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American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Workby Nick Taylor
In 1932, the United States faced the greatest crisis in its history short of war. The American industrial powerhouse that had emerged at the end of the Great War in Europe had fallen still. The stillness had progressed from the stock market, which had lost almost 90 percent of its value since the awful crash of October 1929, to the nation’s factories, and from the factories to city avenues, small-town streets, and out across the countryside, where it reached farmers who were mired in a crisis of their own, caused by debt and drought. Workers from every walk of life were idle, one-quarter of the workforce—13 million men and women, though some estimates ranged to 15 million and above. As their resources dwindled, they descended a spiral from belt-tightening to despair to destitution. Millions lost their homes, wore their clothes into rags, and had to forage like animals for food: city dwellers fought for scraps in garbage cans and dumps, while in the country, the hungry scratched for roots and weeds.
For all of the physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, despair; the suicide rate soared, and the nation trembled at the prospect of a dark, uncertain future. The optimism that Americans had distilled from the promise of the Constitution and learned to take as their birthright—their dreams—had disappeared with their access to work.
This did not have to happen. That it did was dictated by a revered American political philosophy that denied the central government a role in addressing social problems. In the so-called New Era, which began in 1921 and spanned the Republican presidencies of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and now Herbert Hoover, business interests effectively ran the country with some friendly advice from Washington, primarily in the form of useful information. The right data, gathered by the government, would allow banks to adjust their loan portfolios and manufacturers their production schedules, thereby achieving greater efficiencies than they had attained on their own. Labor was a commodity, like iron ore or cotton, to be purchased on the open market at the cheapest price. It was outlandish to think that employers would have any interest in their employees beyond their productive capacity, and even odder to think that the federal government would interfere by telling them how to treat their workers. As for human health and welfare, these were private matters. Society understood that there would always be a few unfortunates who could not—or chose not to—work and take care of themselves, and for these stragglers local governments and private charities were expected to lend a helping hand. It was certainly not Washington’s job to feed and clothe people or give them employment. The government had an interest in promoting social goals, since a healthy, well-fed, stable nation provided a good business climate, but that was all.
“The sole function of government,” Hoover had said in the fall of 1931, two years after the crash, “is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise.” His predecessor, Coolidge, had put it more succinctly (a practice for which he was famous; his nickname was “Silent Cal”): “The chief business of the American people is business.”
But the New Era had failed, and Hoover’s efforts to revive it had been fruitless. Babe Ruth had put the president’s performance into harsh perspective. Early in 1930, the New York Yankees slugger was holding out for a contract that would pay him $80,000 a year. When sportswriters reminded him that the president made $75,000, Ruth responded, “What’s Hoover got to do with it? Besides, I had a better year than he did.”
And conditions were not improving. Businesses continued to fail at an unprecedented rate, more than 50,000 since the crash, and the pace of these failures was accelerating. By 1932, more than 3,600 banks had closed, robbing millions of depositors of their life’s savings. Every time a bank or business shut its doors, men and women lost their jobs and their buying power, which meant more business failures. As a result, industry was operating at a fraction of capacity, with production lines slowed or shut down entirely. In Birmingham, Alabama, 25,000 of the steel town’s 108,000 salaried workers had no jobs at all, and another 75,000 were working reduced hours, for an average pay of $1.50 a day. Thirty percent of workers were jobless in Detroit, 40 percent in Chicago, 50 percent across the state of Colorado. New York City had 800,000 workers without jobs. Skilled laborers in the construction industry—carpenters, plumbers, and electricians—saw their jobs disappear as new construction vanished. White-collar profes- sions were equally hard hit. Only half the nation’s engineers had work. With few new homes, or commercial or public buildings, to design, architects’ practices were decimated; only one in seven had jobs. Nationally, unemployment had doubled in a year.
After the prosperity of the late 1920s, the widening epidemic of joblessness sent shock waves through the nation. Before the crash, almost every non-farmer who could work and wanted a job had one. The unemployment rate in 1929 had been just 3.2 percent. Flush times had begun to seem permanent, a notion supported by the nation’s leaders. Hoover, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in June 1928, said, “Unemployment in the sense of distress is widely disappearing. . . . We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us.”
When it was jobs, not unemployment, that vanished, people found it impossible to believe at first. They never thought it could happen to them. Office workers who got pink slips went home and circled newspaper want ads at the kitchen table, then went out the next morning with the paper tucked under their arms, full of expectation, only to return at night disappointed. Factory men gathered day after day in union halls, in employment offices, and at the gates of the factories where they used to work. Bulletin boards bristled with “No Help Wanted” signs. Barkers bellowed “No jobs today, men” over bullhorns at the factory gates. Each day hope flaked away like layers of old paint. And when the reality that there were no jobs finally sank in, the job seekers continued to leave their homes each morning, but now sat on park benches and in the reading rooms of public libraries. They haunted the counters of cheap coffee shops and stood in sheltered doorways. Anything was better than returning home and admitting defeat to a wife whose eager hope shone on her face as she opened the door—and to children who sensed the desperation in their parents’ whispered conversations.
The hardships that followed came on slowly. Those who hadn’t lost their savings when a bank failed spent them down to nothing. Then they borrowed. They put off paying rent, bought on credit at the grocery store, skipped the installment payments on their furni- ture. When their credit was gone, they leaned on relatives and friends. When their clothes wore out, they darned and patched until the fabric couldn’t hold new thread. When the soles of their shoes wore through, they stuffed them with cotton, cardboard, or old newspapers. When they couldn’t pay for electricity or coal and suppliers cut them off, they huddled together in the dark and chased coal trucks down the street to pick up the odd lumps that fell onto the pavement. When they found the eviction notice nailed to their front door, they tore it down and hoped the sheriff would forget them.
