Former Sen. Jim DeMint, the new president of the Heritage Foundation, began work there Thursday with a letter to the group's staff outlining his vision for the organization. Mitt Romney would find much to admire in it.
Though he adjusted the former GOP presidential candidate's estimate that 47 percent of the voting population is "dependent upon government," DeMint doesn't stray far from the underlying message.
"Today, more people than ever before -- 69.5 million Americans, from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries -- depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions," DeMint wrote.
"The United States must reverse the direction of these trends or face economic and social collapse."
At a closed-door fundraiser in May, Romney observed that "there are 47 percent who are with [President Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
In order to approach a figure of 47 percent, Romney's estimate necessarily included veterans and the elderly, as well as others who have paid into the system. DeMint, meanwhile, explicitly singled out "college students" and "retirees" as people who are "dependent on the federal government" and threaten the nation with "collapse."
DeMint is correct that New Deal-era retirees and others who could not fend for themselves economically used to be taken care of by civil society institutions. They were known as "poorhouses" or, alternately, "county homes."
"Most people, unless they were well-to-do, had two options," said University of Pennsylvania historian Michael B. Katz. "One was living with their kids, the other was the poorhouse."
But government assistance has led to a dramatic decline in poverty since the days when poor people were left to their own devices. As HuffPost reported in a previous article, poverty statistics are unreliable before about 1960, when the elderly poverty rate was 35 percent, but that figure likely represents a steep decline from the beginning of regular monthly Social Security payments in 1940. The first Social Security payments were made in one, lump-sum in 1937.
Though there were no national measurements, in surveys taken between 1925 and 1932 in Connecticut, New York and Wisconsin, nearly half of elderly people lived on less than $25 per month, which survey administrators deemed "insufficient subsistence income."
A third in Connecticut had no income at all. An attempt to quantify elderly poverty in 1939, deep into the depression, using census data, found the rate may have been close to 80 percent. But by 1974, elderly poverty had fallen below 15 percent and by 1995 it had dropped to 10.
"Our analysis suggests that the growth in Social Security can indeed explain all of the decline in poverty among the elderly over this period," concluded Gary Engelhardt and Jonathan Gruber in a 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research report on the program.