The forgotten issue of drunken pensioners

old man drinking beer

Researchers warn that substance abuse among the elderly will double by 2020, but few journalists or policymakers worry about age pensioners squandering welfare money on alcohol and drugs. Things were different in 1905–6 when a royal commission looked at establishing a Commonwealth funded old age pension scheme in Australia. The commissioners recommended: "That a penalty should be imposed for supplying an old-age pensioner with intoxicating drink."

By 1901 both Victoria and New South Wales had established old-age pension schemes. And it wasn’t long before newspapers were running stories about pensioners spending all their money on drink. According to a 1901 report in Sydney’s Evening News:

After the experience of Victoria, New South Wales was not unprepared to find that one of the first results of payment of old age pensions would be that some of the recipients would even at their advanced ages keep up the practice of ‘La Boheme,’ and make as merry as possible for a little while with their money, not caring for the morrow. No great wonder has been manifested then that several old age pensioners have during the last week or so made their appearances in the metropolitan and country police courts charged with drunkenness. These old gentlemen — we do not remember whether there were any ladies included — were all penniless as the consequence of their festivities. They had spent in a day or two what should have lasted them a month.

The Commonwealth’s royal commission repeatedly asked witnesses about how to deal with the problem of drunken pensioners. According to the Salvation Army: "Conditions as to temperance should be enforced in pension payments. One of the greatest abuses of the Act is that much of the pension is spend in drink." Some witnesses said that pensioners who were repeatedly found drunk should have their pensions cancelled. Others suggested that the money should be given to somebody else to manage on the pensioner’s behalf.

Almost everyone agreed that the pension should be paid as a right and not as charity. But this didn’t mean they thought pensioners had a right to spend the money on drink. When the commissioners asked Thomas Bailey Clegg, registrar for old-age pensions in NSW, whether pensioners should be allowed to spend the money as they liked, he said:

Certainly, within reasonable limits. By that I mean that the Department does not admit a pensioner’s right to divert the money from the primary object for which it was given him, namely his maintenance. If, for example, it were found that the pensioner was spending his money in drink instead of of food, clothing, shelter, and reasonable comforts, it would certainly interpose on the broad ground that the pension had never been given to him for such a purpose (p 29).

Now that we have income support schemes for young unemployed people and single mothers, nobody worries much about what age pensioners do with ‘taxpayers’ money’. It’s unlikely anybody will be demanding regular breath tests or a law that prohibits hotels and bottle shops from selling alcohol to pensioners. But why is that? Why did this issue fall off the agenda?

Update: The Victorian royal commission

In 1897 the Victorian state government held a royal commission before establishing its old-age pension scheme. As in the Commonwealth royal commission, the Victorian commissioners asked witnesses about pensioners who abused alcohol. Here are some of the questions they asked The Rev. Alexander Robert Edgar of the Methodist Central Mission:

How would a pension suit those persons who are good citizens when they have no money, but who drink when they got money?

lt would not suit them at all, because when they got. the money they would drink it. You would have to provide for them by cottage homes or something of that sort.

By the Hon. W. H. Embling – How would you discriminate between the cases? Supposing a man presents himself for a pension, and a month’s payment is given to him

– if it is found that he spent that money unwisely he is unworthy of a pension, and some other means must be adopted to provide for him.

If it is the law of the land that he shall have a pension he is entitled to it?

The law of the land must see to that, and not allow larrge sums of money to go into the hands of people who would waste it (pdf).

Not everyone shared the Reverend Edgar’s views. The Bulletin questioned whether charity organisers should be treated as experts:

Why is it that the professional philanthropist, when he isn’t a self-advertising humbug, is so often an unspeakable ass? It’s only too likely that, when the old age pension question comes under formal investigation in N.S.W. the local ‘ charity organisers’ will be to the fore with much such ‘expert evidence’ as that which set forth to the Victorian Royal Commission that about 70 per cent of the existing poverty is due to strong drink, and that the old-age pension system, by relieving men of anxiety about the fag end of existence, would produce yet more tippling, and by consequence more pauperism. Which balderdash serves only to show, in the first place, that no man should be accepted as an ‘expert’ in indigence who hasn’t himself under gone a severe attack of empty pocket; and, in the second, the true inwardness of alcoholism remains still a sealed book to everybody who hasn’t been more or less ‘through the mill’ in person.

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26 Responses to The forgotten issue of drunken pensioners

  1. Mark Beath says:

    Great post. I recall my Auntie complaining that my pensioner grandfather was drinking way too much brandy when he was 97!

