Townsend, Francis E. (1876-1948)


Originator of the Social Security Act who initially advocated a monthly check for elderly citizens as a means of opening jobs for younger, unemployed workers during the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, several individuals achieved national recognition for their proposals to end the nation’s economic problems. One of them was Francis E. Townsend. Townsend was born August 13, 1876. He attended medical school at the University of Nebraska early in the twentieth century and practiced medicine for many years before settling in Long Beach, California. When the Great Depression hit, Dr. Townsend, concerned with the growing population of aging unemployed workers, devised the “old age revolving pension.” A political activist, he promoted at enormous rallies nationwide that the government should issue monthly checks for $200 to individuals over the age of 60 years on the condition that they spend the money in order to receive the next month’s check. This spending would stimulate the economy. Townsend employed charismatic speakers like Gerald L. K. Smith, who changed the name to the Townsend Plan, to promote the idea across the nation. He also coordinated efforts with Father Charles E. Coughlin, a popular priest from Royal Oak, Michigan. The three men formed the Union Party to oppose President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who sought a second term in the 1936 presidential election. Disagreements among the three founders during the election resulted in the decline of the party afterward. Roosevelt feared the continued efforts of Townsend, who was an increasingly popular opponent nationwide during the election campaign. In 1935, prior to the election, Roosevelt persuaded Congress to pass the Social Security Act to silence his critics, including Townsend. Townsend continued to modify his plan into the 1940s in an effort to retain national notoriety. He died November 30, 1948.

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