On January 20, 1937, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said “I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished. 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 too little.”
Roosevelt, the wealthy aristocrat, was defending the economic and social policies he had introduced in 1933 in relief of the dire condition of the American worker. His New Deal established the federal government’s responsibility for protecting farmers, workers, and the unemployed while actively regulating the economy to prevent another crash.
To avert national collapse, Roosevelt introduced legislation that he had worked for as governor of New York: minimum wage to lift purchasing power for those with bottom incomes; laws strengthening workers right to unionize thus raising incomes; unemployment insurance to avoid starvation; Social Security providing minimum income for the aged; farm policy guaranteeing a fair return to family farmers.
In retrospect, the Great Depression is a staggeringly unique event. But today’s economic numbers show today’s workers in similar distress with about the same percentage of the population hurting, their situation made barely tolerable only by the Roosevelt reforms and initiatives.
Today the official unemployment rate is 10.2%. However, the unofficial rate accepted by most economists is 17.5%, the difference composed of workers employed part time in their regular jobs, those employed below their level of experience and training, discouraged workers unemployed for such a long period that they are no longer looking for work, and those formerly employed by businesses that have collapsed or moved abroad, etc.
Based on the 17.5% unemployment rate, figuring only one worker to a family, the number of unemployed are about 27 million workers. Assuming that each unemployed worker is the breadwinner for a family of four, the number of people “ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished”, is approximately 100 million, about the same percentage of our current population of 300 million as the “One Third of the Nation” described by Roosevelt.
Roosevelt and the social workers around him who helped make policy, Frances Perkins, Harry Hopkins, Harold A. Ickes, farmer Henry Wallace, focused on relief for “The Forgotten Man.” They saved the banks from bankruptcy while installing serious regulations but spent most of their energies and assets on the workers. Today President Obama says his $787 billion stimulus is working but where are all the jobs? Since taking office, his administration, in contrast to the Roosevelt administration, has studiously avoided paying people to go to work, which could be accomplished by subsidizing private-sector employment or by creating new government paid jobs. There are programs in some states that financially compensate employees who cut their hours to prevent broader layoffs at their companies. Unemployed workers could be paid for going back to school to further their education and to learn new skills. The list of creative activities to support and improve the workforce is endless and requires only the will and orientation of the president’s advisers who seem to be more worried about Wall Street and banks “Too Big to Fail.”
Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the president’s chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers are not oriented in the same direction as Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins, and that’s a pity.