When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security

Overview

When Movements Matter accounts for the origins of Social Security and tells the overlooked story of the Townsend Plan, a political organization that sought to alleviate poverty and end the Great Depression through generous and universal old-age pensions. The Townsend Plan and the wider pension movement did not succeed, but sparked Social Security as we know it, and pushed America down the track of creating an old-age welfare state.

Edwin Amenta challenges the conventional wisdom...

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Overview

When Movements Matter accounts for the origins of Social Security and tells the overlooked story of the Townsend Plan, a political organization that sought to alleviate poverty and end the Great Depression through generous and universal old-age pensions. The Townsend Plan and the wider pension movement did not succeed, but sparked Social Security as we know it, and pushed America down the track of creating an old-age welfare state.

Edwin Amenta challenges the conventional wisdom on U.S. old-age policy and debunks the current view that America immediately embraced Social Security when it was adopted in 1935. He draws on a wealth of primary evidence, historical detail, and arresting images to trace the ups and downs of the Townsend Plan and its elderly leader, Dr. Francis E. Townsend. In the process he advances a new theory of when social movements are influential and sheds new light on how social movements that fail to achieve their primary goals can still influence politics.

About the Author:
Edwin Amenta is professor of sociology and history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of Professor Baseball and Bold Relief (Princeton)

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Editorial Reviews

Contexts - Daniel Beland
Compelling. . . . Grounded in impressive archival research that easily makes it the best book on the Townsend Plan ever published. . . . The book is well-written and the balance between its theoretical and historical components is excellent.
Perspectives on Politics - Joseph E. Luders
Amenta's sharp theoretical analysis of the Townsend mobilization and his rigorous excavation of the historical evidence sets a high standard for future research. . . .
Journal of American History - Raymond Richards
When Movements Matter is clearly written and is the most detailed history of the Townsend Plan published.
Contemporary Sociology - Nella Van Dyke
First-class scholarship. . . . When Movements Matter is beautifully written, well argued, and systematically researched. This is state of the art theory and research. . . . If you have any interest in why and how social movements succeed or fail, you must read Amenta.
Business History Review - W. Elliot Brownlee
The best history we have of both the Townsend Plan and the pension movement from the Great Depression to 1950. More generally, it is one of the finest accounts to date of any movement of 'challengers' over a long era of economic and political turbulence.
Mobilization - Sarah A. Soule
This is the best crafted book I have seen in awhile. It is a delightfully written (and at times even humorous) account of the rise and fall of the Townsend Movement.... I recommend this book strongly to all people interested in understanding the dynamics of social movements and not only those interested in movement consequences.
Contexts - Daniel Béland
Compelling. . . . Grounded in impressive archival research that easily makes it the best book on the Townsend Plan ever published. . . . The book is well-written and the balance between its theoretical and historical components is excellent.
Contexts
Compelling. . . . Grounded in impressive archival research that easily makes it the best book on the Townsend Plan ever published. . . . The book is well-written and the balance between its theoretical and historical components is excellent.
— Daniel Béland
Perspectives on Politics
Amenta's sharp theoretical analysis of the Townsend mobilization and his rigorous excavation of the historical evidence sets a high standard for future research. . . .
— Joseph E. Luders
Journal of American History
When Movements Matter is clearly written and is the most detailed history of the Townsend Plan published.
— Raymond Richards
Contemporary Sociology
First-class scholarship. . . . When Movements Matter is beautifully written, well argued, and systematically researched. This is state of the art theory and research. . . . If you have any interest in why and how social movements succeed or fail, you must read Amenta.
— Nella Van Dyke
Business History Review
The best history we have of both the Townsend Plan and the pension movement from the Great Depression to 1950. More generally, it is one of the finest accounts to date of any movement of 'challengers' over a long era of economic and political turbulence.
— W. Elliot Brownlee
Mobilization
This is the best crafted book I have seen in awhile. It is a delightfully written (and at times even humorous) account of the rise and fall of the Townsend Movement.... I recommend this book strongly to all people interested in understanding the dynamics of social movements and not only those interested in movement consequences.
— Sarah A. Soule
From the Publisher
"Compelling. . . . Grounded in impressive archival research that easily makes it the best book on the Townsend Plan ever published. . . . The book is well-written and the balance between its theoretical and historical components is excellent."—Daniel Béland, Contexts

