The Townsend Club

For a number of months in the year 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, “Townsend Club Activities” was a regular column in Vista’s weekly newspaper, The Vista Press.

“The Townsend chicken dinner at the Community church on Monday evening was an outstanding success, both financially and in the number attending,” began the column for October 10, 1935. “The committee in charge had to order the doors closed at 7:30, as people continued to stream in.”

The columns describe dinners and musical events among club members, but the social movement was also dedicated to a public policy goal. The official name for the movement was Townsend Old Age Pension Clubs.

It began in 1933 with a Long Beach physician, Francis Townsend, then in his early sixties, who was moved by his observations of elderly people living in poverty after a lifetime of work. He proposed a plan for a guaranteed federal pension of $200.00 per month to every person over the age of 60. He proposed the system not only to keep older people out of poverty but as a means of creating more job opportunities for unemployed younger workers.

That idea clearly resonated with many of the Vista Press’s readers, its publisher, and leaders of the local and regional agricultural community. An example can be found on the paper’s front page on January 3, 1935. At the top of the page, along with two articles on an upcoming election of directors for the Vista Irrigation District, was another article headlined “The Future of American Democracy.”

The article reprinted the text of an address given not long before at Whittier College by C.C. Teague, then president of the California Fruit Growers Exchange.

Teague wrote that in his opinion, “a democracy…cannot stand the strain of long-continued unemployment of a large percentage of the people and must find some way where this condition can be avoided if it is to live.” He then called for a “compulsory” retirement system to pension off older workers and create employment for younger ones.

The “Townsend Club Activities” column described activities jointly sponsored by clubs in Vista, San Marcos, and Oceanside. They, along with clubs from San Diego city and elsewhere, sent delegates to a Los Angeles rally of 10,000 in late September 1935 and a national convention in Chicago in late October which included a nationally broadcast radio address by Dr. Townsend.

The Social Security Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in August, 1935, in obvious response to the growth of the Townsend Clubs and similar campaigns.

Sources for this post included the websites of the Vista Historical Society and the Social Welfare History Project.

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