The Long Beach Doctor Who Invented Social Security

Gerrie Schipske
CONGRESSMAN McGroarty, standing, Townsend seated on right.

The legend is that Dr. Francis Townsend had just been let go as an assistant medical examiner with the city of Long Beach when one day in 1933 while he was shaving, he looked outside the window and saw elderly women rummaging for food in the trash cans in the alley. He was so outraged by the sight of starving people and perhaps by his own plight of being unemployed at age 67, that he wrote a letter to the editor of the Long Beach Press-Telegram. After all, Long Beach had become a magnet for the elderly who came because of the weather and the low cost of living.

By the 1930s, the elderly population outnumbered others. As the economy worsened due to the Great Depression, Townsend argued that every elderly person over 60 should be given $200 a month which they would be required to spend, thus stimulating the economy. The $200 a month was to be funded by a two percent transaction tax that was to be assessed each and every time a good was purchased. Recipients had to pledge to: stop working to free up jobs for others; take an oath to spend their money within 30 days of receiving it; and pledge that their past life is free from criminality.

His letter was immediately embraced by the growing senior citizen population and the Press-Telegram started a column “Townsend Notes” devoted to the issue. Five months after his letter to the editor, more than 1,200 “Townsend Clubs” were formed. By 1936, there were 2.2 million members in over 7,000 clubs. He partnered with Robert Clements, a real estate agent, and started the “Townsend News.” The Townsend Plan had become the major political issue of the 1930s. The clubs gathered millions of signatures on circulated petitions they sent to Congress urging passage.

Francis Townsend was born in 1867, became a physician and served in the Army Medical Corps during World War I. He tried farming and medicine, but because of poor health he moved to Long Beach where he worked at the city’s Public Health Department. According to some sources, he lost his job when the city ran short of funds.

Townsend astutely assessed the growing desperation among the older population, who because of the depression found it almost impossible to survive. He argued that his plan would not only help the elderly out of poverty but would stimulate the lagging economy because of the mandatory spending provisions. He explained that because of his “Old Age Revolving Pension” “humanity would forever be relieved from the fear of destitution and want.”

The Townsend Clubs produced license plates, windows stickers, commemorative plates and spoons, and numerous decorative stamps to raise money in addition to charging monthly dues.

Congressman John Steven McGroarty of Los Angeles, took Townsend’s plan and introduced legislation to put the plan in place. The Townsend Plan became the hot issue of most political campaigns. Opponents took every opportunity to embarrass Townsend asserting that the plan was too costly and that he was a “crack pot.”

Congress held Townsend in contempt and threatened to jail him for walking out of a hearing in 1937. Townsend and presidential candidate Lemke (and his backer) conferred about the new Townsend Plan that was called the “General Welfare Bill.” Dr. Townsend when asked about the contempt charges responded:  “I have nothing but contempt for the house committee.” Townsend was pardoned by President Roosevelt and did not serve jail time.

Townsend opposed Franklin Roosevelt for president. President Roosevelt took parts of the Townsend Plan and incorporated it into the Old Age Pension Act which became Social Security. Townsend opposed Social Security, stating it did not go far enough. He was 68 when it became law in 1935 and he refused to apply for benefits until he was 83.

In 1950 Social Security was amended and the benefits made more generous and the Townsend Clubs disbanded. Townsend died in 1960 at age 93 from pneumonia.

The Social Security Administration has an extensive website featuring Dr. Francis Townsend and his work to establish pensions for older Americans.


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