Fact Check

Did the U.S. Government Pay for Mitch McConnell's Polio Care in the 1940s?

Partisan web sites misrepresent the source of funding for the Republican senator's care as an infant in Alabama.

Published Jun 23, 2017

 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com)
Image Via Gage Skidmore / Flickr.com
The U.S. government funded Mitch McConnell's care and rehabilitation when he had polio as a child.

On 22 June 2017, the Occupy Democrats Facebook page posted a meme claiming that the United States government paid for Mitch McConnell's care and rehabilitation when the Republican senior senator contracted polio as an infant in the 1940s.

This claim is contrasted, in the meme, with McConnell's support for the Senate Republican health care plan published that day:

As a kid, Mitch McConnell had polio, and the government paid for ALL of his care and rehabilitation. Now, as the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, McConnell is taking government-funded care away from tens of millions of Americans. Let that sink in.

An article accompanying this meme reports that government-sponsored, publicly funded healthcare saved the young McConnell's life:

Mitch McConnell has been relentlessly working to roll back Medicaid and deprive millions of Americans of government-sponsored healthcare coverage for eight years now.

But if it weren’t for the government, McConnell wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

Young Mitch came down with a terrible case of polio as a child in Alabama. “My mother was, of course, like many mothers of young polio victims, perplexed about what to do, anxious about whether I would be disabled for the rest of my life” he admitted in a 2005 interview.

But luckily for him, his mother took him 50 miles to the Warm Springs, where President Roosevelt won his own battle with polio and established a polio treatment center that was paid for by the public.

President Roosevelt asked the people of America to send in dimes to the White House as part of his “March of the Dimes” foundation. Over two and a half million dimes were mailed in, and they paid for Mitch’s physical therapy and treatment.

A Death and Taxes article posted on the same date reports a similar story:

How did Warm springs fund McConnell’s therapy, you ask? This was two decades before Lyndon Johnson launched federal health coverage by signing into law the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. In the mid-30s, Roosevelt and his law partner Basil O’Connor founded the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and started organizing fundraising balls around the country.

By 1938, however, the balls grew less effective and the president needed a new strategy. Using a phrase coined by vaudeville entertainer Eddie Cantor, “March of Dimes” — a spin on the popular newsreel series “March of Time” — Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes foundation and launched a campaign asking the public to mail ten-cent donations to the White House. Within a month, Roosevelt received around 2,680,000 dimes. The campaign continued through WWII.

McConnell started visiting Warm Springs in 1944. In other words, he overcame polio with the help of public money allocated by the White House.

Mitch McConnell has often told the story of his childhood affliction with polio, and the role of FDR's Warm Springs rehabilitation center in his recovery.

In his 2016 memoir The Long Game, McConnell recounted how he was struck with polio at the age of two while staying with his mother in his aunt's home in Five Points, Alabama.

It's one of my life's great fortunes that Sister's home was only about sixty miles from Warm Springs, Georgia, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established a polio treatment center and where he'd often travel to find relief from the polio that paralyzed him at the age of thirty-nine.

My mother took me there every chance she had. The nurses would teach her how to perform exercises meant to rehabilitate my leg while also emphasizing her need to make me believe I could walk, even though I wasn't allowed to.

So it's clear that Mitch McConnell did indeed receive significant help — primarily in the form of physical therapy and physical therapy training for his mother — from the polio rehabilitation center established by Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Georgia.

However, neither this particular center nor the care given to McConnell were government-funded.

Roosevelt purchased the property at Warm Springs, Georgia and established a center there in 1927, having visited frequently for therapy for his own polio, which he contracted in 1921.  He (and others) set up the Warm Springs Foundation, a nonprofit organization that depended on wealthy philanthropists and donations from members of the public.

In 1934, Basil O'Connor (once a partner at Roosevelt's law firm and a close associate of the recently-elected President) began organizing fundraising for the Warm Springs Foundation, set around the President's birthday celebrations each year. Within four years, these birthday balls had raised $1,350,030 for the Warm Springs rehabilitation center (the equivalent of $23.3 million in 2017).

In September 1937, Roosevelt reconstituted the Warm Springs Foundation as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (as polio was then widely known); in January 1938, the directors of the foundation launched the first "March of Dimes", a phrase coined by vaudeville star Eddie Cantor who helped promote a nationwide fundraising drive which attracted the support of Hollywood stars as well as charitable middle-class families giving 10 cents each.

In six months, the March of Dimes raised $81,073 (which would be about $1.4 million in 2017). In July 1938, the New York Times published a detailed auditor's report, which offered a breakdown of donations and expenditure.

Some aspects of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis perhaps reflect a more innocent time. For example, the hundreds of thousands of dimes sent by members of the public were processed at the White House and a cheque was given to Roosevelt, who then turned it over to O'Connor for distribution via the Foundation. However, in many ways the operation was a precursor of the professional, almost corporate style of non-profit fundraising and campaigning that has followed since.

For example, a large portion of funds raised in 1938 came from attendees at 8,000 Presidential birthday balls throughout the country, labor organizations contributed the equivalent of $760,000, and the Western Union and Postal Telegraph companies wrote off the cost of thousands of birthday greetings sent to the President at 25 cents per message. The following year, charity sporting events were held throughout the country, and badges were distributed to donors as part of an awareness-raising "Give a Dime and Wear a Button" campaign.

Funds raised for the Warm Springs Foundation and National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis were also distributed in the form of research grants to scientists hoping for a breakthrough in the treatment of polio.

This came to fruition in the 1950s when Dr. Jonas Salk — who had received a grant from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis — developed a successful polio vaccine.

The Warm Springs center that helped in Mitch McConnell's recovery was indeed founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was President at the time McConnell was struck by the disease, in 1944. Roosevelt was the driving force behind both the Warm Springs Foundation and its successor, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and used his political office to energetically promote fundraising for polio care and research. The funding came from the kindness and charity of the public, as well as wealthy celebrities and large corporations.

However, it was operated as an innovative, nationwide nonprofit organization, not a federal or state agency, and it was not taxpayer or government-funded. The Warm Springs center visited by McConnell remained owned and operated by a nonprofit organization until 1974, when the state of Georgia took it over, making it truly government-run. Since 2014, it has been owned and operated by Augusta University.


McConnell, Mitch.  "The Long Game." (pg 9,10).   Penguin Random House.  31 May 2016.

New York Times.  "$1,350,030 Raised for Warm Springs."   New York Times Archive.  16 January 1938.

New York Times.  "Net of $1,021,034 to Paralysis Fund."   New York Times Archive.  7 July 1938. 

New York Times.  "Sport World Aids in Paralysis Drive."   New York Times Archive.  27 December 1938.  

Dan Mac Guill is a former writer for Snopes.