  2. paul walter says:

    The reality is that some folk will have more problems with alcohol/alcoholism than the majority; what you eventually see camped under a bridge with the jitters is the result of alcoholism and no amount of scolding will help these unfortunates beyond a certain point, its pretty sad, as most people know.

    The real lesson from the thread starter is the striking similarity between the control freak mentality of a century ago and now.

    • Hrgh says:

      Actually what you eventually see camped under a bridge is the result of our society’s failure to deal with mental illness in a supportive way.

      • Julie Thomas says:

        And, it is societies that encourage these scolding holier than thou hypocritical attitudes that create the mental ‘illnesses’ that result in people camping under bridges.

        • paul walter says:

          Remember Julie Thomas, pride comes before a fall.
          Even the smartest folk will eventually be cornered and whopped by life, usually when one is at one’s most complacent.
          Let them babble, their time will come.

  3. conrad says:

    “But why is that? Why did this issue fall off the agenda? ”

    1) Pensioners reducing their life expectancies by drinking too much and living an unhealthy lifestyle may well save the state money. One hundred years ago, pensioners didn’t have that long to live anyway (and there were far fewer of them), so saving money on them was not such a concern. No politician is going say this, but I bet the trade off might well be positive for the government.
    2) You need to distinguish between pensioners and old people drinking a lot. The group of females with the highest alcohol intake in Victoria are in a very high SES area (i.e., City of Boroondara — Hawthorn). I doubt you could actually drink too heavily on the pension unless you were good at making home brew.
    3) Pensioners don’t tend to create crime like drunken younger males do.
    4) Pensioners don’t wander around being obnoxious like drunken younger males do.
    5) Alcohol consumption actually drops off quite a bit in groups 65+, with the peak being just before that (55-64). Whether this is causal, a generational effect or both is unclear. In case it is causal, then alcohol consumption is dropping a lot in this group anyway.
    6) Pensioners don’t need to turn up to work, so them being drunk makes no difference to workplace productivity, unlike other groups.

    • Conrad can I add another significant factor:
      7) As most of us get older we become more and more invisible.

      • conrad says:

        I wondered about that too, and decided I couldn’t make my mind up. Visibility, for example, can definitely get you onto the list. But I don’t think invisibility saves you. If you look at other groups, then many are so small in number they may as well be invisible, but that doesn’t stop moralistic harassment of their group (e.g., teenage mothers, boat-people).

        • Gummo Trotsky says:

          If you’re going to be invisible, better to be an invisible aged pensioner occasionally squandering your pension on booze than an invisible aged pensioner confined to a sub-standard nursing home. Well, marginally better.

        • Suspect a factor in this is that getting old is , sadly, not caused by ‘miss-behavior’.

        • desipis says:

          Perhaps it’s something that gets ignore because of a collective sense of guilt about how we treat old people generally. We dump them in old peoples homes like some sort of unwanted excess of society; out of sight and old of mind of those who ought to care most for them. Wagging our finger patronisingly at old people might cause us to consider how the rest of us behave towards the elderly, and that’s something we’d rather avoid talking (or even thinking) about.

        • Desipis
          While I agree about the guilt component , there is another bigger factor: Old age is a leading cause of death.
          Modern city societies put day to day, personal mundane death almost completely ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Living in a major city, in a comfortable postcode you almost never see death/funerals/poverty up close ,where you live. Living in a small community just down the road from one its main churches, you do not need to send for whom the bell tolls, in contrast in most cities you never even hear the bell.

    • Patrick says:

      I doubt you could actually drink too heavily on the pension unless you were good at making home brew.

      Ah, indeed doubt you do, but I suspect you aren’t familiar with the price of a 4L flagon of port, notably sold at Smith St Woolworths (or Coles, I forget), or a cask of cooler. It’s easier, I am led to believe, to forget hunger with drink than it is drink with food.

      All your observations are valid, just not that aside.

      • paul walter says:

        That’s a good comment, the example offered by Tony Wood gives the example.
        Far easier to fall into a hole than climb out again.

  4. ChrisB says:

    This is the kind of thing that shows blogs still have a future.

  5. Rob Bray says:

    The Commonwealth legislative provision that an age pension was not payable if the claimant was not of good character or was not deserving of a pension (both good proxies for being a drunkard) was not removed until 1974. Anecdote has it that the provision was last applied to someone in Tasmania around 1970!

    Of course if you were an Age Pensioner living in a prescribed area in the NT (ie Indigenous Community) along with all other income support recipients you were subject to Income Management (effectively half your money on a BasicsCard to ‘prevent it being spent on alcohol, tobacco, gambling and porn’) between 2007 and 2010 – and this regime continues to apply to a high proportion of those on income support in the NT (although Age Pensioners and DSP are exempt).

