John F. Kennedy photo

Address at a New York Rally in Support of the President's Program of Medical Care for the Aged.

May 20, 1962

My old colleague in the House of Representatives and friend Aime Forand, Mr. Meany, ladies and gentlemen, and fellow Americans:

I am very proud to be here today at one of over 33 meetings which are being held across the United States. And it is a source of regret to me that the head of the most significant organization here today, Mr. Held, age 77, working on this meeting, had a heart attack--was taken to the hospital. I think we should pass this legislation as soon as possible.

I come to New York because I believe the effort in which we are engaged is worth the time and effort of all of us. I come from Boston, Mass., near Faneuil Hall, where for a whole period of years meetings were held by interested citizens in order to lay down the groundwork for American independence. And while there may be some who say that the business of government is so important that it should be confined to those who govern, in this free society of ours the consent and may I say the support of the citizens of this country is essential if this or any other piece of progressive legislation is going to be passed. Make no mistake about it--make no mistake about it.

Now why are we here? What is the issue which divides and arouses so much concern? I will take a case which may be typical, a family which may be found in any part of the United States.

The husband has worked hard all his life and he is retired. He might have been a clerk or a salesman or on the road or worked in a factory, stores, or whatever. He's always wanted to pay his own way. He does not ask anyone to care for him; he wants to care for himself. He has raised his own family, he has educated them--his children are now on their own. He and his wife are drawing social security, it may run seventy-five dollars, a hundred, hundred and twenty-five in the higher brackets let's say it's a hundred. He has a pension from where he worked, the results of years of effort.

Now, therefore, his basic needs are taken care of. He owns his house. He has twenty-five hundred or three thousand dollars in the bank. And then his wife gets sick--and we're all going to be in a hospital,

9 out of 10 of us, before we finally pass away, and particularly when we're over 65--now she is sick, not just for a week but for a long time. First goes the twenty-five hundred dollars--that's gone. Next he mortgages his house, even though he may have some difficulty making the payments out of his social security. Then he goes to his children, who themselves are heavily burdened because they're paying for their houses and they are paying for their sicknesses, and they want to educate their children. Then their savings begin to go.

This is not a rare case. I talked to a Member of the Congress from my own State a week ago, who told me he was going to send his daughter away to school but because his father had been sick for 2 years, he could not do it. And Congressmen are paid $22,500 a year--and that's more than most people get.

So therefore now, what is he going to do? His savings are gone--his children's savings, they're contributing though they have responsibilities of their own--and he finally goes in and signs a petition saying he's broke and needs assistance.

Now what do we say? We say that during his working years he will contribute to social security, as he has in the case of his retirement, twelve or thirteen dollars a month. When he becomes ill, or she becomes ill over a long period of time, he first pays ninety dollars, so that people will not abuse him. But then let's say he has a bill of fifteen hundred dollars. This bill does not, that we're talking about--Mr. Anderson's bill and Mr. King's--solve everything. But let's say it's fifteen hundred dollars, of which a thousand dollars are hospital bills. This bill will pay that thousand dollars in hospital bills. And then I believe that he, and the effort that he makes and his family, can meet his other responsibilities.

Now that does not seem such an extraordinary piece of legislation, 25 years after Franklin Roosevelt passed the Social Security Act.

Well, let's hear what some people say. First, we read that the AMA is against it, and they are entitled to be against it. Though I do question how many of those who speak so violently about it have read it. But they are against it, and they are entitled to be against it if they wish.

In the first place, there isn't one person here who is not indebted to the doctors of this country. Children are not born on an 8-hour day. All of us have been the beneficiaries of their help. This is not a campaign against doctors, because doctors have joined with us. This is a campaign to help people meet their responsibilities.

There are doctors in New Jersey who say they will not treat any patient who receives it. Of course they will. They are engaged in an effort to stop the bill. It is as if I took out somebody's appendix.

The point of the matter is that the AMA is doing very well in its efforts to stop this bill. And the doctors of New Jersey and every other State may be opposed to it, but I know that not a single doctor--if this bill is passed--is going to refuse to treat any patient. No one would become a doctor just as a business enterprise. It's a long, laborious discipline. We need more of them. We want their help--and gradually we're getting it.

