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.