Dr. Francis Everett Townsend, Citizen Wonk

On September 30, 1933, the local newspaper in the seaside community of Long Beach, California published a letter to the editor submitted by Dr. Francis Everett Townsend, a broke 67-year-old who’d failed as a physician, a manufacturer of dry ice, and a real estate salesman. In his telling, he looked out his window one morning and saw three elderly women going through garbage cans in search of food. “A torrent of invectives tore out of me, the big blast of all the bitterness that had been building in me for years,” he reminisced. “I swore and I ranted, and I let my voice bellow with a wild hatred I had for things as they were.”

Vowing to his wife that he would shout “until the whole country hears,” he formulated a plan, set it to paper, and sent his local newspaper the outline for an old age pension system that would sustain the nation’s elderly, ending the Great Depression as a happy side-effect. The story about the women rummaging through the garbage can is likely a fabrication, or so historians have concluded. But however inspired, the plan was sent to the Long Beach Press Telegram and published as follows: in order to provide for the fifteen to twenty million Americans over age 60, every last one should be granted a pension of $150 per month — enough for a middle class existence at the time — a sum they’d be required to spend within the month, affording economic stimulus that would revive the nation’s economy. In five subsequent letters to the editor, more details emerged. The plan would be funded by a national sales tax of two percent on all business transactions (and would later call for $200 per month pensions).

It requires little context to understand why a proposal like this would appeal to many Press Telegram readers. California doubled its 65-and-older population between 1920 and 1930. In Long Beach, fully a third of the population were elderly. “Living on fixed incomes in simple cottages, the Long Beach elderly — the majority of them Folks from Iowa and elsewhere in the Midwest… had come to Southern California to enjoy a simple life of churchgoing, potluck suppers, and checkers in the park, having earned, in their opinion, the right to enjoy the eleven years actuarially remaining to them in 1930,” Kevin Starr writes in Endangered Dreams, his history of the era. “The Depression destroyed their plans as pension trusts shrank or, in some cases, as they went under entirely… Fully 50 percent of the elderly in America were in need of some form of outside aid if they were to make it through the slump.”

What astonishes, even all these years later, is how much rapid approval those letters won. The immediate reaction proved encouraging enough that Dr. Townsend and a colleague incorporated Old Age Revolving Pensions, Limited on January 1, 1934. Eight months later, the first Townsend Club was organized in Huntington Park, California. “By January 1935 a half million Americans had joined Townsend Clubs and were sending nearly $1 million in dues and other donations into the movement’s headquarters,” Starr writes. That same year, a newly elected Congressman from Los Angeles arrived in Washington DC and promptly introduced legislation to implement The Townsend Plan. And Dr. Townsend made the cover of Newsweek.

Come 1936, membership in Townsend Clubs surpassed 2.1 million people, and The Townsend National Weekly was earning roughly a quarter-million dollars a year in advertising fees for support stockings, constipation remedies, and other geriatric products. “In terms of yearly coverage in the New York Times,” Edwin Amenta wrote in his history of the movement, the Townsend Plans rank “as the eighth-most publicized U.S. social movement organization of the twentieth century.”

Today, the Townsend Plan is all but forgotten. Usurped by President Roosevelt’s Social Security legislation in 1935, its advocates peaked in number a year later, insisting on increasing FDR’s relatively frugal payments. After that, they quickly faded from the national scene. Historians are still debating the relative influence this grassroots movement from Southern California had on the ultimate passage of an old age pension in the United States. Even in the Golden State, there were competing pension plans, including the Ham and Eggs Movement and a pension proposal Upton Sinclair floated during his run for governor.

Awash in the cult of the presidency, today’s liberals and progressives tend to see old age pensions as a triumph of FDR, while conservatives see it as a scourge born of his statist brain. Though it would be ahistorical to diminish the president’s influence, it must also be acknowledged that huge grassroots movements for old age pensions preceded their embrace by politicians at the national level.

And these movements weren’t an exclusively leftist phenomenon. There were FDR Democrats and Upton Sinclair socialists, to be sure, but the Townsend clubs tended to support Republican candidates, and were seen by contemporaries and some historians as right-wing populists — that era’s answer to Glenn Beck fans. Their treatment in media reflects as much. “In Sinclair Lewis’ best-selling It Can’t Happen Here (1935), a demagogue modeled on Huey Long manipulates organizations like the Townsend Plan to win the presidency and implement fascism,” Amenta writers. In May, 1936, The New Republic published an attack even more direct. The Townsendites were “economic illiterates held together chiefly by the burning conviction that our civilization could do far more for the aged — and for everybody — than it does. Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, began their rise to power by making promises strikingly similar to the fundamental concepts of the Townsend Plan; and their first followers, though their average age was doubtless lower, were much like the adherents of that plan today. That is one reason why the movement, for all the revelations regarding it in Washington, still needs watching, and will for a long time to come.”

In the early 1930s, Roosevelt Administration officials both denounced the Townsend Plan as radical and imprudent — economists denounced its revenue mechanism as economically illiterate — and used it as a tool to convince conservatives to back their more moderate proposal. As it turned out, the Townsend folk disappeared rather than morphing into fascist dictators. All these years later, it’s instructive to look back at their movement to remind ourselves that Depression era, as invoked by Obama supporters looking for a new FDR and conservatives fearing one, was a lot more complicated and bottom up than the typically reductive invocations of it suggest. Times were inconceivably bad. The people were amenable to radical ideas. Compared to its European cousins, Americans reacted moderately, whatever one thinks of The New Deal.

Dr. Francis Everett Townsend, an obscure Long Beach senior citizen turned national activist and celebrity, wrote a letter to the editor at a moment of personal failure and anxiety about the future. His legion fans in elderly America faced straits as dire, and conservatives of that era had no compelling counter-proposal to address their concerns. That dynamic tells us a lot more about the passage of old age pensions in America than the abstract debate about the appropriate role of the federal government that we pretend determines policy. And it suggests that today’s conservatives would do well to heed Messieurs Salam and Douthat, David Frum, and others insisting that the right grapple with health care costs and wage stagnation. In the long run, bad times always arrive, and anxious citizens look to big government unless promising alternatives are available.

Let’s provide some.