Dr. Francis Townsend: Biography

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

We all know that there was nothing 'great' about the Great Depression. Meet a man who experienced the Great Depression and wanted to do something to help the elderly during this tough time.

The Forerunner of Social Security

Ever heard of Social Security? It's the government program that gives social welfare benefits to the elderly and others in need. Well did you know that Social Security might not have passed when it did if it were not for the efforts of Dr. Francis Townsend? That's right. Many of us have never heard of him, but Dr. Francis Townsend was a political activist who first conceived of the national elderly pension that would become a mainstay of Social Security.

Francis Townsend
Francis Townsend

A Doctor with a Dream

Francis Townsend was born poor and would struggle with poverty and unemployment throughout much of his life. He was born in Fairbury, Illinois, in 1867. He moved around to a few different states working random jobs. He finally decided he wanted to enter the medical field, so he went to medical school in Omaha, Nebraska, and graduated in the early 1900s. He would practice medicine in South Dakota until he joined the Army Medical Corps during World War I.

After his service ended, Townsend moved to Long Beach, California, with his wife to practice medicine. This venture was not successful, however, so he eventually became an assistant city health director. Then, in 1929, the unthinkable happened: the Great Depression.

Many people were unemployed during the Great Depression
Unemployment line in Great Depression

During the Great Depression, banks failed, millions were unemployed, and many were homeless. The elderly, in particular, were badly hurt by the Depression. Townsend, already in his 60s, experienced unemployment and poverty once again. After lamenting over the plight of the elderly with his mother and his wife, Townsend had an idea - an idea that would hopefully ease the poverty so many elderly people faced.

A Plan to Help the Elderly

So what was Townsend's idea? The simply named Townsend Plan was a proposal to give a monthly retirement pension to the elderly, in the hopes of keeping them out of poverty. Under the Townsend Plan, all retired American citizens over the age of 60 would receive a stipend of $200 a month from the government, as long as they had no criminal background. A national sales tax would fund the pension, and the recipients would be required to spend all $200 of the stipend within the month.

Sounds like an ideal plan, right? Considering that the average worker only earned $100 a month in the 1930s, getting $200 without having to pay anything into the system sounded like quite the bargain. Townsend promised that this pension would keep the elderly out of poverty. Since the recipients had to spend the money right away, Townsend thought the plan would also stimulate the economy. Furthermore, since those over 60 would be encouraged to retire and receive the pension instead of work, this would supposedly make more jobs available to young workers struggling with unemployment.

Townsend published his ideas in the newspaper in 1933, and though his plan at first reached only a local audience, it eventually sparked a huge national debate. Supporters of the Townsend Plan, called Townsendites, eventually convinced Townsend to turn his idea into a concrete plan for political action.

Political Activism

Over the next couple of years, the Townsend Plan gained immense popularity. Millions of people, in fact, saw it as the solution to the Depression. Townsendites wrote to Congress, put ads in newspapers, held conventions, and eventually collected tens of thousands of signatures to petition the government to make the Townsend Plan a reality. What started as a dream in Long Beach, California, had turned into a formally organized national political movement.

But the reasons that made the Townsend Plan so popular were the very reasons that made it unworkable. Since the plan simply redistributed wealth, it could not create any new wealth and would thus do very little to curb the Great Depression. In addition, the math never added up. It was extremely unlikely that a sales tax could generate enough revenue to give each person over 60 $200 a month.

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