Francis Everett Townsend (January 13, 1867 – September 1, 1960) was an American physician who was best known for his revolving old-age pension proposal during the Great Depression. Known as the "Townsend Plan", this proposal influenced the establishment of the Roosevelt administration's Social Security system. He was born just outside of Fairbury, Illinois, where he is memorialized by a post office named in his honor.
Francis Everett Townsend was born the second of six children on January 13, 1867 in Fairbury, Illinois. After Townsend contracted swamp malaria as an infant, the Townsend family moved to Nebraska where Townsend had two years of high school education. In 1898 at age 20, Townsend borrowed $1,000 from his father and moved to Southern California to develop a hay farming business. The business was not successful and Townsend enrolled in Omaha Medical College when he was 31. After graduating, Townsend worked in the medical field in Belle Fourche, South Dakota and met a nurse and his future wife, Wilhelmina "Minnie" Bogue. At age 50, Townsend enlisted as a doctor in the army one year before the end of World War I.
After the war ended in 1918, Townsend moved to Long Beach, California to run a dry ice factory. After that business quickly failed, Townsend worked for real estate agent Robert Earl Clements in Midway City, California. Clements later masterminded the Townsend Plan. In 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, Townsend became a Long Beach city public health officer at age 63, but lost his job three years later.
Promoting the plan
In September 1933, Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper and launched his career as an old-age activist. Townsend and Earl Clements then employed the techniques of real estate salesmanship to gain support for the Townsend Plan. Soon there were organizers in almost every state seeking to create Townsend Plan programs.
In 1935, partly in response to the continued growth of the Townsend Plan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed his own old-age policy, which was less generous than Townsend and Clements's proposal. The president's policy included a program for poor older people with matching payments from the federal government, known as Old Age Assistance, and a national old-age annuity program that later was called by all Social Security. The president's programs were included in the Social Security Act, which passed in August 1935.
The supporters of the Townsend Plan continued to agitate for higher benefits after the passage of the Social Security Act and the Townsend Plan reached its peak of support in the months after it was enacted. The Townsend organization could plausibly claim that the benefits were far less than what the American public wanted. The average Old Age Assistance benefit was about $20 per month as late as 1939, and the program known as Social Security was not due to take effect until 1942, despite the fact that opinion polls indicated that the American public thought that $40 per month was fair for the elderly.
Although the Townsend Plan was hampered by Townsend's personal control over his organization and his vendetta against Roosevelt, and by continued political pressure, augmented by other pension organizations, such as California's Ham and Eggs Movement, the Townsend Plan helped to induce amendments to the Social Security Act in 1939. These amendments greatly upgraded old-age benefits for both programs.
Along with other pension organizations that promoted state-level Old Age Assistance programs, the Townsend Plan indirectly spurred the augmentation of Social Security in 1950, when it finally became a more generous program than Old Age Assistance. The Townsend Plan continued to exist in some form until the early 1980s, but had fallen into political insignificance during the 1950s.
- Amenta, Edwin (2006). When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security. Princeton University Press. pp. 36–38. ISBN 0691124736. Retrieved May 26, 2012.
- Media related to Francis Townsend at Wikimedia Commons