"Amenta's sharp theoretical analysis of the Townsend mobilization and his rigorous excavation of the historical evidence sets a high standard for future research. . . ."—Joseph E. Luders, Perspectives on Politics

"When Movements Matter is clearly written and is the most detailed history of the Townsend Plan published."—Raymond Richards, Journal of American History

"First-class scholarship. . . . When Movements Matter is beautifully written, well argued, and systematically researched. This is state of the art theory and research. . . . If you have any interest in why and how social movements succeed or fail, you must read Amenta."—Nella Van Dyke, Contemporary Sociology

"The best history we have of both the Townsend Plan and the pension movement from the Great Depression to 1950. More generally, it is one of the finest accounts to date of any movement of 'challengers' over a long era of economic and political turbulence."—W. Elliot Brownlee, Business History Review

"This is the best crafted book I have seen in awhile. It is a delightfully written (and at times even humorous) account of the rise and fall of the Townsend Movement.... I recommend this book strongly to all people interested in understanding the dynamics of social movements and not only those interested in movement consequences."—Sarah A. Soule, Mobilization

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Product Details

Meet the Author

Edwin Amenta is professor of sociology and history at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of "Professor Baseball" and "Bold Relief: Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy" (Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

When Movements Matter The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security
By Edwin Amenta Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2006
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13826-8


Introduction THE TOWNSEND PLAN'S IMAGE PROBLEM

Because of the efforts of our national membership, the aged people of this nation today are receiving millions of dollars annually in the form of old-age pensions which they had never received before. This is the result of the individual work of our members carrying forward the message of security and thus making our nation pension-conscious. -Francis E. Townsend, 1943.

With the exception of probably not more than a half-dozen members [of the House of Representatives], all felt that the Townsend [pension-recovery bill] was utterly impossible; at the same time they hesitated to vote against it. The Townsend [Plan] had the effect of taking away from the economic security bill its strongest natural support-that of the old people. -Edwin E. Witte, 1937.

In the great depression, older Americans rallied behind a proposal. Francis E. Townsend, a sixty-seven-year-old physician from Long Beach, California, suggested that the government pay $200 per month for Americans sixty years old or older who agreed not to work and to spend the money right away. This pension-recovery plan would free jobs, end the Depression, and provide the aged with security. Dr. Townsend landed on the coverof Newsweek when a bill based on his idea was introduced in Congress in January 1935, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt forwarded his own social security legislation. Led by its secretary Robert Earl Clements, the Townsend Plan, the name affixed both to the idea and to the organization promoting it, called on its affiliated Townsend clubs to flood Washington with letters. Soon the Townsend Plan spread from its western outpost across the nation. Townsend clubs claimed nearly a fifth of Americans over sixty years old, 2 million altogether, a size never reached by any organization in the civil rights or women's movement, and the Townsend Plan was raising funds at a more rapid clip than the Democratic Party. Townsend was back on the cover of Newsweek, and the Townsend Plan was featured in the nation's movie theaters. In terms of yearly coverage in the New York Times, the Townsend Plan's for 1936 ranks it as the eighth-most publicized U.S. social movement organization of the twentieth century.

Instead of passing the Townsend Plan's bill, however, Congress adopted the Social Security Act. With far less generous and more restricted benefits than Townsend's proposal, the security act addressed the immediate poverty of the aged with Old-Age Assistance (OAA), a federal-state matching program, and also created a national old-age annuity program. The Townsend Plan kept the pressure on for years, and although the doctor's pension-recovery proposal never passed, old-age benefits were increased again and again, and the fledgling annuity program was eventually transformed into Social Security as we know it today. In his 1943 autobiography New Horizons, Townsend was not shy about taking credit for these developments, and many of his contemporaries were inclined to agree. In Social Security in the United States (1936), Paul Douglas, economist, reformer, and no fan of Townsend, conceded that the mobilization behind his proposal "probably did weaken the die-hard opposition to the security bill." Scholarship often concurs. The political scientist Abraham Holtzman concludes that the Townsend Plan's impact was substantial, as do the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the social scientists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

