Francis Townsend, the son of a farmer, was born in Fairbury, Illinois, on 13th January, 1867. When he was a child the family moved to Nebraska. After leaving school Townsend worked as a farm labourer in Kansas and Colorado.
Townsend eventually attended Omaho Medical College and graduated in 1907. He set up as a doctor in the Black Hills of South Dakota but joined the Army Medical Corps when the United States entered the First World War in 1917.
After leaving the army Townsend worked in Long Beach, California. His medical practice was not a success and he obtained employment as assistant city health director. Townsend lost his job during the Great Depression and was forced into retirement.
William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), has argued: "He was sixty-seven years old, and had less than a hundred dollars in savings. Disturbed not only by his own plight but by that of others like him - elderly people from Iowa and Kansas who had gone west in the 1920's and now faced the void of unemployment with slim resources. "
In 1933 Townsend witnessed three old women rummaging through the garbage cans in his alley for food. He was horrified by what he saw and decided to get involved in politics. Later that year he proposed a scheme whereby the Federal government would provide every person over 60 with a monthly pension of $150 (later increased to $200). Townsend argued that the pensioners would immediately spend the money and would therefore create new jobs and bring an end to the Great Depression.
Townsend suggested that his Old Age Revolving Pension Plan could be financed by a Federal tax on all sales (wholesale and retail). William E. Leuchtenburg, the author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963), has pointed out: "The Townsendites argued that their plan would end mass joblessness both because older people would be compelled to surrender their positions to the younger unemployed and because the rapid spending of pension checks would produce a demand for goods and services that would create still more jobs."
Several commentators pointed out that the plan was based on fallacious assumptions. Walter Lippmann argued that the Townsend plan would at most redistribute purchasing power by taking money from the young and giving it to the old, and that, with a national income of $40 billion a year, Townsend expected to spend $24 billion to compensate 9 per cent of the people. Townsend replied: "My plan is too simple to be comprehended by great minds like Mr. Lippmann."
The plan obtained a great deal of public support and by 1935 his Townsend Club had over 5 million members. In 1935 Townsend handed in to President Franklin D. Roosevelt a petition supporting the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan that had been signed by over 20 million people. In response to the petition, Congress passed the Social Security Act.
Townsend claimed that Roosevelt's social security legislation was completely inadequate and in 1936 joined with Father Charles Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith and followers of the late Huey Long, to form the National Union of Social Justice. William Lepke was selected as the party's candidate in the 1936 presidential election but won only 882,479 votes compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt (27,751,597) and Alfred Landon (16,679,583).
In 1936 Townsend was prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for contempt of Congress. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt commuted Townsend's 30 day prison sentence.
Francis Townsend died in Los Angeles on 1st September, 1960.