I'm Partial to the Salmon and Shrimp Flake, Myself
April 30, 2012 8:08 PM   Subscribe

Inspired by this post about retirement savings, I'm using my question to ask something I've always wondered about: where did the trope about senior citizens eating cat food come from?

I've heard it my entire life and have no idea where it comes from. Was there an actual crisis of retirees being so short of funds they had to resort to eating cat food? Did a writer just come up with an evocative metaphor that has stuck? What is the first documented and/or in print citation of this image?
posted by sfkiddo to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To be clear about Menzentian's (who is not self-identifying as a senior) post, I usually have heard this related to senior citizens. I am interested in other citations, though.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:17 PM on April 30, 2012

I remember as a kid (in the '80's), an ad on TV of a senior woman who seemed to be going about her business in her nice enough house in her nice enough kitchen to feed her cat, and then she sits down and eats the catfood herself. I remember it was to increase awareness of poverty among senior citizens and of the resources available. No idea if it was local (to central NY) or not or if I even remember it correctly or if it was the first original image or built on something else...but just to get the ball rolling for you....
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:20 PM on April 30, 2012

The New York Times published an article on October 11, 1980 ("Dog Food's Out, Myth's In." It's unfortunately behind the paywall.) that indicates that the story goes back at least to the 1960s, but that there's no evidence that it actually happened.

"Fifteen years ago, they were eating dog food. Today, they're ''affluent'' and ''living well.'' For the nation's 24 million older citizens, a remarkable economic transformation has taken place. Or has it? While it is true that older Americans had serious economic problems in the 1960's, reports of older persons eating dog food apparently were myths; there was no corroboration."
posted by decathecting at 8:24 PM on April 30, 2012

I saw it in a MAD Magazine in the mid-70s, either a Dave Berg cartoon or maybe Jack Davis.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:30 PM on April 30, 2012

How unexpected. There I am! Right there.

I'm not a senior, but at the time we were so poor that we could rarely afford meat, and so the Whiskas cat food in gravy did used to smell divine.
Of course, we also used to salivate over the odd McDonald's commercial.

decathecting might have the best answer. I've heard it all my life, and Dog Food suggests the eating of pet food was well entrenched by 1977.
posted by Mezentian at 9:07 PM on April 30, 2012

I remember a news story in the 70's about old people in maybe New York eating cat food because their Social Security was so low. It might have been 60 minutes or one of those kind of programs. They were trying to pressure law makers into raising the minimum payout. I definitely remember watching the video because it freaked me out. I don't think it was that common but I tend to believe it was true since there was a lot of pride in being an investigative journalist right after Watergate.
posted by stray thoughts at 11:59 PM on April 30, 2012

The 1970s had rampant, devastating inflation which is particularly harsh for people on fixed incomes (like, Social Security recipients). So, there was a lot of this mentioned during that time and while we still recovered from the inflation. Whether or not people were actually eating pet food, it was a difficult time.

Like Tandem Affinity, I remember the commercial with a woman eating cat food. I think it was to encourage people to sign up for food stamps if they needed them (or possibly a political ad during an election). I think it was maybe late 1970s, and I was in Houston.

News article, 1969, Ralph Nader worries that there is growing evidence that poor people are eating pet food, but this is treated as an after-thought in the article.

News article, 1973, two students eat dog food for a week to protest rising food prices. They received a letter of support from someone who estimated that 20% - 30% of people who purchase dog food are eating it themselves.

Newspaper article, 1974, "Are Poor People Being Forced to Eat Dog Food?" (in article -- off-hand remark made that up to 1/3 pet food being sold in "ghetto" areas is eaten by people)

Newspaper article, 1974, tries to trace back this story., The Columbia Journalism Review believes it originates the off-hand comment reported on in the earlier 1974 article, which then made its way to the 1974 Senate report titled "Let Them Eat Dog Food." They don't mention Nader's 1969 comment, or the two protesting students. Welfare officials assure them that it's not happening. Dog food sales are flat or falling.

"Good Times" TV show, 1975, the main characters worry about a neighbor who has fallen into tough times and is eating dog food.

Jesse Jackson in 1984 about Reagan's concern for pandas in China (moreso than hungry Americans): "Nancy Reagan present a Peking zoo with a check for $13,077 raised to help China’s starving pandas. Jesse Jackson quips that senior citizens in the US are eating cat and dog food while the First Family is “over there feeding Communist pandas.'"
posted by Houstonian at 3:35 AM on May 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

In 1936 a Republican Senator claimed poor people were eating dog food because of New Deal policies. It's hard to tell from the tone of the article if it's supposed to be serious or not. Similar articles ran in other papers at the time.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:29 AM on May 1, 2012

Here's the actual discussion from the Congressional Record discussion in 1936 in which Sen. Dickinson claims that poor people are eating dog food and that the dog food is not being inspected and is unfit for both dogs and people to eat. It mentions that there was a hearing on the topic which I might be able to find too.
posted by interplanetjanet at 7:58 AM on May 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

It was also well enough established that poverty would bring people to this that it was included not just in Congressional hearings but in children's literature, at least as early as 1939. In the book "Dirk's Dog, Bello", an Englishman's dog washes ashore, with dog food cans, but the villagers are so hungry that they eat the dog food for themselves. It is not portrayed in a shocking way, but in a normative way, as though this were an accepted and known practice.

I recall this happening elsewhere, but that's the only cite I can recall.
posted by corb at 12:28 PM on May 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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