  6. Bruce Bradbury says:

    Since (at least) the 1960s, Pensions have been paid fortnightly rather than monthly. Was concern about pensioners drinking their pension one of the reasons for this change?

  7. Mel says:

    “The senior women of some of Australia’s most remote Aboriginal communities say their children are suffering because they have been left out of the Federal Government’s income management schemes.

    Community leaders in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) lands in South Australia say income management, which has divided opinion in the Northern Territory, would help stop domestic violence, child abuse and neglect.”

    The issue isn’t straightforward.

    It may well have been the case that in 1905 a significant number of white communities were trapped in a similarly dysfunctional culture as the APY. Then again it may not be. But thanks Don for an interesting post.

    • “It may well have been the case that in 1905 a significant number of white communities were trapped in a similarly dysfunctional culture as the APY.”
      It may be the case, for example the book ‘A fortunate Life’ outlines a appalling, brutal, (but not that exceptional) white childhood in a remote rural area, that sounds very similar to some of the stories coming out of some remote areas today

  8. tony wood says:

    I could possibly relay a recollection of mine that may go some way to explaining alcohol consumption and the elderly. I’m a paramedic and I frequently attend cases of elderly patients/pensioners taking a bit of a tumble after imbibing a bit of cask wine (usually it’s all they can afford). I remember a wonderful lady in her late 80’s I attended years ago who we were always being summonsed to. She was never a problem, always lovely and a bit tipsy. She drank pretty much from the time she got out of bed of a morning. We attended to her one time and a younger member of her family rocked up, began berating her for her drinking habits. Finally she turned on him and said (or spat) “What else have I got to do? You lot never come and visit me but you keep telling me I can’t go out on my own. So what am I supposed to do? Sit here and wait to die? I’m old enough to do what I damn well please”. Nobody really had anything to say to that. Generally, in my experience, those on (for want of a better term) Old Age Pensions have worked their whole lives, superannuation was non-existent for their generation, paid taxes their whole lives and are therefore, in my opinion, entitled to be looked after by us as a society. If they want to (cough cough) “enhance” the hue of their mostly monotonous days with a bit of alcohol? Well, so be it as far as I’m concerned. They’ve earnt it. Give them a break. Wait until you’re their age and nobody is interested in you anymore. Everybody who might actually owe you something is just to busy to bother with you. You might just find yourself going the cheap plonk when you next go shopping.

  9. Mel says:

    Thanks John Walker.

    Most folk today don’t seem to fully appreciate just how brutal and dysfunctional many of our ancestors were. As an example, in a very short space of time we (in the West) have gone from a place where power differentials, taboos and stigma meant children could be beaten, raped and tortured at home or by the local teacher or priest without anyone lifting a finger (in fact as we now know, police forces generally colluded in such arrangements) to a situation where corporal punishment is no longer permissible in schools and some countries have outlawed it in the home.

    What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t simply assume that today’s old age pensioners are the same as those of 100 years ago. The past is a different country, as they say …

    • Agree.
      In the early 1970s, one of my friends was sent to the Hurstville/Penshurst Marist brothers high school, the one that had a teacher who turned out to be one of the worst sado sexual abusers of all . I don’t think my friend was raped , but he was beaten savagely.
      What strikes me now is this: on one occasion he was hit on the head with a wooded pencil case so viciously that he needed 7 stitches ; but his parents did not bat an eye.

      And at the school I went to SBH there was a notorious sado-sexual teacher that was tolerated for decades, in fact it only ended with his suicide in the late 90s.

    • Patrick says:

      Amen to that.

  10. Mel says:

    Amazing, John.

    One of my secondary school teachers also suicided in the early 1990s before being brought to trial years after his retirement for sexually abusing students. It was widely believed that the amount of time he spent in his office with little boys during lunch and recess was odd but no-one ever did anything about it ….

    • The Sydney Boys High Latin Classics teacher story is a shocker, because he was still ‘teaching’ boys , untill a year before his suicide in 2000. We all knew about him back in the 70s yet somehow he “was held in high regard by administrators at the school despite them being aware he was under investigation.”

      Looking back I am rather glad that at that time my total lack of interest in Latin (or anything that wasn’t painting things, history and science) meant I had no direct contact with him.

  11. Sue says:

    Some pensioners cry poor but they spend their money on drugs, alcohol, pokies and all forms of gambling. These people are not poor of they can spend their money of these items instead of a home.

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