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The New Deal

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A golden age of liberalism arose in the 1930s as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his "New Deal" rescued America from the Great Depression. That tumultuous era launched the public safety net to protect families from agonies of life.

Previously, Americans had no safeguards against poverty, job loss, old-age deprivation, disabilities, bank failures, stock scams and other ills. They were defenseless against painful hardships. At that time, the United States was the only modern democracy without any social protections.

After the historic stock market crash in 1929, calamity snowballed. Millions of investors were wiped out. Nearly half of American banks failed. Around fourteen million workers -- nearly one-fourth of the total at that time -- lost employment. Many who stayed employed suffered pay cuts. Nearly a million mortgages were foreclosed. Jobless throngs roamed in search of charity. Homelessness became a crisis. Emergency soup kitchens and food pantries helped many survive.

Amid the suffering, some leaders feared insurrection. The most radical labor group in the early 1900s was the communistic Industrial Workers of the World, the "Wobblies," whose constitution began:

"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people, and the few who make up the employing class have all the good things of life."

Wobblies gathered and sang (to the tune of The Sweet Bye and Bye):

"Long-haired-preachers come out every night, and they tell us what's wrong and what's right -- but when asked about something to eat, they reply in a chorus so sweet: You will eat, bye and bye, in that beautiful home in the sky (way up high). Work and pray, live on hay -- you'll get pie in the sky when you die (that's a lie)."

The Republican administration of President Herbert Hoover floundered helplessly amid the economic collapse. But Democratic challenger Roosevelt promised a rescue, and was elected overwhelmingly. After he took office in 1933, the government plunged into mammoth liberal reforms.

Roosevelt's labor secretary, Frances Perkins -- a driving force of the New Deal -- drafted a set of goals for America, as outlined in her biography: "A forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker's compensation [for on-the-job injuries], a federal law banning child labor, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and health insurance."

Achievements under FDR transformed America:

Social Security gave pensions to the aged and disabled.

The Civilian Conservation Corps put three million jobless young men to work in camps building eight hundred parks, planting three billion trees, constructing remote roads and buildings, and other tasks.

The Public Works Administration, followed by the Works Progress Administration, hired millions more to build dams, highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, hospitals, schools, public housing, Navy ships, courthouses, city streets, electrical projects, and the like.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)
 

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