Monday, May 23, 2011

FDR on Unemployment

Just like Obama after Bush, FDR had inherited an economic nightmare after the Republican polices under Hoover.

In 1932 the citizens of America were eager to see Republican President Herbert Hoover out of office. From the start of The Wall Street Crash (1929), President Hoover had done next to nothing to try and counter the Great Depression. He and the Republicans had argued (just like today) that the economy naturally went in to cycles of "bust" and "boom". Hoover kept insisting, "Prosperity is just around the corner."

By then, one out of four men were out of work. Those lucky enough to have jobs convinced themselves there was something wrong with the unemployed – lazy, immoral, parasitic thieves – compounding the shame, guilt, fear, and worthlessness these men felt because they were no longer able to support their families. Once hard-working people, they searched for jobs and told themselves they’d soon find work, but the lack of jobs sent them farther and farther from their homes. 

As the days passed and no work was found, they began to look old and act poor, which further hindered them in finding employment. Brought up in the belief that work brought its own rewards, accepting charity just to survive was a bitter pill to swallow. Some preferred to starve rather than seek help. Unable to cope with the shame of being unable to support and shelter their families, some turned to drink, others withdrew from society. Some beat their wives and children, others sought release by committing suicide. Some rode the rails, making the 1930s the heyday of the "hobo" (hence the term many Republicans use for the unemployed today). 

Mass unemployment relief during the Great Depression did much to upend the 1920s "poor-law mentality" that assumed that the unemployed were lazy, not the victims of a larger structural collapse; yet it also upheld previous ideas about the marginal place of non-whites and women to the American workforce. "When we're unemployed, we're called lazy; when the whites are unemployed it's called a depression." - The Reverend Jesse Jackson)

By the spring of 1933, when FDR took the oath of office, unemployment had risen from 8 to 15 million (just as we have today, but then it was roughly 1/3 of the non-farm workforce. Today it's called 8.8% unemployment). Although The Great Depression was world wide, no other country (except Germany) reached so high a percentage of unemployed.

FDR's predecessor, President Hoover, had believed "the dole" would do more harm than good, and that local governments (soup lines) and private charities (churches) should provide relief to the unemployed and homeless. Just as the GOP claims today, that extending UI benefits CAUSES unemployment.

During The Great Depression breadlines and Hoovervilles (homeless encampments, like tent cities are today) appeared across the nation. Many of the unemployed sank into despair and shame after they could not find jobs. The suicide rates increased from 14 to 17 per 100,000. (Figures for the suicide rate during the Great Recession aren't available as of this post, but funding for suicide hotlines has been increased by congress.)

FDR, after assuming the presidency, promoted a wide variety of federally funded programs aimed at restoring the American economy, helping relieve the suffering of the unemployed, and reforming the system so that such a severe crisis could never happen again.

However, while the New Deal did help restore the GNP to its 1929 level, and did introduce basic banking and welfare reforms, FDR refused to run up the deficits that ending the depression required. Only when the federal government imposed rationing, recruited 6 million defense workers (including women and African Americans), drafted 6 million soldiers, and ran massive deficits to fight World War II, did The Great Depression finally end.

FDR's Philosophy on the Unemployed and Worker's Rights

Franklin D. Roosevelt ( FDR), referring to the 1921 President's Conference on Unemployment: "It said many sound things. It proposed the control of credit  expansion by the banks; it proposed the prevention of over-expansion of industry; it proposed the control of public and private  construction in boom periods, and it proposed security against the suffering that might come from unemployment."

What much has changed in the past 80 years, and why haven't we learned from the past, and are always doomed to repeat it? The problems we had then still exist today. And the unemployed are berated now as they were then. FDR (while still governor of New York) said aid to the unemployed "must be extended by government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty." But the Republicans have been trying to convince the general public today that the jobless are just lazy...just as they did 80 years ago.

The Forgotten Man was the term Roosevelt used in a fireside chat (radio address) he gave on April 7, 1932. Roosevelt used the term to describe the poor men who needed money and were not getting it, promoting his New Deal (Also, read FDR's entire 1932 campaign address on unemployment)

"The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work." - FDR’s Message to Congress on Unemployment Relief. (March 21st, 1933)

MYTH: FDR was against unions. FACT: In response to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's congressional message of May 17,  1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA). Employees were given the right to organize and bargain  collectively and could not be required, as a condition of employment, to join or refrain from joining a labor organization. The NRA—by  a separate executive order—was put into operation soon after the final approval of the act

"It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By "business" I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of decent living." - Franklin Roosevelt's Statement on the National Industrial Recovery Act (June 16, 1933) 

Read the text to FDR's Fireside Chat 4: On Economic Progress from October 22, 1933.

FDR's Statement on the National Labor Relations Act (The Wagner Act - July 5, 1935) "A better relationship between labor and management is the high purpose of this Act. By assuring the employees the right of collective bargaining it fosters the development of the employment contract on a sound and equitable basis."

Labor Day Statement by FDR (September 5th, 1937) - "The wage earners of America do not ask for more, [but] they will not be satisfied with less." 

FDR on Republican fear tactics (Sounds like he knew the Koch brothers) - "There is another means of spreading fear — through certain Republican industrial leaders. I have said, without being controverted, that 5,000 men in effect control American industry. These men, possessed of such great power, carry likewise a great responsibility. It is their duty to use every precaution to see that this power is never used to destroy or to limit the sound public policy of the free and untrammeled exercise of the power of the ballot. In violation of that duty, some of these 5,000 men who control industry are today invading the sacred political rights of those over whom they have economic power. They are joining in the chorus of fear initiated by the President [Hoover], by the Ambassador, by the Secretary of the Treasury, and by the Republican National Committee."


“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.” 

"Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle."

"If I went to work in a factory the first thing I'd do is join a union."

"The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of a private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism - ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power."

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."

"True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

"We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we now know that it is bad economics."

The Last Sensible Republican in American History

In 1954 (unlike his fellow Republican, President Hoover) President Dwight Eisenhower (who warned us about the defense industry) had opined about government social programs in a letter to his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history." 

Might we see this happen in the 2012 elections because of the Republican attacks on worker's rights, jobless benefits, Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid and Medicare? And the GOP still continues to vote for tax cuts for the rich and to give away billions of dollars in taxpayer-paid subsidies to corporations (like big oil companies) who don't pay taxes. Even a typical Republican voter can't be too happy about that. Isn't that like robbing the poor to pay the rich?

Where would the economy and the American worker be today if FDR had been Obama's predecessor ?

From MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:

From MSNBC's Rachel Maddow:

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