A recent study published by Data Resources Inc., a Massachusetts-based forecasting firm, contends that the number of elderly poor would increase by over a million by 1985 if cuts are made in the annual cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. By 1990, according to the report, the figure would nearly double.

The study, coupled with public concern over the future of Social Security, brings to mind the history of American attempts to deal with poverty in general and the aged poor in particular.

It's not an easy history to write, laced as it is with emotion and omissions. Take, for example, the issue of poorhouses and the proverbial fear ascribed to earlier generations of ending up in such institutions. Standard reference guides provide little precise data. Some use the term alms-house, ambiguously defined, with one major source listing the topic under the heading of hospital.

What is known is that public relief institutions arose early in American history. They were usually combination workhouse-poorhouse-hospital-correction agencies. Even where institutions did not exist, responsibility ultimately fell on the local government, and it was not uncommon for the poor to be cared for by families that received public funding for their efforts.

Private or voluntary institutions arose especially as the multipurpose institutions found difficulty in dealing with their diverse populations.

The most notable attempt in the 19th century to separate responsibilities was Dorothea Dix's campaign to improve the treatment of the mentally ill. After extensive review of institutions throughout the nation, Dix was successful in getting Congress in 1854 to grant 10 million acres of federal lands to the states to endow mental hospitals. President Franklin Pierce vetoed the bill, however, finding no "authority in the Constitution for making the federal government the great almoner of public charity throughout the United States."

As public institutions underwent change, including specialization, in response to criticism, new problems appeared. Charges of waste and corruption, along with disagreements over objectives, methods and accomplishments, heated up public debate. The mushrooming of private agencies provided competition and even duplication.

By 1878 one major city had over 800 such institutions, a record of growth paralleling events on the business front, where, for instance, there were some 500 oil companies by 1866. Thus some of the goals of prudent reformers and businessmen in their respective fields were identical: to effect mergers and rationalization. Not surprisingly, successful businessmen often organized their own foundations or sat on the boards of private agencies committed to scientific management.

By the turn of the 20th century, the evolving professional system--more private than public--fell victim to the mounting problems of an urban-industrial nation. The result was reliance on more public assistance. By establishing a Children's Bureau in 1912, the federal government entered the scene, giving priority to the needs of the young--a trend followed by the states, which by 1911 began to provide pensions for mothers with dependent children.

The Association for Old Age Security, founded in 1927, was one of the leaders in attracting concern for the plight of the elderly. It took the Great Depression, however, to bring this matter and others ranging from unemployment compensation to disability insurance into the federal government's purview.

The subsequent history, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, illustrated themes common to the entire chronicle, especially in the continuing debate over the role of government and over balancing rational, manageable solutions with the goals of humane treatment.