On March 5, 1923, Gov. Jospeh M. Dixon, a Republican, signed into law Montana's Old-Age Pension Act.
That was 12 years before the national Social Security Act of 1935. This Montana law was the first state social security law in the nation to withstand constitutional challenge. Montana set the precedent for the nation. For Montana, and later for the nation, economic depression prompted action. Montana's drought of 1917 to 1921 dried up more than the land in eastern Montana. Farmers fled the state. By 1923 Montana was deep in an economic depression. In fact, Montana had the highest bankruptcy rate in the country. The state's response to the hard times was to take care of the elderly. Lester H. Loble sponsored the bill. He was a young attorney from Helena, a Democrat, elected in 1922 to the Montana House of Representatives. As a delegate to the 1921 national convention of the Fraternal Orders of Eagles, Loble had been inspired by the convention's attention to the needs of senior citizens. His bill easily passed in both houses at the time when Republicans held a majority in both the state Senate and House. When signing the act into law, Governor Dixon thanked the Eagles for "their advocacy of this humanitarian movement."
The law provided monthly payments of up to $25 a month per senior citizen who had been a U.S. citizen and Montana resident for at least 15 years, and who had no record of imprisonment or marital desertion. The law established an Old Age Pension Commission in each county, close to those in needs. After one year, Montana's state auditor reported that "our law is proving most satisfactory. However, some reports suggest that the age limit should be sixty (60) years instead of seventy (70) years." The 1923 Montana law remained in effect until replaced by a new old-age pension law in 1935, when the state's 1,500 pensioners shifted to the same or greater pension under the federal Social Security Act. At the administration's invitation, Loble had traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the team drafting the national law.
Initially called the Economic Security Act, the 1935 law provided "for the general welfare by establishing a system of federal old-age benefits."
It established a social insurance program for the elderly, for the nation. When signing the Social Security Act into law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt noted:
"We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age."
Years later Sen. Max Baucus reminded the Senate, "Like all insurance, social insurance spreads the burden of the risk broadly across a large pool of those who may encounter the risk. Social insurance spreads those risks over the largest possible pool of potential beneficiaries,” the society as a whole."
Baucus added, "And social insurance is shaped by broader social objectives, helping to promote the nation's overall economic security."
Social Security is a western tradition, a Montana tradition.
(Anne Millbrooke is a historian who used to teach at Montana State University-Northern.)