Food was the last necessity to go. Parents skipped meals so their children could eat. Siblings ate on alternate days. Teachers watched skinny, ill-clothed, malnourished children nodding at their desks until the day came when they dropped out of school and vanished. Foster homes and orphanages swelled with youngsters whose parents could not afford to feed them, 20,000 in New York alone. At night people lurked behind restaurants and grocery stores waiting for the refuse cans to be set out, and fought others for the chance to claw through the garbage. They followed sanitation trucks to city dumps. They stared at the food displayed in grocery store and bakery windows and wished they had the nerve to hurl the brick that might let them satisfy their children’s hunger for a night.
By 1932, the situation of city dwellers had finally fallen to a par with the nation’s farmers, who for the past ten years had not been able to sell their crops and livestock for what these cost to grow. The farm troubles had started in the aftermath of the world war. Food from America had sustained Europe when its own farms were idled by the war, but once those farms regained their productivity America’s export markets disappeared, and suddenly its farmers were producing more food than the domestic market could absorb. Protective tariffs, which sheltered American manufacturers from inexpensive imports, had never been erected on behalf of farmers. While the nation’s overall economy recovered from the brief postwar depression of 1920–21, when manufacturing output fell 25 percent, the farmers never regained their buying power. Subsequent years of drought had made matters even worse. Eleven million farm families continued to live in unremitting poverty, and the banks’ hold on their mortgaged land grew ever tighter.
And no matter where they lived, those who had a roof at all were lucky, because the sheriff could not forget those struggling in arrears, even if he wanted to. When the eviction notice was hammered to the door a second and a third time, the dispossessed were likely to steal away in the middle of the night to find space where they could, sometimes in apartments where landlords who were also desperate were offering terms of free rent to fill their empty space, sometimes doubling up with the same relatives and friends they had already pressed for loans, sometimes even in their cars. But for many who lost their homes through eviction or foreclosure, including farmers who had been turned out or simply walked away from barren and unproductive land, there was no place to go. Following rumors or blind hope that jobs waited at the next crossroad or rail junction, thousands upon thousands became nomads. Old farm trucks driven by grim men plied the roads, overloaded with mattresses and furniture, pots and pans, suitcases and chests, wives and children and sometimes parents crowded together in the cab or huddled under canvas in the back. Others rode in—or under—empty freight cars or hitchhiked, wandering between hobo jungles where they might find a crude meal and temporary shelter. Most though not all of them were men. Women and even children were also on the roads and rails, their days spent in a twilight world of fear and want. The homeless numbered as many as 2 million. They collected in city doorways, in railway freight yards, under bridges. They lived in squalid migrant camps and shantytowns cobbled together from abandoned cars, discarded tarpaper, sheets of tin, scraps of wood.
Yet even the most impoverished families were slow to turn to charity. Americans’ deep-rooted belief in work came with a catch: failing to find it, it was not in their blood to ask for help. Campaigning in 1928, Hoover had extolled “the American system of rugged individualism,” a system, he said, that “has come nearer to the abolition of poverty, to the abolition of fear of want, than humanity has ever reached before.” But even when the system failed in 1929, bringing them face-to-face with poverty and want—and fear itself—Americans clung to its assumptions. If they couldn’t make their own way in the world, the fault must be with them.
“Oh, don’t bother,” a laid-off Texas teacher who had been forced to seek assistance told a social worker who was trying to cheer her up. “If, with all the advantages I’ve had, I can’t make a living, I’m just no good, I guess.”
The growing evidence of suffering brought no change in the philosophy that ruled government and business. The United States clung to a tradition of poor laws that harked back 350 years to Elizabethan England. The burden of caring for the poor fell on local governments and private charities. In recent years a few state governments, led by New York, had set up formal systems to administer what was called “relief,” as in relief of want by way of cash payments, vouchers for necessities such as food and rent, and—where work could be created—paying jobs. But Washington remained aloof. Business and banking interests insisted on maintaining this alignment of responsibilities, which had been in place under the Republican administrations that with few exceptions had been in power since the Civil War. When the United States Chamber of Commerce polled its members in December 1931, they responded 2,534 to 197 that “needed relief should be provided through private contributions and by state and local governments.”
But these governments were now as broke as the people who needed their help, and as the depression deepened they were unequal to the task. City tax collections had shrunk with the contraction of the economy. Many local governments were on the verge of bankruptcy. Charitable donations had also shriveled, and with them the ability to provide relief to families in need.
Those charged with the burden of the poor sought solutions with growing desperation. Winslow Township, New Jersey, an area of small farm communities with about 5,000 people, mirrored the country as a whole. One worker in five was out of work. On January 2, 1932, the eight members of the Winslow Township Committee convened in Blue Anchor, a crossroads halfway between Philadelphia and then-sleepy Atlantic City. The committee voted to dismiss the five-member police force it no longer could afford to pay. Then, led by its aptly named chairman, Herman Priestley, the committee called for a week of prayer to ask God’s help in solving the township’s unemployment crisis.
Prayer was all many jobless Americans had left in 1932.
Copyright © 2008 by Nick Taylor
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