Yet the Townsend Plan may not have been so influential. It reached its zenith in membership and attention after the passage of the Social Security Act, and when Social Security was greatly upgraded in 1950, the Townsend Plan was a spent force. Today it is largely forgotten. It seems possible, too, that the Townsend Plan had some detrimental effects. It fought the social security legislation in 1935, and its congressional endorsements usually went to Republicans, whose party often combated augmentations in old-age security. In his seminal book The Development of the Social Security Act, Edwin Witte, the University of Wisconsin economist and executive secretary of the committee that wrote the bill, complained that the Townsend Plan impeded the cause of old-age security, and President Roosevelt considered himself, not Dr. Townsend, to be the author of Social Security. Also, Townsend's proposal was attacked as wildly extravagant by virtually the entire economics profession-despite the fact that in 1935 the Townsend Plan reduced the amount of its pension to about $60 per month. More soberly, the historian Edward D. Berkowitz shows that the movement for old-age security had generated great momentum before 1934, and the sociologist Ann Shola Orloff argues that the Townsend Plan may have induced Witte and his colleagues to make old-age policy more conservative than it would have been. The standard view is a weak version of Witte's argument. The Townsend Plan may have helped to keep old age foremost in the Social Security Act, but it was erratic in action and faded in influence once that act went into effect.

This dispute among contemporaries and scholars suggests several historical questions: Did the Townsend Plan bring about the Social Security Act? Did it influence the process by which Social Security as we know it was created? Why and how, if at all, did the Townsend Plan-and social spending challengers like Huey Long's Share Our Wealth and other groups in the old-age pension movement-contribute to the development of social policy? Is the conventional wisdom true? Or did the Townsend Plan and the pension movement produce other long-lasting benefits for the aged-such as increasing their possibilities for future organization, providing an identity that was useful in politics and elsewhere, or simply improving their image or what people called them? Witte had no qualms about employing the undignified construction "the old people" to refer to the elderly, who also were often referred to by many a jocular label, such as "oldsters." Was Townsend, as he portrayed himself, a hero for the aged?

In addressing this dispute about the impact of the Townsend Plan, I follow it from its origins through its heyday and beyond, examining the different ways it and the pension movement it led attempted to influence old age in America. Social scientists want to do more, however, than to assess whether this or that challenger influenced one or another social change, no matter how important. We want to know something more general about social movements and their impacts and to uncover what lessons a case has for other challengers and their efforts. So I also seek to understand what it means for a social movement to have an impact and why movements are sometimes influential and sometimes not.

The Townsend Plan and the pension movement seem to fit contradictory images of social movements in the social science literature. The old-style view, based on movements of the 1930s, was that they make unrealistic demands, attract the disengaged and credulous, and are prey to unscrupulous political leaders. Having migrated to California and having recently lost his job to the Depression, Townsend seemed to many scholars and journalists of the day to be an embodiment of rootlessness and despair. Richard Neuberger and Kelley Loe's book An Army of the Aged (1936) attributed Townsend's idea to his unemployment-induced "disturbed state of mind" and charged that the Townsend Plan was a racket, noting that Clements left the organization in 1936 after having made great profits. Hadley Cantril's book The Psychology of Social Movements (1941) dismisses the Townsend Plan as "just another one of a long procession of schemes" and wedges the discussion of the Townsend Plan between accounts of lynch mobs and the Nazi Party. This negative image of social movements was reinforced in popular culture. In Sinclair Lewis's best-selling It Can't Happen Here (1935), a demagogue modeled on Huey Long manipulates organizations like the Townsend Plan to win the presidency and implement fascism. In Frank Capra's film Meet John Doe (1941), a publisher modeled partly on William Randolph Hearst and played by Edward Arnold pursues his sinister political ambitions by inducing Gary Cooper to create a nationwide network of "John Doe clubs." The Cooper character is as simpleminded as he is good-hearted-just as many viewed Townsend-and ultimately loses control of his followers. In addition, the March of Time documentary series labeled Dr. Townsend, along with Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and Gerald L. K. Smith, as leaders of a "lunatic fringe."

The currently dominant view is that social movements are rational and often highly skilled political actors. Participants in movements are seen as more socially engaged than average, seeking to make the best of their poor access to institutional democratic politics through protest and unorthodox political tactics. From this point of view, usually social mobilization and protest have some impact and sometimes work spectacularly. The aged may have joined Townsend clubs not because they were frustrated but because they were "biographically available"-a sociological way of saying that they had free time on their hands. Making dramatic demands like a $200 pension-which was more than twice the median income in the Depression-may be the only way to win followers and gain passable results. This view of social movements has been highlighted by nonfiction writing and, especially, documentary films portraying postwar American challengers. In Henry Hampton's Eyes on the Prize, civil rights activists are portrayed as poor in resources but courageous, cohesive, and canny-willing to face and even elicit violent responses from their opponents in order to overturn segregated institutions. Ken Burns's Huey Long and Alan Brinkley's Voices of Protest suggest that the impact of Share Our Wealth was far from all negative, but there have been no documentaries or books that treat the Townsend Plan or the pension movement as a serious political challenge.

