One of the greatest needs made evident through the trials of the Depression was an old-age pension system. In 1934, only 28 of 48 states had any kind of pension plan; three of those were bankrupt, and the others were inadequate. Almost three quarters of a million Americans over 65 were receiving federal relief, and the numbers were on the rise.
At the same time, the numbers of elderly were increasing. In 1930, there were 6.6 million people in America over 65, or 5.4 percent of the population. By 1935, these figures had ballooned to 7.5 million and 6 percent.It was a natural environment for Francis Everett Townshend to make his mark. He had worked as a ranch hand and farm laborer in the West, as a mucker in the Colorado mines and as a homesteader, teacher and salesman in Kansas. Finally, at 31, he entered medical school in Omaha, culminating in a successful medical career in South Dakota.
In Long Beach, Calif., at 67, Townshend worked in real estate until the Depression wiped out most of his savings. He was forced to accept an appointment as assistant director of the city health office. There he witnessed the cruelty inflicted on older Americans by the economic crisis.
He had never seen such distress, and the experience jarred him. "They were good men and women; they had done all they could, had played the game as they had been taught to play it, and suddenly, when there was no chance to start over again, they were let down."
In 1933 Townshend lost his own job when the city health office ran out of funds. Soon he had a vision for America's elderly, and it was his hope that the federal government would make the dream a reality. He envisioned a substantial pension for every person over the age of 60. It would be raised through a small "transaction tax," a multiple sales tax that would be levied not just at the point of sale but at each point that a commodity changed hands along the way from raw material to finished product.
He read somewhere that the gross business done in America in 1929 was $935 billion. Townshend calculated that it would be possible to produce $20 billion to $24 billion per year, enough to give $200 a month to everyone over 60.
The good doctor saw this program as an economic cure-all. He introduced a revolving concept, arguing that spending the $200 within 30 days would be mandatory for those who received it. He asserted that the $20 billion to $24 billion paid to the elderly annually would stimulate the economy as the money in turn was spent on consumer goods.
Townshend went so far as to predict that the constant use of pension money would stimulate every aspect of American enterprise and would eventually end the Depression.
Although the plan sounded ridiculous to most economic and governmental experts, it did not seem ridiculous to the elderly, who had found a champion. This feisty physician received overwhelming support from older Americans.
By the election year of 1936, the Townshend organization claimed a membership of 2.2 million people in 7,000 local clubs operating across the country. The success was so immediate that Townshend allowed his meteoric rise to go to his head.
The speechmaking, the plane trips and the cheering crowds made him feel that he had been chosen by God to accomplish this mission. His supporters openly compared him to great men of the past, such as Washington,Lincoln, Columbus, Copernicus, Franklin, Luther - and even to Jesus.
When Winston Churchill visited the United States, he dismissed the Townshend plan as "an attempt to mint the moonlight into silver and coin the sunshine into gold." Officials of the Roosevelt administration never seriously considered implementing the plan, but they reacted to the pressure of the movement.
FDR realized the need for Social Security: "We have to have it . . . The Congress can't stand the pressure . . . unless we have a real old-age insurance system." Yet when Social Security was introduced, it was limited and covered only a minority of the working population.
Townshend attacked it as "a miserable dole" and "an insult to elderly Americans," but it was a beginning and it was progressively liberalized over the years until it met an acceptable standard. It never could have happened without Francis Townshend's "old folks' revolt."