Dr. Francis Townsend, Old Age Public Pension Organizer

His Movement Helped Bring on Social Security

Gerald LK Smith With Dr Francis E Townsend Flanking Father Charles Coughlin 1936
Gerald LK Smith With Dr Francis E Townsend Flanking Father Charles Coughlin 1936. Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Dr. Francis Everitt Townsend, born into a poor farm family, worked as a physician and health provider. During the Great Depression, when Townsend himself was in retirement age, he became interested in how the federal government could provide old age pensions. His project inspired the 1935 Social Security Act, which he found inadequate.

Life and Profession

Francis Townsend was born on January 13, 1867, on a farm in Illinois.

When he was an adolescent his family moved to Nebraska, where he was educated through two years of high school. In 1887, he left school and moved to California with his brother, hoping to strike it rich in the Los Angeles land boom. Instead he lost almost everything. Dejected, he returned to Nebraska and finished high school, then began to farm in Kansas. Later, he started medical school in Omaha, funding his education while working as a salesman.

After he graduated, Townsend went to work in South Dakota in the Black Hills region, then part of the frontier. He married a widow, Minnie Brogue, who worked as a nurse. They had three children and adopted a daughter.

In 1917, when World War I began, Townsend enlisted as a medical officer in the army. He returned to South Dakota after the war, but ill health aggravated by the harsh winter led him to move to southern California.

He found himself, in his medical practice, competing with older established physicians and younger modern physicians, and he did not do well financially.

The arrival of the Great Depression wiped out his remaining savings. He was able to obtain an appointment as a health officer in Long Beach, where he observed the effects of the Depression especially on older Americans. When a change in local politics led to the loss of his job, he found himself broke once again.

Townsend’s Old Age Revolving Pension Plan

The Progressive Era had seen several moves to establish old-age pensions and national health insurance, but with the Depression, many reformers focused on unemployment insurance.

In his late 60s, Townsend decided to do something about the financial devastation of the elderly poor. He envisioned a program where the federal government would provide a $200 per month pension to every American over the age of 60, and saw this financed through a 2% tax on all business transactions. The total cost would be greater than $20 billion a year, but he saw the pensions as a solution to the Depression. If the recipients were required to spend their $200 within thirty days, he reasoned, this would significantly stimulate the economy, and create a “velocity effect,” ending the Depression.

The plan was criticized by many economists. Essentially, half the national income would be directed to the eight percent of the population over the age of 60. But it was still a very attractive plan, especially to the older people who would benefit.

Townsend began to organize around his Old Age Revolving Pension Plan (Townsend Plan) in September 1933, and had created a movement within months.

Local groups organized Townsend Clubs to support the idea, and by January, 1934, Townsend said 3,000 groups had begun. He sold pamphlets, badges, and other items, and financed a national weekly mailing. In mid-1935, Townsend said that there were 7,000 clubs with 2.25 million members, most of them older people. A petition drive brought 20 million signatures to Congress.

Buoyed by the immense support, Townsend spoke to cheering crowds as he traveled, including to two national conventions organized around the Townsend Plan.

In 1935, encouraged by the massive support for the Townsend idea, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal passed the Social Security Act. Many in Congress, pressured to support the Townsend Plan, preferred being able to support the Social Security Act, which for the first time provided a safety net for Americans too old to work.

Townsend considered this an inadequate substitute, and began angrily attacking the Roosevelt administration. He joined with such populists as the Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith and Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Society, and with the Rev. Charles Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice and Union Party.

Townsend invested much energy in the Union Party and organizing voters to vote for candidates who supported the Townsend Plan. He estimated that the Union Party would get 9 million votes in 1936, and when the actual votes were less than a million, and Roosevelt was reelected in a landslide, Townsend abandoned party politics.

His political activity led to conflict within the ranks of his supporters, including the filing of some lawsuits. In 1937, Townsend was asked to testify before the Senate on allegations of corruption in the Townsend Plan movement. When he refused to answer questions, he was convicted of contempt of Congress.  Roosevelt, despite Townsend’s opposition to the New Deal and Roosevelt, commuted Townsend’s 30-day sentence.

Townsend continued to work for his plan, making changes to try to make it less simplistic and more acceptable to economic analysts. His newspaper and national headquarters continued. He met with presidents Truman and Eisenhower. He was still making speeches supporting reform of old age security programs, with audiences mostly of the elderly, shortly before he died on September 1, 1960, in Los Angeles. In later years, during a time of relative prosperity, the expansion of federal, state, and private pensions took much of the energy out of his movement.

Sources

  • Richard L. Neuberger and Kelley Loe, An Army of the Aged. 1936.
  • David H. Bennett. Demagogues in the Depression: American Radicals and the Union Party, 1932-1936. 1969.
  • Abraham Holtzman. The Townsend Movement: A Political Study. 1963.