The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


Townsend began to make even more sweeping claims for his plan. Millions of new jobs, he promised, would be made available to younger men by withdrawing the aged from the employment rolls. State and local governments would save the billions of dollars consumed yearly by crime and crime prevention as his plan eliminated poverty and privation; even more billions would be saved which were now spent on charity.

When Townsend described his dream to the aged, it did not seem too far-fetched. To them, the economy of abundance of the igso’s had come to be the normal thing; the Depression, a grotesquely atypical phenomenon. When Townsend drew upon these memories of prosperity and added to them his own thesis, few old people challenged his arguments.

Indeed, there were few who would have wanted to doubt the plan’s validity, so bleak were the prospects for the elderly during the Depression. In 1934, only twenty-eight of the forty-eight states had any pension plan at all; three of those were bankrupt and the others were woefully inadequate. Almost three-quarters of a million Americans aged sixty-five and over were on some form of federal relief, and the situation appeared to be getting worse. For, while the elderly were relentlessly being displaced in the job market, they were steadily increasing both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the total population. In 1930 the aged comprised 6.6 million, or 5.4 per cent of all the people in the United States; by 1935 these figures had grown to 7.5 million and 6 per cent.

Thus it was not surprising that when Dr. Townsend first proposed his plan in late 1933, almost immediately support for it sprang up across America.

The plan grew out of a letter Townsend wrote to the “People’s Forum” column of a Long Beach newspaper in late September. At the time, he planned no program of action. But within days of the letter’s appearance, replies flooded the paper, which soon devoted a daily page to discussion of Townsend’s ideas. At the same time he was approached directly by people who wanted concrete proposals lor putting his ideas into action. By November, Townsend had decided to devote his life to reali/ing his plan. When the Doctor advertised for canvassers to obtain signatures on petitions for congressional action, he was overwhelmed by replies. Within a matter of days he had received completed petitions containing the names of 2,000 supporters.

The Doctor now searched about for a promoter, a person to help him set up the organization that would push the Townsend Plan into law. He turned to Robert Earl Clements, a young, driving real-estate broker.

The two men began collecting names and sending out Old Age Revolving Pensions literature. Alter five weeks, they were getting an average of one hundred replies a day. Physicians and ministers in the Long Beach area became spokesmen lor the plan, and a newspaper, The Townsend Weekly , was started. As the movement continued to grow, local Townsend clubs began to spring up, and by January, 1935, five months after the first of these had been founded, the leaders proudly announced that more than 3,000, with a total membership approaching one-half million, were operating- actually there were only 1,200 clubs, but even that figure was impressive. Organizers were soon at work across the nation setting up more clubs, and the Doctor had to hire a staff of ninety-five to handle his mounting (low of mail. Almost overnight, the Townsend movement had become a force to be reckoned with.

The fanaticism with which Townsend’s growing thousands of followers promoted his plan astounded and finally frightened journalists and politicians throughout the nation. There were ugly rumors that newly organized Townsend clubs in the Pacific Northwest were threatening merchants and newspaper publishers with economic boycotts if the) refused to support the plan. “This tiling’s become a religion,” one alarmed editor said. “It holds the whole town in its grasp.”

Clearly, Dr. Townsend had struck into a subsoil of tear and discontent which went far deeper than the immediate material privations of the Depression. Most Townsendites had grown to adulthood believing that they were heirs to a tradition of self-reliance and rugged individualism. The America of their youth was a land in which opportunity abounded, in which a man’s failure was seen generally as the result of his own inadequacy, in which the thrifty could count on security in their old age. It was also a land of close family ties, where age was respected.

But in the 1930’, these ideas were becoming only memories. Industrialization and urbanization were destroying the nation’s traditional rural and small-town way of life. A man was less independent and less secure in the new America: the factory assembly line robbed him of his individualism and the economics of industrial capitalism subjected him to the vagaries of thebusiness cycle. Family ties were all too often broken as children moved far from their parental homes. Even old age seemed to lose its dignity: the highest premium in the land now seemed to be on youth.