Not So Funny

Sociologist Williamson uses editorial cartoons to trace the history and battles of the senior rights movement

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

If pictures are worth a thousand words, they are especially so in America's debate over its policies toward the elderly, says Prof. John Williamson (Sociology). His new book, The Senior Rights Movement: Framing the Policy Debate in America , uses editorial cartoons to evoke the sometimes rancorous nature of this long-running conflict.

Political cartoons illustrate how Americans have viewed and discussed issues like age discrimination or notions of who constitutes "the deserving poor," Williamson says. He and his co-authors - University of Texas political scientist Lawrence Alfred Powell and Stonehill College sociologist Kenneth Branco - see an historic argument between American progressives and conservatives over social policies to aid the elderly, which flares during times of national economic insecurity.

As concern has grown over the viability of the Social Security system in recent years, Williamson says, that argument is at center stage - and in editorial cartoons - once again.

A 1935 New York Times cartoon included in the book, for example, shows an elderly woman swallowing great hunks from the "National Revenue" turkey, while an alarmed taxpayer exclaims, "Oh, Grandma, what big teeth you have!" This attitude toward the elderly is seen again in a 1988 New Republic cover depicting a stampede of angry-looking retirees in gardening bonnets and golf togs, under the heading "Greedy Geezers."

"It is interesting to look at some of those cartoons from the 1930s and become aware of how relevant they are today," Williamson said.

Prof. John Williamson (Sociology)-In times of economic insecurity, "people start looking around at who's to blame. The poor are not seen as deserving. There seems to be a need to get more stingy. The country as a whole comes to the conclusion we're spending too much on old people."
The Senior Rights Movement describes the split between American liberal progressives and conservatives over the extent to which government extends aid to the needy. Progressives have favored redistributive policies to help Americans deemed less fortunate, including the elderly, the poor and the handicapped, Williamson said. Conservatives, meanwhile, have traditionally stressed free-market solutions, contending that government aid discourages workers from earning and saving enough money for retirement.

According to Williamson, 19th-century government programs to aid paupers did not distinguish between elderly and other groups of poor. The government designated the elderly poor as a category unto themselves during the New Deal social programs of the 1930s, listing them as beneficiaries of the original Social Security Act with the blind, widows and children.

Williamson said economic upheavals often have led many Americans to favor belt-tightening at the expense of the elderly. He draws a parallel between recent wrangling over government social spending and the debates of the 1820s, when a drop in trade and an increase in immigration fueled economic uncertainty and some fiscal conservatives urged spending less on the poor and building workhouses for the indigent as a way to discourage dependency.

When there is economic insecurity, Williamson said, "people start looking around at who's to blame. The poor are not seen as deserving. There seems to be a need to get more stingy. The country as a whole comes to the conclusion we're spending too much on old people."

But the public and media have felt sympathy for the elderly, Williamson points out. A 1925 Eagle Magazine cartoon shows a fired elderly worker carrying a termination notice labeled "Passport to the Poorhouse," while a 1974 Los Angeles Times cartoon depicts a senior citizens' apartment complex, where a "No Pets Allowed" sign hangs above garbage cans brimming with empty cans of dog food, the diet of the elderly poor residents.

The elder policy debate hardly will diminish over the next few decades, Williamson said, given the expected growth in the 65-and-over population. Some policy-makers have called for the privatization of Social Security, amid fears that the federal system will be tapped out by the time today's young workers reach retirement.

With older Americans forming a powerful voting bloc, Williamson sees an effort by conservative policy-makers to "split the elderly between the affluent and less affluent," through measures such as privatization.

Williamson is researching the effects privatization would have on the Social Security system. He opposes such a move, which he argues has been pitched by politicians to appeal to the tax-paying young, but would ultimately harm those who become tomorrow's elderly poor.

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