I read that

From 1918 to 1927 [Abe] Epstein served as research director of the Pennyslvania Commission on Old Age Pensions. In that capacity, he was instrumental in having the State adopt an old-age assistance law in 1923. The law, however, was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court.

What was the basis/reasoning invoked by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in finding that law unconstitutional?

  • 1
    ssa.gov/history/reports/ces/ces2armstaff.html has: "The Pennsylvania law was declared unconstitutional in 1924 on the basis of the state constitution, which prohibited the legislature from making appropriations for charitable, benevolent and educational purposes." I skimmed the decisions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for 1924 but didn't see anything relevant. May 28, 2023 at 0:49
  • @NateEldredge: interestingly it continues that "Pennsylvania proceeded immediately to take steps to amend its constitution, but it was not until 1931 that the amendment passed the legislature." The lawsuit might be named in the political debate on that subsequent amendment. May 28, 2023 at 0:59
  • 1
    Ah, found it. The case was actually in the 1925 term. Posted an answer. May 28, 2023 at 1:17

1 Answer 1


The case is Busser v. Snyder, 282 Pa. 440, 128 A. 80 (Pa. 1925). The law is cited as the "Old Age Assistance Act of May 10, 1923, P. L. 189", but I could not find the text of the act. The court case explains that it established a pension of up to one dollar per day for residents over the age of seventy having annual income below $365 and assets below $3000.

The provision of the [Pennsylvania] Constitution under which the act was declared void [by the lower court] reads as follows: "No appropriations, except for pensions or gratuities for military services, shall be made for charitable, educational or benevolent purposes, to any person or community, nor to any denominational or sectarian institution, corporation or association."

And the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed. They also distinguished it from other laws that remained constitutional:

  • Laws to assist the poor and indigent were still constitutional. The state argued that the Old Age Assistance Act fell in that category, but the court held that the income and property limits were not a reasonable definition of "poor", especially since the law would pay pensions to people even if they were able to work.

  • The state apparently had a retirement pension system for public employees. This was also held to be different in that it was delayed compensation for employees, in exchange for the service they performed, and thus not charitable or benevolent.

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    What? The constitution says that no one can make laws to spend government money to help or educate people? "No appropriations [...] shall be made for [...] educational or benevolent purposes,"
    – Malady
    May 28, 2023 at 1:47
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    @Malady: Note "to any person or community...". This did not forbid the funding of public schools, which are not any of those things. The provision still appears in the Pennsylvania constitution today, in Article III, Section 29, but now there are exceptions for assistance to veterans, blind people, mothers with dependent children, the elderly, and scholarship grants and loans. May 28, 2023 at 1:59
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    @Malady: Just in case it wasn't clear, that's the Constitution of the State of Pennsylvania, not of the United States. May 28, 2023 at 2:01

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