Actually, it was worse than catfood for the elderly poor

by: Daniel De Groot

Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 14:00


As a mission of personal interest I have been trying to track down the origin or popularization moment of the meme of elderly women being reduced to eating catfood to survive, and while I haven't found it, I think it is worth saying that prior to Social Security, catfood would have been an improvement for many.  From Time magazine's eulogy to Dr. Francis Townsend who died in 1960:


Like so many oddball Utopias, the Townsend Plan began in Southern California.*Because of fragile health, Francis Townsend had given up a horse-and-buggy practice in South Dakota's Black Hills and headed for Long Beach with his wife (his former nurse) at age 50. One morning in the bleak year of 1934, when he was down to his last $500, he happened to see three aged crones pawing through a garbage pail in search of food. The sight outraged Townsend's sensibilities, and he began to curse in such a loud voice that his wife begged him to be quiet. But Francis Townsend would not be hushed: within a month his plan was written, and before a year had passed, the wrathful Savonarola of the senescent was heard across the U.S.

Townsend led a crusade to secure generous middle-class worthy pensions for all that is credited for influencing the shape and growing generosity of Social Security (for example though passed in 1935, it was not supposed to pay pension benefits until 1942, but this was sped up to 1940 in 1939 partly due to the continuing popularity of the "Townsend plan").

I bring this up because there is a refrain from some quarters that calling the deficit commission the "Catfood Commission" is so very unfair and mean and unserious.  The critics are right, it is inaccurate; we should be calling it the "Garbage Commission."  

(BTW, if anyone knows or thinks they know the origin of the catfood thing, drop me a line or say so in comments.  I'm well aware Digby gets the credit for the current popularity of the term, but I'm trying to dig up the place or time the underlying problem of extreme elder privation became mainstream.)  

Daniel De Groot :: Actually, it was worse than catfood for the elderly poor

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Digby gets lots of credit for things (0.00 / 0)
on rare occasions it is deserved

I believe in this instance the first usage was at FDL (cue the kvetching)


I could be wrong (0.00 / 0)
But the link above is to 2004.  More recently, that link dates to Feb 2009.  Digby may not have coined "catfood commission" per se, but she refers to old people being reduced to eating catfood whenever the topic of gutting social security comes up.


[ Parent ]
No, we should be calling it the (4.00 / 4)
"cheat people out of their payroll deductions" commission.

Yes, the rich stealing from the poor (4.00 / 3)
Saying that cutting it will hurt seniors is all true, but implies that Social Security is a welfare program which it is not. Cutting Social Security means that all that money that people put into the system for the past 40 years is being stolen (and given to rich people as "tax cuts"). This is the point we really should be making.

[ Parent ]
Possible origins of idea of poor elders eating pet food (4.00 / 1)
Here are some references that might shed some light:

Nutrition Today article in 1974 debunking "one-third of dog food eaten by poor elders" but pointing out how this idea might have been popularized

Skeptical question Read all the answers below it many of which substantiate that it does happen

One particular answer from a poor person

"Seniors Eat Dog Food to Avoid Homelessness"


I never understood why the implication would be that seniors would have to eat cat food (0.00 / 0)
Cat food, after all, costs money.  If seniors are going to be impoverished sans Social Security, it makes no sense for them to spend their precious few dollars on something that isn't even meant for human consumption.

"Garbage Commission" seems more appropriate.


older women (0.00 / 0)
The poverty of older women was a huge issue in the 1970s -- at that time they were the single largest demographic living in poverty, because of the increase in divorce rates, because they often had not worked outside the home and they did not have any legal claim on a husband's or ex-husband's pension or social security benefits.  They were left with nearly nothing.  The Older Womens League was the main organization fighting this at this time, and then the Gray Panthers.  But it was a common understanding then that impoverished elderly women were surviving on the meagerest of foodstuffs.

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