Fact check: Sanders' claim about social security


Senator Sanders wrote a tweet about the number of senior Americans who lived in poverty before social security, he claimed the following:

Bernie Sanders on Twitter

Before Social Security was created in 1932, about half of seniors lived in poverty. Today, the senior poverty rate is just 8.8% and in 2016 Social Security lifted 22 million Americans out of poverty. Our job is not to cut Social Security. Our job is to expand it.

Claim: 

Before Social Security was created in 1932, about half of seniors lived in poverty.” 

Fact Check: True

Unfortunately there are no statistics to indicate exactly how many elderly lived in poverty in the United States as a whole in 1932. However, many individual States completed surveys, and while most focused on estimating the number of people who would become eligible under a proposed State law. A few tried to categorize individuals according to property and income, ignoring the economic status of children and relatives.

Looking at two of these notable surveys which found similar estimates at this time and decoupled owned property value and annual income, the Connecticut Commission to Investigate the Subject of Old Age Pensions, Report on Old Age Relief published in 1932 looking at persons 65 and over, and the Industrial Commission of Wisconsin, Report on Old Age Relief published in 1915 both found similar number of elderly individuals living in poverty at this time. With Connecticut finding that 49.2% (51.3% urban 45.7% rural) of individuals 65 or older lived on an annual income of less than $300 and even found that 33.5% had no income at all. Similarly the Wisconsin report delivered a statistic of 47.1% of individuals aged 60 or older lived on less than $300 a year while a mere 29% had incomes above $500 and 21% survived on less $100. Looking at property ownership instead Connecticut found that only 47.6% owned property valued $1,000 or below and 34.9% of residents 65 and older owned no property at all, while the Wisconsin report examining property owned by those 60 and older concluded that 49.8% owned property valued less than $1,500 and 41.5% owned property worth $1,000 or below.

As this is general statement “about half of seniors lived in poverty” it is reasonable to rate Sanders’ claim as True. It is also possible that Sanders is referring to the Connecticut survey in his claim.

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