Our monthly newsletter, “The Fireside,” and a webinar series, “The Next New Deal,” feature leading writers, artists and scholars on such topics as the Green New Deal; New Deal art; social movements of the 1930s; and reigniting a Federal Writers’ Project.
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In an CNN opinion piece titled, “Why we need a new WPA,” Paula M. Krebs makes a case for addressing today’s economic woes by using policy lessons from a time when the government stepped in to provide paid work for construction workers and artists alike. Read the full piece here.
In a piece published in Artnet, Ben Davis, reflects on calls to help distressed art institutes in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic by drawing on the lessons of the New Deal Arts Programs. Davis examines the history of the programs and sets out to dispel a few misconceptions. “Without filling in the nitty-gritty of the history that impelled the United States’s singular experiment with government arts patronage, I get the sense that we are calling people into battle without arming them for the fight.” Read more here.
NCAC’s virtual luncheon explored the various approaches to resolving tensions around such work–including shrouding or relocating artworks, commissioning new works, innovative course offerings, and public programs.
Karyn Olivier, Artist and Associate Professor of Sculpture at Temple University, Philadelphia
Adriene Lim, Dean of Libraries at the University of Maryland, College Park
Anthony Huffman, Brooklyn-based scholar, curator, and cultural critic
Presented by the National Coalition Against Censorship
As a new administration prepares to grapple with the economic crisis caused by COVID-19, three myths about unemployment continue to muddle the thinking in Washington about how to help unemployed American workers.
Myth #1: Federal job creation did little to end unemployment during the Great Depression.
Fact: The CCC, CWA, WPA, and other job-stimulating programs cut the unemployment rate in half. Early measures treated workers in New Deal jobs programs as unemployed; thus, the “official” unemployment rate after 1933 remained artificially high. In fact these workers were clearly employed, often doing tough physical labor. Once counted as employed, the true unemployment from 1933-1937 dropped sharply well before the U.S. beefed up its military spending in late 1939 and then entered World War II.
Myth #2: Creating subsidized jobs today is not necessary. There are plenty of jobs in the regular labor market. The only problem is a worker shortage.
Fact: There is almost always a job shortage. When FDR, Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes, and other New Dealers began work in 1933, they had no trouble grasping the giant job shortage even though unemployment data was in its infancy and job opening data was unborn. Today, we have solid survey data on both fronts. Since 2000, the BLS has collected data on both the unemployed (using different definitions)andjob openings. Sure enough, there are more jobseekers than job vacancies most of the time. A job shortage is the norm. Sometimes it’s modest. Often, it’s big. Today it’s huge. Private industry can rarely absorb all job seekers.
Creating subsidized jobs is the best way to correct this persistent shortfall in the labor market.
Myth #3: The only problem we must solve is unemployment.
Fact: Employment is the foundation of economic security: work for wages is how most Americans survive. Yet a job is only the start. Wages must be high enough so that—combined with earning supplements like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC)—full-time work provides enough income for individuals and families to enjoy a decent living standard. There should be no such category in the U.S. as “the working poor.”
FDR and his New Deal team understood this. That’s why, in addition to creating millions of federally subsidized jobs to compensate for a horribly shrunken labor market, they worked for legislation that set a minimum wage (Fair Labor Standards Act) and encouraged collective bargaining (National Labor Relations Act).
Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow New Dealers did not let myths about unemployment deter them from laying a foundation of economic security for tens of millions of Americans. With few models to build on, they took quick, bold and experimental action to improve workers’ economic lives. Their work resulted in more jobs, higher wages, and health insurance, even before the U.S. entered into a war economy.
Unfortunately after WWII, the myth that New Deal jobs programs did little to wind down the Great Depression began to gain a foothold among policymakers. Older myths also reappeared. The unemployed were bums; the poor were lazy; their personal flaws explained their plight in our land of endless opportunity. This outdated view of poverty dangerously hindered the thinking of a new generation of policymakers.
Exposing these myths, we hope, will help the Biden Administration think clearly about what it takes to create economic security in the 21st century.
Joe Biden has spoken often of the major inflection points in American history. One was the Great Depression. Another was the Civil War. In the depths of that conflict, President Lincoln urged Congress to free itself from convenient fictions, and to act decisively on the facts. “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,” Lincoln said. “[W]e must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
Like Lincoln, Biden must “disenthrall” us from failed dogmas and guide us to “think anew, and act anew.” His administration and its congressional supporters must reject the myths about unemployment that block the path to economic security for all. They must push for a federal policy that offers subsidized jobs to all adults who cannot be absorbed into the regular labor market. That policy, combined with a higher minimum wage, bigger earning supplement, stronger unions, paid leave, and other measures, will ensure that all Americans enjoy a decent standard of living.
David Riemer is a Senior Advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of “Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.”
Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.”
In April 1932 Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for president when the nation was in the depths of a devastating economic depression. He famously stated, “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power, for plans… that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In an election year 84 years later, Republican Donald Trump confidently promised, “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump knew that phrase still resonated with millions of disillusioned Americans. In fact — from the 2016 campaign to today — Trump has repeated the phrase ‘forgotten men and women’ at least 163 times.
FDR and Trump — both New Yorkers from wealthy families — campaigned as populists who spoke of shared prosperity and a return to better days. FDR’s campaign theme song was “Happy Days Are Here Again” while Trump popularized the slogan “Make America Great Again”.
Trump — however — turned out to be the anti-FDR. The forgotten men and women at the bottom of the ‘economic pyramid’ remained forgotten. They got little from Trump’s administration.
Trump has done nothing to ensure that Americans are able to earn a living wage, despite the fact that the federal minimum wage has fallen in real dollars. Trump has threatened the funding that underpins Social Security, a program that ensures a dignified retirement for millions of American seniors. Trump continuously threatened the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Under Trump, ‘repeal and replace’ the ACA soon became just “repeal,” which would have left millions of vulnerable Americans without health insurance. With COVID-19 decimating the economy, the number of uninsured is now rising. