Francis E. Townsend was the accidental father of Social Security.

He worked as a doctor and a real estate salesman among other things but in 1933 found himself out of work in Long Beach, California, in the middle of The Great Depression. He was 66 years old and formulated a plan that the government should pay $200 a month to everyone over the age of 60 who agreed to stop working, provided that they spend the money within 30 days.

Note that, at the time, America's Gross National Product was only $55.6 billion, and there were 11.4MM eligible for Townsend’s plan, so payments would have totalled almost $22.8 billion -- almost half the GNP and equal to 13 times government revenues. Average per capita income that year was only $374, and $3000 was a solid middle class income, so paying $4800 to old folks was massive. Since it was only moving money around, it would likely have led to little net increase in spending, but of course it found lots of support among old people (those old people who were not economists, at least).

In 1934 he had millions of people in clubs supporting him or signing petitions in favor of his plan. Many of California’s congressmen that year were elected with his support. Franklin D. Roosevelt responded with a social security system that pretended to have people socking away their own money to get back later (though, of course, distributions started immediately to old folk who had never put a dime into the system). Roosevelt’s Second New Deal, which was introduced to Congress on January 4, 1935, was intended to save the capitalist system from “Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism.”

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