Challenging Issue: The Consequences of Social Movements

That the Townsend Plan evokes conflicting images may not be so damaging for my plan to make sense of why social movements have influence when and where they do. To put it in a way that social scientists can readily relate to, there is variance to be explained. Yet only recently have scholars started to address the issue of the consequences of social movements. In part this was because the older scholarship assumed that movements were ineffective, or possibly dangerous, whereas today's scholars tend to assume movements matter. Now that scholars have been examining the consequences of social movements, they have identified specific conceptual, theoretical, and methodological problems that this subject poses. The central conceptual issue falls under the heading "What Is the Meaning of Success?" The currently conventional answer, provided first by the sociologist William Gamson in his highly influential book The Strategy of Social Protest (1975), is that the greatest "success" means "new advantages," understood as the degree to which a challenger's program was realized. But this conception of success limits thinking about the possible consequences of challenges. For instance, a challenger may not achieve its demands, and thus be deemed a "failure," but still achieve a great deal. Although Townsend's pension plan was never adopted, if the Townsendites were responsible for Social Security, the largest item in the federal budget today, the Townsend Plan would have to be counted as one of the most influential challengers in U.S. history. Also, the standard definition cannot deal with the possibility of a challenger doing something worse than failing. What if the activity of the Townsendites backfired, as Witte and some early scholarship suggest?

The theoretical issues surrounding the impact of social movements can be summarized under the heading "What Else Matters?" A challenger has to make claims and mobilize people and a variety of resources in order to engage in collective action and attempt to have an impact. But most scholars thus argue that mobilization is necessary, though not sufficient, to produce social change. They go beyond it, in two main directions. One is by Gamson, who wanted to know whether some goals, strategies, and forms of organization were more productive than others. Other scholars have followed this line of thought by identifying strategies of claims making and framing as being key. The second view is that once a state-oriented challenger is mobilized, the main thing standing in the way of its having an impact is the political context or "opportunity structure."

Resolving this controversy between strategy and context seems simple enough, but there are at least two obstacles to doing so. First, scholars need to specify what constitutes a favorable political context and what does not. Otherwise, it is possible merely to say retrospectively that a given context was helpful. If the mid-1930s were particularly favorable to the claims of challengers, for instance, it is important to indicate how this period differed from what went before it and came after it. The second obstacle is that the productivity of goals, strategies, and forms of challengers seems likely to vary with the contexts in which they contend. Any arguments about the effectiveness of strategies by themselves, taken out of context, might be misleading.

Making sense of the consequences of social movements faces methodological and logistical hurdles that I classify under the heading "How Can You Tell?" To determine what accounts for the consequences of challengers, it is necessary to establish first if there were any consequences-but that is easier said than done. As we have seen, scholars do not agree on whether the Townsend Plan and the old-age pension movement had an impact. The empirical challenge comes down to demonstrating that important changes would not have occurred, or not in the way they did, in the absence of the challenger or the actions it took.

Often other conditions or actors, typically more powerful than challengers, are pressing toward similar sorts of change. For that reason, other potential determinants of social change need to be taken into account in assessing the impact of challengers. When the United States adopted new programs benefiting the aged, they may have been a result not of the Townsend Plan but of the Depression itself, the rise to power of Roosevelt, a liberal Democratic president backed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, or the actions of the domestic reformers within the administration, as various scholars have argued. Premature declarations of significance disregard the deflating possibility that other conditions may have induced both the challenger and what it is presumed to have influenced. The rise of the Townsend Plan may have been the result of circumstances-the economic crisis, the liberal government, favorable bureaucrats-that also caused what some may mistakenly see as the impact of this challenger.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from When Movements Matter by Edwin Amenta
Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction : the Townsend Plan's image problem 1
1 Success or consequences, and U.S. social movements 14
2 How the West was won over 35
3 Behind the Townsend Plan's rise and initial impact 62
4 The Townsend Plan versus Social Security 81
5 A national challenger 105
6 Dr. Townsend, now at the helm 130
7 The rise of a pension movement 151
8 The Townsend Plan versus Social Security, part 2 176
9 The elusive double victory 197
Conclusion : a hero for the aged? 221
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