Dr. Francis Townsend (1867-1960), American physician, author, political organizer and author of the Townsend Plan
Francis Everett Townsend was born into a farm family near Fairbury, IL on Jan. 13, 1867. The family moved to Nebraska, where Francis attended Franklin Academy. Initially, he migrated to California expecting to get rich in the land boom, only to end up poor. After a few years at farming and odd jobs in Kansas and Colorado, Townsend entered the Omaha Medical College, graduating in 1907. He set up practice in South Dakota, where he remained until he entered the Army Medical Corps in World War I. He married a nurse, Minnie Bogue.
After the war the Townsends lived in Long Beach, Calif. But Townsend’s private medical practice did not prosper so he took a position as assistant city health director. Because of the Great Depression, he soon lost that job. Then, at the age of 66 and wanting to retire, Townsend grew increasingly indignant over the plight of the large number of poverty-stricken old people like himself. In 1933 he proposed a plan whereby the Federal government would provide every person over 60 a $200 monthly pension.
The plan called for a guaranteed monthly pension of $200, a quite-considerable sum in the 1930. The pension would be sent to every retired citizen age 60 or older, to be paid for by a form of a national sales tax of 2% on all business transactions with the stipulation that each pensioner would be required to spend the money within 30 days. His idea was to end the Depression through consumer spending by way of ending poverty among the elderly.
After proposing his idea in the People’s Forum column of the local Long Beach newspaper in September 1933 and advertising for canvassers to obtain endorsements, Dr. Townsend was inundated with volunteers. Robert Earl Clements, a young real estate broker, signed on as promoter and fund-raiser, and on New Year’s Day 1934 the two opened the first headquarters for their new “Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd.” In short order, the Townsend movement emerged as a political force with which to be reckoned. By September, their office in Long Beach was averaging two thousand letters a day from interested people, and within a year more than a thousand Townsend clubs were functioning. By 1936, a presidential election year, the organization claimed to have more than three and a half million members, and it obtained more than twenty million signatures on petitions calling for congressional approval of the Townsend Plan.
The simplicity of the proposal, the apostolic zeal of Townsend, and the organization of the Townsendites into a formidable pressure group brought increasing support for the plan despite its condemnation by economists. The economists generally opposed this form of taxation as being unfairly advantageous to large, vertically integrated enterprises that produced goods from the raw material all the way to the finished, saleable product over intermediary operations that were involved in only one or two steps of this process. The main argument against the plan, however, was that the taxes would not be enough to pay for the high pensions, which would account for almost half the national income.
In 1935, partly in response to the continued popular growth of the Townsend Plan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Social Security legislation included two titles designed to help the elderly, but neither of them as generous as the Townsend Plan. The president’s legislation included a state/federal program for poor older people with matching payments from the federal government to the states, known as Old Age Assistance (OAA), and a national social insurance retirement program for covered employees labeled: Social Security. The president’s programs were both included in the Social Security Act, which passed in August 1935.
Supporters of the Townsend Plan continued to agitate for higher benefits after the Social Security Act’s passage in August 1935 and reached its peak of support in the months after the law was enacted. During the time his movement gathered strength and power, Dr. Townsend got into politics with some old cronies. In 1936 he helped found the crypto-fascist Union Party, with Gerald L. K. Smith, the pitchman of assassinated U.S. Senator Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” program (and later a founder of the America First Party and a convicted subversive in World War II), and Father Charles E. Coughlin, priest-leader of the notorious ” National Union for Social Justice” movement. Later, for refusing to answer a congressional committee, Dr. Townsend was sentenced to 30 days in jail for contempt. But President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the dangers of martyrdom for such a popular activist and granted him “an unsolicited pardon.”
Dr. Townsend never stopped pushing his pension scheme; however, the prosperity of the post-World War II years and improvements in private, state, and federal pension benefits blunted the appeal of his message. He died in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, 1960.
Edwin Amenta. 2006. “When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security.” Princeton: Princeton University Press.
David H. Bennett, “Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936.” (1969). www.answers.com/topic/francis-townsend
“National Affairs: Man & Plan” Time Magazine: Monday, Sep. 12, 1960
(For more detailed history of Social Security developments, visit the History section of the Social Security Administration’s Web site: http://www.ssa.gov/history/)