"We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen ... against poverty-ridden old age."
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Aug. 14, 1935, as he signed the Social Security Act
FDR wasn't the only one who wanted to end destitution among the elderly. Even after Social Security became law, about 80 old-age pension proposals competed for support in California alone. The most prominent and sensational became known as "Ham and Eggs."
When the first Social Security check arrived in 1940, the maximum payment was $41.20 a month -- about $557 in today's dollars.
"Ham and Eggs" promised "$30 every Thursday" for each unemployed Californian age 50 or older. The idea behind the name was that every pensioner deserved a square meal a day.
The proposal made a fortune for its creators but did nothing for those who were supposed to benefit from it, according to Daniel J.B. Mitchell, professor of management and public policy at UCLA and author of "Pensions, Politics and the Elderly: Historic Social Movements and Their Lessons for Our Aging Society," published in 2000.
"Ham and Eggs" was hatched by an odd cast of characters, beginning with Los Angeles radio personality Robert Noble.
The quirky phenomenon rode the coattails of writer Upton Sinclair's EPIC -- End Poverty in California -- campaign and of Long Beach physician Francis Townsend's proposal that workers ages 60 and over receive $200 a month, funded by a 2% national sales tax.
In 1935, Noble became a radio commentator for KMTR, now KLAC-AM (690), where he began talking about his own loosely formulated pension plan. He also campaigned for clean government, targeting the Los Angeles Police Department's infamous "Red Squad," which was against union organizers and peace activists.
In April 1935, the Red Squad beat two peace demonstrators. Noble led about 200 followers into Mayor Frank Shaw's office, demanding that he disband the squad. Shaw promised an investigation -- which came to naught -- and booted Noble out.
Noble began promoting his pension plan in 1937. He called it "$25 every Monday." In the midst of the Depression, the notion caught Californians' imagination. Thousands contributed anywhere from a nickel to $100 to the campaign.
In April 1937, Noble took his pension idea to Sacramento. No legislator signed on, so he went home to Hollywood and hired the Cinema Advertising Agency.
The agency was run by two brothers, Willis and Lawrence Allen. Willis had been convicted of fraud for selling Grey Gone hair tonic, which destroyed rather than dyed hair.
Campaign money came rolling in. The Allens persuaded Noble to invest in a Mexican radio station that would broadcast all over Southern California to help sell the pension plan. Lawrence Allen forged a broker's signature (which led to a court case stretching into the 1950s). That document ended up in the hands of LAPD Capt. Earle Kynette, who was known as the police chief's "dirty-job man."
Noble was using his radio pulpit to deride the mayor, police chief, police commissioners and the mayor's brother. (Shaw would be recalled in 1938 by voters infuriated by blatant corruption.) City Hall wanted Noble off the air, and the forgery seemed fortuitous.
Kynette offered the Allens a carrot and stick. In return for his silence about the forgery, he wanted a slice of "Ham and Eggs," plus a portion of the Mexican radio station. The trio schemed to seize the pension movement and the station license.
The Shaw machine pressured KMTR to fire Noble and, in October 1937, it did. As Noble and 200 followers picketed the station, Kynette arrested him for parading without a permit. He was convicted and ordered to pay $50 or spend five days in jail.
As Noble's fans carried him down the courthouse corridors on their shoulders, he told the press, "I've adopted as the motto for my campaign [for governor], 'Poison the Politicians and Purify the State.' " This was his first mention that he planned to run.
His appeal unsuccessful, Noble chose jail over the fine. He told a Times reporter in March 1938 that incarceration would give him time to "prepare speeches for my gubernatorial campaign and try them out on a caged audience. At least I'll have the satisfaction of knowing my audience won't walk out on me."
But by the end of Noble's five days in the slammer, the Allens controlled "Ham and Eggs." All Noble could do was file legal papers to protect his slogan, "$25 every Monday." The Allens didn't care; they just coined a new one -- $30 every Thursday."
"Ham and Eggs" called for an amendment to the state Constitution that would guarantee $30 in state warrants or scrip each week to every unemployed man or woman 50 or older. Each $1 warrant would require recipients to pay a 2-cent weekly tax to keep the note valid until redeemed. This would encourage people to spend the money, thus boosting the economy -- or so the theory went.
The Allens collected nearly 800,000 signatures -- along with more than $300,000 -- and got the measure, Proposition 25, on the November 1938 ballot.
Critics denounced the plan as irresponsible, saying it would attract bums from out of state. Banks and some businesses cautioned that they would never accept such warrants. Critics called the idea a "flimflam" and a "snare and delusion." Upton Sinclair described it as a "cruel hoax" that "would not work."
The Allens hired broadcaster and orator Sherman Bainbridge as a promoter. Some say it was Bainbridge who coined the "Ham and Eggs" slogan.
With labor union support, he tried to wrestle "Ham and Eggs" away from the Allens. They expelled him from the movement and denounced him as a traitor.
Hundreds of Ham and Eggs clubs sprang up across California. Each meeting opened with the audience shouting, "Ham and eggs!" at the speaker, who responded, "Ham and eggs!" Members paid dues of a penny a day and bought booklets and lapel pins. By 1938, the clubs had 200,000 members and a newspaper. Profits went -- where else? -- to the Allens.
During the campaign, the brothers exhumed the body of Archie Price, a penniless, 64-year-old San Diegan who had killed himself because he was considered too old to work and too young for a pension.
They made Price a martyr, staging an elaborate ceremony to move his body from a potter's field to an expensive gravesite.
Proposition 25's popularity grew until, just before the election, Kynette -- in jail on an attempted-murder conviction -- charged that he had lent money to the Allens and wanted it back.
The allegations undermined Proposition 25. Although more than 1.1 million people voted yes, it received just 45% of the vote. But it helped revive the Democratic Party in California. "Ham and Eggs" supporter Culbert Olson was elected governor, and liberal Sheridan Downey won a U.S. Senate seat. (Noble had lost in the primary.)
The Allens persuaded Olson to call a special election in 1939 to give "Ham and Eggs" another chance. He did, but made clear that he no longer supported it. The Allens virtually doubled their campaign treasury, to nearly $600,000, but the measure lost again.
After that, "Ham and Eggs" was cooked in California.