A larger proportion of Americans have lost their jobs during this pandemic than at any time since the Great Depression. In the UK, unemployment increased to 2.1 million in April, and economists expect millions more people to become unemployed once the furlough scheme ends. The current, acute crisis in unemployment is likely to become a chronic condition that, even if it waxes and wanes, will not remedy itself. Like the Great Depression, it demands intervention not only to resume trade and employment, but also to preserve the institutions we cherish.
The virus will not simply evaporate; many of the jobs that used to exist have already gone, and more will go still. We will have to feel our way to reviving industries in a world altered by fear of contagion. People will want to avoid human contact to a greater degree than ever before, accelerating existing trends toward greater automation and socially distanced work. Economic busts generally foster market consolidation, as bigger operators weather a storm that swamps smaller enterprises. These effects have an inequitable impact, hurting the poor far more than the rich, demonstrating the cruel effects of inept or inactive governments. For all the clamour that the economy is in peril, what remains of democracy is in far greater danger of perishing from this new depression without some form of new New Deal.
The United States tried denial as its first response to the Great Depression of the early 20th century. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover said: “Any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish.” When his scolding failed, Hoover insisted that government could do nothing to alleviate the crisis. “Economic depression can not be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement,” he said.
Soaring unemployment finally provoked political action. Hoover allowed a federal public works programme that provided, he noted with satisfaction, sustenance to some 700,000 Americans and their families; at the time, about seven million remained unemployed. Hoover ran for re-election in 1932, claiming his policies had ended the depression and urging voters to be grateful to him: “Let’s be thankful for the presence in Washington of a Republican administration.” He pledged a balanced budget, higher tariffs and tighter monetary policy. Unpersuaded, voters chose Franklin D Roosevelt.
Roosevelt promised public works and jobs, labour rights, and a transition to more sustainable practices of production. He acknowledged that he, too, would like a balanced budget – once the nation had spent the necessary amount to end the depression. He espoused “the philosophy of social justice”, rejecting “trickle down” prosperity and preferring instead to “make the average of mankind comfortable and secure [so] their prosperity will rise upward, just as yeast rises up”.
Taking office in March 1933, with more than ten million unemployed, Roosevelt and Democratic majorities in Congress delivered looser monetary policy, price support for agriculture, union rights and billions of dollars for public works and employment. Economic recovery began immediately and continued thereafter, with rapid growth that nevertheless took years to make up ground lost during the Hoover years.
It took several tries to get the jobs programme going. First, the Roosevelt administration bankrolled projects to be managed at the local level. But major works required advance planning, and by the end of summer 1933, only 250,000 Americans had jobs on such projects. Some smaller works did get under way, but letting local governments run them meant there were inequities in working conditions and wages, along with varying degrees of managerial competence.
Eventually the Roosevelt administration decided to hire workers itself, on projects of all kinds in all states and territories. Mandating eight-hour days and 40-hour weeks, calibrating wages to assure a decent standard of living, and barring child labour, the public works programmes set national expectations for working conditions. Racial discrimination on the works was prohibited first by rule and then by law; the public works programmes gave black Americans unprecedented economic opportunities, even in an age of continued segregation.
Mostly, the workers were builders. They installed or improved more than half a million miles of roads. They built schools, parks, libraries, post offices, seaports and airports; bridges and hydroelectric dams; stadiums and theatres and — humble but vital – sidewalks. They brought power – electrical, to be sure, but with it political and symbolic – to people and parts of the country that never had it before.
Even with three to four million workers at once on its payroll, Roosevelt’s New Deal was still too small: as many more citizens remained unemployed. To dispel the depression, the New Deal should have grown bigger, sooner. Washington remained fearful of spending the necessary sums until after the war. But economic recovery was not the New Deal’s only aim.
The depression had brought self-government into global disrepute. The apparent incapacity or unwillingness of elected officials eroded faith in representative government and emboldened dictators. Roosevelt wanted the New Deal public works programmes to prove that democracy worked, and for everyone. Recovery could not begin anywhere unless it began everywhere: “interdependence is the watchword of this age”.
Perhaps no part of the New Deal reflected this commitment so well as the programmes for artists, musicians, and writers – cheap, compared to construction, but without them the construction would have had less meaning. The New Deal was the biggest peacetime expression of national purpose in American history. New Deal art reflected this notion. Writers and artists documented the memories of formerly enslaved people, the music of rural folks and the lives of workers in factory and field, and by making art out of them acknowledged their importance. This version of democracy, built on the interdependence of a variety of peoples, became Roosevelt’s vision for the United Nations.
During this pandemic, sheltering in place – or staying at home – has robbed us of the common spaces that were vital to the New Deal’s cultural programme. We cannot congregate in theatres or stadiums, or even stop to chat in the street. Yet our interdependence is no less real for its intangibility. We should remember that cornerstone of the New Deal.
We can learn, too, from New Dealers’ commitment to providing people not only with a social safety net but with jobs to lift them out of unemployment. We might also take as a model the New Deal programme of public works that modernised the economy and adapted it to the world that was then new; advocates for a global “green new deal” have long contended that we need a new infrastructure to prepare ourselves for a more sustainable way of life.
We might also learn from the New Deal’s deficiencies. We should be bold, going bigger sooner and erring on the side of too much rather than too little, and uncompromising in seeking equity. And we should remember that the purpose of a jobs programme is not only to provide economic stimulus, but also the dignity of work at a decent wage under good conditions to all who can do it, and moreover to remind us that, should enough of us choose it, we can prove that democracy works.
• Eric Rauchway is distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Davis. He is the author of Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal (2018) and The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace (2015)