole. The checks that the elderly – 65% of whom were unemployed, millions of them in great distress – received right away under the Act were actually what we would call welfare – Title I, which awarded benefits based on need, not payroll tax contributions
The man and woman in Lange’s photo are not elderly. They would have to wait decades to receive what we now call “Social Security.” (Title I benefits phased out two to three decades later, once Old Age Insurance became generous enough to take its place.) But the new program meant a great deal to people who formerly expected to work until they dropped. It embodied a new social compact that moved provision for the aged out of the uncertain hands of families and local governments and allowed people to look forward to independence in old age.
The tattoo on the man’s arm suggests how powerful this was and how deeply working people in America understood what it meant. The tent that he and his wife are sitting in contains very little, and no documents or personal records that we can see. That nine-digit number may have been their only way to keep track of that number. It was their link to a larger community and a State-sponsored system of mutual aid that promised to end the profound isolation that most Americans still lived in before the great modernizing era of the New Deal, World War II, and the immediate postwar decades.
Lange’s powerful pictures describe a world that’s difficult to imagine now. (For a glance at the above photo and others from Lange’s 1939 Oregon journey, go to the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission’s website. I’m grateful to my friend David Milholland, at the OSHC, for bringing them to my attention.) They capture people living in tents in migratory camps, farming with tools and techniques not that different from what they would have used 100 years earlier, relying on horses and oxen to do much of the heavy work. Large areas of rural America still hadn’t been electrified, making the daily pattern of life quite different from what we know today. Even the clothes Lange’s people wore often look much older – more 19th century than mid-20th. The despair of the mid-Depression years is palpable.
Some, less extreme critics of Social Security like to argue that, yes, it helped lift millions of people out of poverty, and maintains living standards for millions more every year. But this is a very different country from the one that inaugurated Social Security more than 80 years ago. The horse-and-buggy days are over. It’s the iPad age. This Depression-era program is obsolete in our investor-driven, exurban present.
Really? American manufacturing today, despite a recent blip upward, is still in long-term crisis. The economy is hollowing out, as it remains unable to generate good-paying jobs with prospects. Large swaths of agricultural land, neighborhoods, and even whole cities are hollowing out as well, just as they did in the Depression years – only this time, the process has been going on for decades. Migrant agricultural camps still exist, only the residents are from Mexico and Central America rather than the South and Midwest. For millions of people, the Internet economy is a dream, just as the exciting new world of telex, Teletype, and air travel was in the 1930s. The collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 revealed patterns of fraud closely paralleling those exposed by the 1929 stock market crash.
“Serious” government leaders, meanwhile, are preoccupied with deficit cutting and budget balancing, just as they were in the first years of the Depression – including much of the first Roosevelt administration. The gap between the people’s needs and the priorities of the political and financial elite was frighteningly wide then, just as it is today.
There’s another fascinating photo among Lange’s Oregon work. #006 in the OCHC’s online exhibit, it features a storefront fix-it shop in Salem. Painted on the side of the building is the following: “DOWN WITH POVERTY, CRIME, UNEMPLOYMENT. VOTE THE TOWNSEND PLAN. God helps those who help the Aged (Bible, EX. 20-12).”
The Townsend Plan was a proposal launched by an elderly California doctor to end the economic desperation of the aged. It was supported by millions of Americans organized into the Townsend Clubs. And while it was the first major political organizing campaign by the elderly in the U.S., it was multigenerational in makeup. The basic idea was to pay everyone over 65 a $200-a-month stipend – and require them to spend it all within 30 days. That way, the aged would have income to live on and the money pumped out would help the economy get going again. The whole thing would be financed by a 2% tax on commercial and financial transactions.
It’s estimated that well over 20 million Americans signed Townsend petitions. A version of the plan nearly passed the House. Establishment economists, appalled by what they considered a fiscally reckless proposal, hastened to develop more conservative alternatives. This was the atmosphere in which FDR appointed the Committee on Economic Security that produced the Social Security Act of 1935.
Likewise today, hopelessness isn’t the universal response to economic calamity. Community groups organizing home defenses against foreclosures and evictions, challenging the lenders who helped create the crisis, have sprung up in many cities, just as they did in the Thirties. The Occupy Wall Street insurgency and the efforts of Michigan public-sector workers to fight back against a blatant de-unionization drive by a Republican governor, have revived calls for a general strike – such as last happened in the U.S. since the Depression years.
The impulse to organize, to defend one’s home and community, and to demand the essentials of life as a human right, gave people hope in a time of capitalist collapse. They still do. Social Security, embodied in the tattoo on the arm of the man who Lange photographed more than 73 years ago, was not a political deal but the product of a monumental human struggle. He, and his wife, were entitled to it.