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Old age and poverty in mid-20th century America


Since last summer I’ve become, I think it’s safe to say, the world’s leading expert on Harry Truman’s personal finances. although this glorious achievement has yet to take published form (Look for a long magazine piece on this topic later this summer, as well as a more academic version on SSRN for the genuine masochists among you, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I found a bunch of really fascinating things, to me anyway, although the nature of obsession is that I may turn out to be the only person that’s interested in this topic (Teaser: When Truman claimed the buck stopped here, he wasn’t kidding).

Anyway, as a sort of amuse bouche I thought I’d throw out this tidbit: When Truman was being considered for the vice presidency by FDR in the summer of 1944, his net worth was approximately $7,000. Now $7,000 then was about $100,000 today, inflation-adjusted, and a lot more in terms of relative wealth, but still — he was a 60-year-old man who had been a U.S. senator for nearly ten years.

And here’s the thing: if FDR had gone in another direction — he almost picked William O. Douglas, which would have made for a really interesting alternative history it’s safe to say — Truman probably would have lost his bid for re-election in 1946 (he had squeaked by in the 1940 election and 1946 would be a wave year for the GOP). At that point, he would have been in some real financial trouble. He would have been 62, with a wife who had never had a paying job, other than the three years when Harry put her on his staff payroll and made her the highest-paid person on it. (He caught some flak for this during the 1944 election campaign.)

Truman had a very elderly mother who had recently had her lifelong home aka the Truman-Young family farm, foreclosed on her by Republicans looking to embarrass Harry. His daughter was going to an expensive private college. He had various other impecunious relatives, and for decades he had had essentially had no profession other than politician. He had no Congressional pension — these didn’t exist until Truman himself was in the White House — and a person of his generation could get only the most meager payment from Social Security, which was still in its infancy. (Another fascinating side note here is that when he was president Truman explored trying to get admitted to the bar, even though his legal education consisted of a few night classes at UMKC 25 years earlier, when he was trying to figure out what to do after his haberdashery business went under).

In short, if he hadn’t been tapped by FDR, Harry Truman could well have found himself basically broke in his mid-60s — he lived to be 88 — even though his grandfather had owned 1,500 acres of prime farm land, and Harry himself had ended up as the most successful protege of one of the most powerful political machines of the first half of the 20th century (The Pendergasts of Kansas City. When he was elected to the Senate in 1935 he was referred to derisively by Republicans and Clare Booth Luce DC types as “the senator from Pendergast.”)

This really rankled, as Truman had a thin skin, and in addition he doesn’t seem to have indulged in any of the financially crooked activities that his mentor Tom Pendergast and his closest cronies weren’t shy about pursuing themselves. The Pendergasts got chased out in the election of 1940, which is why Martha Truman lost her home — Harry had secured a short-term mortgage that he couldn’t pay from the Pendergast-controlled Jefferson County School Board, and the GOP gleefully foreclosed on the note the minute they came to power, which happened to be in the middle of Truman’s senatorial re-election campaign. Truman remained quite bitter about all this. (Yet another side note: Tom Pendergast died a few days after Truman became vice president, and Truman was the only politician who showed up at the disgraced former machine boss’s funeral. A very Gatsbyesque touch that I find quite endearing in regard to old Harry).

The point of this little historical detour is that it wasn’t that long ago — Joe Biden was toddling about when FDR was mulling who his new VP should be, and Dianne Feinstein was old enough to drink* — that in mid-20th century America even very high status people could find themselves impoverished in their old age quite easily if just one or two things went wrong.

And this is the world to which all the Randroids and Federalist Nexus 6 models and evangelical TULIP frenzy fans, and disrupter tech bros want to return us all to as soon as possible, because Freedom.

*Dramatic license. A commenter points out that it was actually illegal to buy a drink in the United States for the first few months of DiFi’s life.

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