In his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of the 33rd President of the United States Harry Truman, author David McCullough wrote that upon his retirement, Truman left the White House unprotected by the Secret Service and with no support from the federal government besides an army pension of $112.56. He and his wife Bess had put aside part of his $100,000 a year salary in government bonds, but McCullough said it was in all probability a modest amount. Truman was known to have taken out a loan in his last weeks as president. He had numerous opportunities to leverage his position as a former president, but unlike those who followed him, he refused them all and said, "I could never lend myself to any transaction, however respectable, that would commercialize on the prestige and dignity of the office of the presidency." (See also, 5 Poorest U.S. Presidents.)
The financial difficulties Truman faced prompted the passage of the Former President's Act in 1958. The Act authorized the General Services Administration to provide former presidents with a pension, support staff, office space, and travel funds. They also receive a lifetime of Secret Service protection and their children remain protected until they are 16 years old.The pension for former presidents matches the annual pay for senior political officials of the Executive Level 1 ranking. Obama will receive a pension worth $207,800. Widows of ex-presidents are entitled to $20,000 a year.
Last year, the federal government spent a total of $3.25 million on the four former presidents still living. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, George W. Bush alone accounted for $1 million of this. (Nancy Reagan, spouse of President Ronald Reagan who died in March 2016, waived her pension and only availed of franking or mailing privileges.)
Source: Congressional Research Service
Pensions were the second highest category of federal benefits to former presidents in 2015, with the first being "office space." A total of $1.18 million was spent on office spaces. George W. Bush received the highest amount at $434,000, closely followed by Bill Clinton's request for $429,000. George H. W. Bush received $207,000 and Jimmy Carter received $112,000. The White House 2017 budget requested an addition of $588,000 to the GSA's allocation for former presidents. President Obama will leave office on January 20, 2017 and become eligible for the benefits and pension.
So do former presidents need all of this ?
According to Politico, George W Bush gave 200 paid speeches from 2009 to 2015 and charged between $100,000 and $175,000 for each. CNN reported that the Clintons raked in more than $150 million for paid speeches from 2001 to early 2015. A recent investigation by Politico showed that Bill Clinton, who has said he became richer post-presidency, used the federal funds to supplement the salaries of Clinton Foundation staffers and provide them with federal government benefits.
The Former President's Act was enacted to "maintain the dignity" of the Office of the President, but since it appears to be supplementing the much larger incomes of some Presidents, there was recently a bipartisan push to curb the load on taxpayers. In July, however, President Obama vetoed a bill passed in the House and Senate that looked to cap the annual monetary allowance of former presidents at $200,000. The bill also looked to increase the pension of surviving spouses from $20,000 to $100,000. The White House released a statement saying, "This bill as written would immediately terminate salaries and all benefits to staffers carrying out the official duties of former Presidents – leaving no time or mechanism for them to transition to another payroll. As written, this bill would also impair Secret Service’s ability to protect former Presidents by ending GSA’s role in managing operations, equipment and office space."
In 2015, the median pension and annuities received by former employees at private companies was $9,376. Former federal government employees received $22,669. (See also, 6 Surprising Facts About Retirement)