The problem, however, is more complicated because they do not comprehend what we are trying to do. We do not cover doctors' bills here. We do not affect the freedom of choice. You can go to any doctor you want. The doctor and you work out your arrangements with him. We talk about his hospital bill. And that's an entirely different matter. And I hope that one by one the doctors of the United States will take the extraordinary step of not merely reading the journals and the publications of the AMA, because I do not recognize the bill when I hear those descriptions, but instead to write Secretary Ribicoff in Washington, or to me--and you know where I live--or to Senator Anderson or to Congressman King, if you are a doctor or opposed to this bill, and get a concise explanation and the bill itself and read it.

All these arguments were made against social security at the time of Franklin Roosevelt. They are made today. The mail pours in. And at least half of the mail which I receive in the White House, on this issue and others, is wholly misinformed. Last week I got 1,500 letters on a revenue measure--1,494 opposed, and 6 for. And at least half of those letters were completely misinformed about the details of what they wrote.

And why is that so? Because there are so many busy men in Washington who write-some organizations have six, seven, and eight hundred people spreading mail across the country, asking doctors and others to write in and tell your Congressman you're opposed to it. The mail pours into the White House, into the Congress and Senators' offices--Congressmen and Senators feel people are opposed to it. Then they read a Gallup Poll which says 75 percent of the people are in favor of it, and they say, "What has happened to my mail?"

The point of the matter is that this meeting and the others indicates that the people of the United States recognize one by one, thousand by thousand, million by million, that this is a problem whose solution is long overdue. And this year I believe, or certainly as inevitably as the tide comes in next year, this bill is going to pass.

And then other people say, "Why doesn't the Government mind its own business?" What is the Government's business, is the question.

Harry Truman said that 14 million Americans had enough resources so that they could hire people in Washington to protect their interests, and the rest of them depended upon the President of the United States and others.

This bill serves the public interest. It involves the Government because it involves the public welfare. The Constitution of the United States did not make the President or the Congress powerless. It gave them definite responsibilities to advance the general welfare--and that is what we're attempting to do.

And then I read that this bill will sap the individual self-reliance of Americans. I can't imagine anything worse, or anything better, to sap someone's self-reliance, than to be sick, alone, broke--or to have saved for a lifetime and put it out in a week, two weeks, a month, two months.

I visited twice, yesterday and today, in the hospital, where doctors labor for a long time, to visit my father. It isn't easy--it isn't easy. He can pay his bills, but otherwise I would be. And I am not as well off as he is. But what happens to him and to others when they put their life savings in, in a short time? So I must say that I believe we stand about where--in good company today, in halls such as this, where your predecessors-where Dave Dubinsky himself actually stood, where another former President stood, and fought this issue out of Social Security against the same charges.

This argument that the Government should stay out, that it saps our pioneer stock--I used to hear that argument when we were talking about raising the minimum wage to a dollar and a quarter. I remember one day being asked to step out into the hall, and up the corridor came four distinguished-looking men, with straw hats on and canes. They told me that they had just flown in from a State in their private plane, and they wanted me to know that if we passed a bill providing for time and a half for service station attendants, who were then working about 55 to 60 hours of straight time, it would sap their self-reliance.

The fact of the matter is what saps anyone's self-reliance is working 60 hours at straight time, or working at 85 or 95 at a dollar an hour. Or depending upon filling out a pauper's oath and then going and getting it free.

Nobody in this hall is asking for it for nothing. They are willing to contribute during their working years. That is the important principle which has been lost sight of.

I understand that there is going to be a program this week against this bill, in which an English physician is going to come and talk about how bad their plans are. It may be, but he ought to talk about it in England, because his plans--because his plans and what they do in England are entirely different. In England the entire cost of medicine for people of all ages, all of it, doctors, choice of doctors, hospitals, from the time you're born till the time you die, is included in a Government program. But what we're talking about is entirely different. And I hope that while he's here, he and Doctor Spock and others who have joined us, will come to see what we are trying to do.

The fact of the matter is that what we are now talking about doing, most of the countries of Europe did years ago. The British did it 30 years ago. We are behind every country, pretty nearly, in Europe, in this matter of medical care for our citizens.

And then those who say that this should be left to private efforts. In those hospitals in New Jersey where the doctors said they wouldn't treat anyone who paid their hospital bills through social security, those hospitals and every other new hospital, the American people--all of us--contribute one-half, one or two thirds for every new hospital, the National Government. We pay 55 percent of all the research done. We help young men become doctors.

