In 1934, a retired dentist from California named Francis Townsend wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper. He was 66 years old, unemployed and without any savings. His plan was simple: Every citizen over age 60 would receive a check from the government for $200, to be paid for by a 2% sales tax. Jonathan Alter writes that, “Within a year, five thousand ‘Townsend Clubs’ across the country represented between 2 and 5 million members – a powerful new elderly lobby poised to take Congress by storm.”
Inside the administration, Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, immediately began to advocate for a kind of “social insurance” for the elderly. During FDR’s first year in office, she made more than 100 speeches building support for the idea across the country and brought it up at almost every meeting of the Cabinet.
Poverty rates were already high among the elderly but skyrocketed during the Great Depression, with an estimated unemployment rate for those over 65 at well above 50%. Stories of the old and poor dying alone or starving to feed their grandchildren began to grow. In the midst of crisis, our country made a decision of a distinctly moral nature that the failure of the market to provide for our oldest citizens should no longer be tolerated. It was this moral decision that eventually created one of the key building blocks of FDR’s New Deal, Social Security.
It was a decision that proclaimed to the country and to the world that the value of our country’s citizens was not determined by the share of the GDP they produced. Instead, it argued that the productivity of a person was not the same as their worth to society. It said that our parents’ and grandparents’ security, and one day our own security, will be guaranteed not just because of the goods or services they and we might produce, but because of a bond of humanity that spans generations.
This recession, our current economic crisis, has brought us to a place where once again we have the opportunity to make these kinds of moral decisions. We are challenged to learn and be transformed. If we learn nothing from this crisis, then all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But if we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can be redemptive.
If we can regain our moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.
The relationship between employer and employee is broken, with real wages falling for workers on the bottom and even in the middle, while pay for those at the top has climbed significantly. With quickly growing tent cities across the country we still have not made the decision that a roof over a family’s head should not be a luxury only for those who can afford it. We have yet to make the decision that health insurance is not just for those with a budget large enough to include it. As climate change continues at a pace unimagined just a few short years ago, we have yet to make the decision that caring for creation is a necessity, not an option.
These kind of moral decisions are not made by a single political leader or owned by any one political party. In a pluralistic society, moral authority is not vested in one religion, worldview or demographic. It is worked out through a democratic process by which the values and vision for what our country is and could be is determined.
Wealth sometimes temporarily hides from ourselves and from others the moral nature of the decisions we make and the decisions we do not make. When that is wiped away, the morality and immorality of our own decisions and the culture we have created become much more apparent. That is why moments like this offer great opportunity for moral clarity, an opportunity to clear up the confusion about what we believe and what our priorities are. Just as the Great Depression brought our country some moral clarity around poverty among seniors, this crisis could bring moral clarity to some of the great issues of our time – perhaps, for example, taking responsibility for our children in ways similar to how the previous generation took responsibility for the elderly. Our country has always been one of hope, and when hope is put to work, crisis becomes opportunity.