Was the "Townsend Plan" tried in Washington state?
March 22, 2010 2:27 AM   Subscribe

I just read this in passing: "The State of Washington pretty well went broke on the Townsend Plan (during the 1930s) without getting the economic benefits it had hoped for. (I simplify, but it's a reasonable summary.)" I can find references to Francis Townsend, and his plan. What I haven't been able to find are any specific references to the state of Washington trying it out, with middling to bad effects. Anyone? Bueller? Thanks in advance.
posted by aurelian to Law & Government (11 answers total)
Interesting! From what I can find, the Townsend Plan was popular in Washington, and was even proposed, but was never law. Since the author seems adamant in saying this, perhaps you should ask him for a citation?
posted by Houstonian at 5:01 AM on March 22, 2010

The only thing I've been able to turn up was a citation to an article in the L.A. Times, dated 5 Feb. 1937. Google Timeline give us this intriguing snippet:
Feb 5, 1937 - A Townsend test pension today cost Ms. Rettna Freeman, the recipient, her Washington State old age benefits. State pension officials apparently read in the newspapers that Mrs. Freeman, indigent former storekeeper and orchard owner, had been given $200[?] to . . .
Seems like there's something there, but unfortunately the full article is behind a ProQuest database paywall. If you (or someone else here) use an academic library, they might have access.

I do concur with Houstonian: your best bet for learning more is contacting the author. I love coming across historical riddles that haven't yet been indexed to death by the all-consuming internet. Good luck!
posted by cirripede at 6:31 AM on March 22, 2010

I don't find any reference to Washington State going broke because of the Townsend Plan, but I do find reference to Otto Case, who was a Washington State treasurer during the 1930s, being a fierce advocate of the Townsend Plan, and he was almost elected governor. You might want to look more into Otto Case than Francis Townsend. Washington was not the only state to implement or to try to implement variations of the Townsend Plan -- apparently Colorado amended its constitution with a system modeled on the Townsend Plan in 1936. Other states that looked at the Townsend Plan included California, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.
posted by blucevalo at 8:53 AM on March 22, 2010

Response by poster: Houstonian: I've known the writer a long time, and have asked as you suggest. My experience, though, is he gets testy when one asks for such things. Thus, my feeble attempt at independent inquiry.

Cirripede: I'm in the Seattle area, and King County Public Library has access to Factiva and the New York Times archive. No general ProQuest access, though, alas.

Blucevalo: Yes, I'd already found references to Mr. Case. He became Land Commissioner after WWII, near as I can tell. He was also on the Townsend Plan's board of directors. This history (note: .PDF) of the Washington state legislature mentions both the Townsend Plan and Mr. Case in passing, but nothing extensive.

The book, When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security, has its contents searchable through Amazon's "Look Inside" feature, but there are no specific Washingtonian references. One would imagine a 336 pg. monograph on the subject might mention a state with a history as Mr. Pournelle describes, but it appears not.

Thanks, folks, for your time and effort.
posted by aurelian at 9:39 AM on March 22, 2010

No general ProQuest access, though, alas.

Seattle Public Library offers ProQuest and eLibrary access but, unfortunately, they only have the LA Times to 1985.
posted by mhum at 10:12 AM on March 22, 2010

The University of Washington libraries have access to pre-1985 LA Times through ProQuest if you're interested, but I don't think this article has anything you're looking for.

The full text is short (~200 words) and tells of a woman who became ineligible for her Washington state old-age pension when state administrators found out she had received $200 from a Townsend-style test pension. There's some complaining about how she's going to make ends meet, and a very liberal use of quotation marks, but nothing about the details of the Townsend plan, it's impact on state finances, or even how or why the woman was chosen as a test subject.
posted by TBAcceptor at 10:53 AM on March 22, 2010

On page 192 of When Movements Matter: The Townsend Plan and the Rise of Social Security (linked above), there is this interesting passage:
Not all legislative action on old-age policy was taking place in Washington. State-level initiiatives by pension advocates in 1938 forced the issue onto the legislative agenda of state after state, including the entire Northwest, during the 1939 sessions.
posted by mhum at 1:36 PM on March 22, 2010

Meanwhile, it appears that WSU has made available a search of historical Northwest newspapers here. Maybe this will be useful to you.
posted by mhum at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2010

Following up on the initiative angle, I found this page which lists all Washington state initiatives since 1914. There are a bunch related to old age assistance but only one of them appears to have passed: Initiative Measure No. 141 from 1940. You can find the text of this initiative here. Possibly of interest is Initiative Measure No. 158, "Liberalization of Old Age Assistance Laws by the Townsend Clubs of Washington", defeated by more than a 2-to-1 margin in 1944.
posted by mhum at 2:13 PM on March 22, 2010

From the WSU newspaper search I found this snippet from 1935, titled "Old Age Pension Begins in July":
Payment of pensions to the state's aged was assured today as Governor Clarence D. Martin signed H. B. 582, appropriating $10,000,000 to defray the cost of old-age pensions during the coming biennium.

The act is to become effective July 1, 1935, when the newly-created state department of public welfare will take responsibility of administering the pensions.

The new law provides for the payment of a pension of not more than $30 a month to a person 65 years of age or older, provided he has resided in the state for five consecutive years prior to the date of application.
Combined with Initiative 141 that I linked to above, it appears that Washington state provided an old-age benefit of $30/month in 1935 which was subsequently raised to $40/month in 1941. Whether this counts as a "Townsend plan" is a judgment call for someone else to make.

Meanwhile, this snippet from April 1936 proclaims "State Finances Best in 11 Years", this newspaper from January 1938 claims "State's Finances on Sound Basis", this newspaper from September 1941 claims "State Finances in Good Shape", and an article from June 1943 under the title "Langlie Reviews State's Finances" seems to indicate that Washington state's finances were perfectly fine.
posted by mhum at 8:50 PM on March 22, 2010

If he's not too testy to provide a citation, please share it. I'm interested in knowing more.
posted by Houstonian at 5:41 AM on March 23, 2010

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