We are concerned with the progress of this country, and those who say that what we are now talking about spoils our great pioneer heritage should remember that the West was settled with two great actions by the National Government; one, in President Lincoln's administration, when he gave a homestead to everyone who went West, and in 1862 he set aside Government property to build our land grant colleges.

This cooperation between an alert and progressive citizen [See APP note below.] and a progressive Government is what has made this country great--and we shall continue as long as we have the opportunity to do so.

This matter should not be left to a mail campaign where Senators are inundated, and Congressmen--twenty-five and thirty thousand letters--the instructions go out, "Write it in your own hand. Don't use the same words." The letters pour in 2 or 3 weeks, half of them misinformed. This meeting today, on a hot, good day when everyone could be doing something else, and the 32 other meetings, this indicates that the American people are determined to put an end to meeting a challenge which hits them at a time when they're least able to meet it.

And then finally, I had a letter last week saying, "You're going to take care of all the millionaires and they don't need it." I do not know how many millionaires we are talking about, but they won't mind contributing $12 a month to social security, and they may be among those who will apply for it when they go to the hospital. But what I will say is that the National Government, through the tax laws, already takes care of them, because over 65 they can deduct all their medical expenses.

What we are concerned about is not the person who has not got a cent but those who saved and worked and then get hit. Then there are those who say, "Well, what happens if you die before you are 65?" Well, there isn't--you really don't care, you have no guarantee. But what we are talking about is, our people are living a long time, their housing is inadequate, in many cases their rehabilitation is inadequate. We've got great unfinished business in this country, and while this bill does not solve our problems in this area, I do not believe it is a valid argument to say, "This bill isn't going to do the job." It will not, but it will do part of it.

Our housing bill last year for the elderly, that won't do the job. But it will begin. When we retrain workers, that won't take care of unemployment chronically in some areas, but it's a start. We aren't able overnight to solve all the problems that this country faces, but is that any good reason why we should say, "Let's not even try"?

That's what we are going to do today, we are trying. We are trying. And what we're talking about here is true in a variety of other ways. All the great revolutionary movements of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the thirties we now take for granted. But I refuse to see us live on the accomplishments of another generation. I refuse to see this country, and all of us, shrink from these struggles which are our responsibility in our time. Because what we are now talking about, in our children's day will seem to be the ordinary business of government.

So I come here today as a citizen, asking you to exert the most basic power which is contained in the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, the right of a citizen to petition his Government. And I ask your support in this effort. This effort will be successful, and it will be successful because it is soundly based to meet a great national crisis. And it is based on the effort of responsible citizens. So I want to commend you for being here. I think it is most appropriate that the President of the United States, whose business place is in Washington, should come to this city and participate in these rallies. Because the business of the Government is the business of the people--and the people are right here.

In closing, let me say that on this issue and many others we depend upon your help. This is the only way we can secure action to keep this country moving ahead, to have places to educate our children, to have decent housing, to do something about the millions of young children who leave our schools before they graduate.

Every day I am reminded of how many things were left undone. Thirty years ago they provided that no drugs be put on the market which were unsafe for hogs and for cattle. We want to take the radical step of doing the same for human beings. Anyone who says that Woodrow Wilson, as great a President as he was, and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, that they did it all and we have nothing left to do now, is wrong.

We ask you, the citizens of this country, the responsible and thoughtful doctors, the hospital administrators, all those who face this challenge of educating our children, finding work for our older people, finding security for those who have retired, all who are committed to this great effort of moving this country forward: come and give us your help.

Note: The President spoke at Madison Square Garden in New York City at a program sponsored by the National Council of Senior Citizens, of Washington, and the Golden Ring Council of Senior Citizens, of New York City. In his opening words he referred to former U.S. Representative Aime Forand of Rhode Island, chairman of the National Council of Senior Citizens, and George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO. Early in his remarks he referred to Adolph Held, chairman of the Golden Ring Council of Senior Citizens. Later the President referred to U.S. Senator Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico and U.S. Representative Cecil R. King of California, co-sponsors of the medical care for the aged bill, and David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

APP Note: The published text in the Public Papers uses the word "citizen" at this point, but three versions of the speech published contemporaneously in newspapers used the word "citizenry." APP practice is to try to reproduce accurately the official published text of documents, even if the publication includes errors.

John F. Kennedy, Address at a New York Rally in Support of the President's Program of Medical Care for the Aged. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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