Some of the groundwork for President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” was laid by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) whose leaders declared, “Labor wants jobs, not a dole.” In 1930, labor had put pressure on the newly-elected Congress, that responded by introducing dozens of bills for huge public works programs, direct federal relief and pro-worker legislation.
Because private industry was in a state of collapse, the government had no choice but to assume major responsibility for trying to restore the shattered economy, spending countless billions in the greatest and most successful job-creating effort in American history. Its immediate task was to rescue Americans from economic chaos. In the process, it modernized the nation’s infrastructure and left a legacy of labor laws that have made workers’ lives more tolerable in the 70 years since they were enacted.
The New Deal was led by a group of social reformers who were looking for a permanent solution to the unemployment problem. Many believed that it was wrong to deprive working people of their livelihood because of the collapse of the economic system. The jobs they created through various agencies were designed to be useful and restore the recipients’ self-respect. Here are some highlights of what “Big Government” accomplished under the New Deal:
The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population. All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.
In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly three million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps. Many of the projects were criticized as “boondoggling” and “leaf-raking,” but they added thousands of needed facilities to the country that otherwise might not ever be undertaken.
In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8,000,000 workers. Monthly earnings for all types of workers averaged $41.50 in 1935 and $50 in 1939.
The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2,750,000 idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. The young men earned a dollar a day, and they had to send part of their wages to their families back home.
Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens. The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.
Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.
A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.
In establishing TVA, the government had to weather the wrath of private electric power companies that fought fiercely against this challenge to their monopoly control. (TVA soon forced them to lower their rates substantially.) Moreover, the very existence of TVA stirred up dangerous implications that greatly disturbed business organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers, who might wonder: If the government could move successfully into the electric power field, might it not be emboldened to take over other profitable industries?
In actual fact, Roosevelt and his “Brain Trust” wanted to save, not destroy, the capitalist system, but they soon realized it would take bold, imaginative and unorthodox measures to do it.
By the end of 1934, more than 20 million Americans (one out of six!) were receiving public assistance from the “Welfare State” — and glad to be getting it!
Article 3: “Labor’s Legislative Triumphs of the 1930s” will be posted on Tuesday, May 13, 2008.
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