This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. A copy of the text of this speech exists in the Senate Speech file of the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers here at the John F. Kennedy Library.
This year social security is twenty-five years old. And perhaps never, since its enactment, have the challenges to this program been as crucial and as far-reaching as they are today.
“The test of our progress,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” It was in that spirit that our social security system was conceived. It was in that spirit that Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman fought to broaden its coverage and increase its benefits. And it is in that spirit that we battle today for a social security law which will truly provide our older citizens – under the present cost of living – with a decent and a dignified and a healthy way of life.
And if the need to protect the welfare of our older citizens is one of the great challenges of the sixties – then protecting them against the economic ravages of disease, chronic illness and disability is at the very forefront of that challenge.
The income, the price and the population statistics tell the story. These cold, impersonal numbers unmistakably reveal the personal poverty, the dismal hardship, the lonely want which millions of our older citizens must face as they near retirement. These figures describe the meager, shameful reward which the richest country on earth gives to those who contributed a lifetime of productive labor to that country’s strength. These are shocking figures – figures which cry out for action – figures which must be changed.
Today 16 million Americans are past the age of 65 – and this number increases by more than 1,000 each and every day in the year. Three out of every five of these Americans – more than 9.5 million people – must struggle to survive on an income of under $1,000 a year.
Three million more receive less than $2,000 a year from all sources combined. And the average social security check is a pitiful $72 a month.
This poverty and hardship turn into heartbreak and despair when illness threatens. No costs have increased more rapidly in the last decade than the cost of medical care. Medicines and drugs are more expensive than ever before – hospital rates have more than doubled – doctor bills have skyrocketed.
And these rising costs have had their greatest impact on our older citizens. Almost 20 per cent of all those on social security must use one-quarter to one-half of their meager annual incomes for medical expenses alone. Those over 65 suffer from chronic diseases at almost twice the rate of our younger population – they spend more than twice as many days restricted to bed – and they must visit a doctor almost twice as often. And even these impressive figures do not tell us of the uncounted thousands who suffer from a lack of needed medical care – from a lack of vital drugs – and from a lack of hospitalization – simply because they cannot afford to pay the bills.
Of course, some of those who are now uncared for can have free health care. But such public assistance is often painstakingly slow – the tests for giving it are often rigid and unrealistic – the care itself is often impersonal and inadequate.
But – even more important – thousands of our older citizens, as testimony before the Congress has unmistakably demonstrated, would rather endure pain and suffering than rely on public charity. And they should not have to ask for charity. They want more than charity – they deserve more than charity – and this Democratic Congress must see that they get more than charity.
For in the face of such appalling conditions, men naturally turn for leadership and help to their government. It was the government of Franklin Roosevelt which gave us the first social security system – and the first vision of an America where older people could live out their years in dignity and freedom from want. It was the government of Harry Truman which fought to broaden this law – to bring it into line with the new conditions of a new day.
So the question is: How will today’s Republican Administration carry on in this tradition? How do they plan to meet the new demands of the challenging sixties?
Last Wednesday the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare gave us their answer. He admitted the growing magnitude of the problem. He admonished us to “approach the problems with a sense of urgency.” And then he presented his “program.” He called for “studies,” for “consultations,” and for further “explorations” – and he could not tell us how long those studies might take.
This is their answer to our hopes and needs. This is their answer to the millions of Americans whose later years are blighted by poverty and disease. This is the answer of an Administration which would rather save its precious budget surplus, than save the health, the self-respect, and the economic welfare of our older citizens. This is an answer which answers nothing – which solves no problems and meets no needs – and this is an answer which we will never accept.
We need no more studies. For 18 long years Congress has examined the health needs of the aged. Last year alone, the vigorous and searching McNamara Committee filled several volumes and several thousands of pages with testimony on those needs. Long and thorough reports have been written, distributed and discussed. For more than a decade, the attention of leading sociologists, public welfare experts and medical specialists has been focused on the problems of those over 65.
We already know the plight of our older citizens. We already know that their rate of income is low and their rate of illness is high.
What we want to know now is:
“Who will take care of them?
“How will they get by? When they’re too old to work and they’re too young to die.”
This Administration doesn’t have an answer.
But we do. The Forand and Kennedy bills are the answer – and we intend to do something about it.
There are those who claim that the Kennedy-Forand bills are not necessary – that there are other ways to solve the problem. But there are no other solutions. Voluntary health programs have proven that they cannot do the job. Public charity and the generosity of relatives cannot and should not do the job. The Administration has shown that it will not do the job. And so a Democratic Congress must do the job.
Our older citizens do not oppose this program. Our nurses and hospitals do not oppose this program. The American people do not oppose this program. There are only three groups in America who oppose it. The doctors oppose it because – if it is successful – they might lose face. The insurance companies oppose it because they might lose profits. And the undertakers oppose it because they might lose customers.
Fifty years ago, when the British Parliament first held hearings on the poverty of the aged, Winston Churchill wrote that there were some members “appalled by what they have seen, whose only idea is to slam the door on the grim and painful prospect which has been revealed to their eyes.” But there are others, he wrote, who “are prepared to descend into the abyss, and grapple with its evils – as sometimes you see after an explosion at a coal mine a rescue party advancing into the smoke and steam.”
Today in America there are those who would shut the door of hope on our older citizens – who would deny them the medical care which they so desperately need. But there are others who will not let that door be closed – who intend to fight for the right of all men to live out their lives in dignity and in health. That rescue party is on the way – and there are more of us – and we are stronger – and we will prevail.