Speeches by John F. Kennedy

From the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at St. Albans, West Virginia, April 30, 1960

This is a transcription of this speech made for the convenience of readers and researchers. One draft of the speech exists in the John F. Kennedy Pre-Presidential Papers at the John F. Kennedy Library.

One of the most shameful and shocking failures of this Administration has been its failure to provide a decent and a dignified way of life for our older citizens. Because of this failure millions of Americans over the age of sixty-five have been condemned to a life of personal poverty, dismal hardship and lonely want. They must struggle for survival on meager, inadequate social security benefits which fall far short of meeting today's high cost of living. This is the failure of an indifferent Administration - of an Administration which has failed to give full attention to America's problems - a half-hearted, part-time Administration.

And nowhere has this Administration failure had greater impact than in . You have approximately 164,000 citizens over the age of 65. More than 70,000 of them have an average annual income of less than $1500 - 71,000 more manage a bare subsistence living on Federal social security benefits averaging $829 a year - and 20,000 must attempt to survive on an average income of under $400. These incomes are a meager, pitiful reward for the richest country on earth to offer to those who have contributed a lifetime of productive labor to that country's strength. These are shocking incomes - incomes which cry out for action - incomes which must be raised.

This poverty and hardship turn into heartbreak and despair when illness threatens. For 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.

These rising medical costs only intensify the already severe economic distress of our older citizens - economic distress which should and must be relieved with an extension of social security - not by forcing those over 65 to ask for public charity. For our older citizens should not have to ask for charity. They want more than charity - they deserve more than charity - and a Democratic Administration must see that they get more than charity.

For in the face of such appalling conditions - in the face of this breakdown of our entire social security system - in the face of the indifference and neglect of the Republican Administration in - men naturally turn to the leadership of the Democratic Party. 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. And it will be the next Democratic Administration - the Administration of the sixties - which will again assure our older citizens of a decent and a dignified and a healthy way of life.

First, we must raise our scale of benefits - and we must make sure that these new benefits are never again allowed to fall behind rising prices. This can be done by providing for an automatic adjustment of benefits to keep pace with rises in the cost of living. Only in this way can we keep inflation from destroying the economic welfare of our older citizens.

Second, we must provide a sound and effective program of health insurance for those over 65. We can no longer afford to have the life savings, the homes and the few possessions of our older citizens wiped out by the sudden onslaught of illness. We must provide for the health and well-being of our older citizens.

Third, we must increase the lump-sum payment to surviving spouses. These payments are designed to meet the cost of final illness and funeral expenses. Two hundred and fifty dollars might have been adequate for this purpose 20 years ago, but it does not begin to meet 1960's costs.

Fourth, we must raise the limit on the amount which older people can earn and still be eligible for social security benefits. Today if a retired person earns over $1200 he cannot receive social security. This limit should be raised so that our older people can supplement their meager benefits with meaningful outside employment.

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 there are those who would shut the door of hope on our older citizens - who would deny them benefits adequate to eliminate poverty and despair. 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.

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