Both of my parents lived through the Great Depression. My father was born in 1920, and my mother was born in 1926. My father was raised in a small industrial town, my mother in inner city Chicago. Those of you familiar with Chicago's waterfront might be surprised to learn that children once played in the empty shell of what now is the Museum of Science and Industry. It was dilapidated, hollow, crime was rampant in the area, vegetable gardens were guarded with shotguns, and in a strange dichotomy whole families would sleep on the beaches of Lake Michigan on summer nights to escape the heat.
My father grew up in Springfield, Ohio, which at the time was a mill town. Springfield once had eight iron mills, but during the last Great Depression most all of them faded away. My father was the youngest of seven boys and because of the hard times he was sent away to live with his grandfather on the farm in Ross County. My father never really got over his feeling of abandonment, too young to understand the financial reasons for the separation.
As a teen he ran away from the farm and rode the rails, living his own "Bound for Glory" Woody Guthrie tale. He told me about finding a lost boy of about fourteen who was crying and wanting to go home. So he and another boy promised him they would take him home. In their mind's eye they saw a grateful, crying mother and a thankful, relived father insisting they take a reward as the mother fed them home cooking. What they got was an unpleasant, "Thanks," and the door slammed in their faces. Such is the fate sometimes of the well intentioned; the boy was more abandoned than lost and as my father and his friend discussed it they understood why it was that no one was looking for them.
Years later when I was a child, long before seat belt use became common, I would lean forward on the back of the car seat and talk to my father as he drove. We had a game we regularly played, "See it!" He'd say, "That's a WPA Bridge." I bet we counted a thousand of them; most are gone today but a few survive in rural areas. They were concrete bridges for the most part. Built to high standards and in many cases over-engineered for their time. As my dad would tell it, before those, the bridges across America were rickety wooden bridges built with local expertise for horse traffic, or in many cases just didn't exist at all.
Now, as our own current day economy continues to slide towards the brink, I have heard academic free market economists make the claim that FDR and the New Deal actually made the Great Depression worse. This is picked up and parroted by right wing partisans who, using 20/20 hindsight, pick apart the failings of the New Deal without counting up all those things that the New Deal gave us.
It is easy enough to give credence to what the academics say because that's their business, knowledge and facts and figures and all. Could they be wrong? I mean, a few bridges versus all those statistics. Of course, using that same historical lens, what did Moses do really? Just a delivery boy with a bad sense of direction, but it was what Moses delivered to the people and where he led them and what he led them from that is remembered as important.
Let's look at Roosevelt's predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was strongly against any direct aid to the poor, fearing that they would become demoralized. The Republican Congress, likewise, was against any national scheme to aid the poor. The United States was the only industrial power with no system of social security. No system of national unemployment. No minimum wage law, no national labor laws of any kind. No aid for the elderly or the disabled. Looking back at that America it is like looking into a gow of almost medieval proportions.
When Roosevelt had been struck down by polio, he searched the world seeking a cure and ended up in Warm Springs, Georgia. Warm Springs is about an hour from Atlanta but it was light years from Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park. He was shocked by the living conditions of the people. The lack of electricity and education for the majority of the people, many barely eking out a living by scratching in the dirt as share croppers. But the people welcomed him; their warmth and compassion for his situation touched him. He was like the Buddha leaving the imperial city to find a world of suffering. The townsfolk called him Mr. Frank until the election; then they called him Mr. President.
Before the New Deal, the elderly were the poorest demographic in the country. When you got too old to work, you lived on your savings, and if you didn't have savings you starved or lived on charity or with your children. America was mainly rural then with most people living on farms, so those elderly worked until the day they died. Healthcare existed only for the rich and hospitals were a cash affair except for the "charity ward". If you were sick or injured you went home and you either got better or you died. There was no public health service. Hypothermia was the second leading cause of death for the elderly and pneumonia was the first. In Detroit in 1932 two people an hour died of starvation; in Toledo unemployment was at 70%.
The Americans of that generation, like our own, sought change and hope, and in 1932 the Republicans were completely repudiated. Roosevelt reversed the federal government's position completely with what was called the alphabet soup of government programs. Of course the most obvious is Social Security for the elderly, but there were many other programs that have faded into history and been forgotten.
In New Orleans, just to use one city as an example, the programs included paving streets, building the airport, and archeology projects for the region as white-collar workers established federal archives for Orleans Parish. Workers were trained in book binding, recovering 25,000 school and library books. The WPA built libraries and refurbished other public buildings. They made mattresses that were distributed to the poor and to hospitals. The canals were dredged and cleared; levees were built. People were trained as cooks, heavy equipment operators, surveyors, and even musicians. You see, the Bourbon Street that you know today might have disappeared except that the WPA put musicians to work as teachers, teaching music to others.
Some projects were frivolous, like harmonica bands, but you have to look at the situation with the understanding of the times, harmonica bands versus doing nothing. These projects were carried out all across America; no matter where you go today you will see something that was originally built by the WPA. No matter where you work or what you do for a living, the New Deal has had a positive impact upon your life. If you get hurt at work your employer is responsible for your medical bills; that was not the case before the New Deal.
My grandfather worked in the steel mills and told of people burned who were just carried home to die. Tonight when the sun goes down and you turn on the lights, think of the smiling photograph of FDR because before FDR most Americans in the South didn't have electricity. In the 1930's only 10% of rural Americans had electricity in their homes. Private power companies maintained that it wasn't cost effective to string power lines outside the cities, another fine example of letting the marketplace work.
There were summer camps for children to give them an escape from poverty. Youth leagues, dance classes, even free showers. Yes, the WPA advertised free, safe, clean showers to the people of New Orleans. Parks, playgrounds and even a dark room where returning soldiers could develop their photos gratis, courtesy of a grateful nation.
The Tennessee Valley Authority, in 1934, began providing power service for the people of Tupelo, Mississippi. Building 26 major dams and hundreds of smaller ones, the TVA changed the face of the rural South. Did you know that in the 1930's, 30% of the inhabitants in the Tennessee Valley were afflicted with malaria? Wages and living standards were the lowest in the nation, even by Great Depression standards. The modern cities of Atlanta, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Birmingham, Huntsville, Hopkinsville, Paducah, Memphis and Nashville were all built on TVA power.
During the 1940's the United States armed forces needed aluminum and the shortage was so great that Harry Truman once said, "I want aluminum. I don't care if I get it from Alcoa or Al Capone." The production of aluminum requires large amounts of electricity that the TVA supplied. There were other effects wrought by the TVA, flood control, barge traffic, locks that opened up new vistas to a previously poor and suffering region. It is not by accident that America's nuclear laboratory was located in Oakridge, Tennessee. The refining of uranium into fissionable materials also requires huge amounts of electricity; without the TVA we might not have gotten the atom bomb first.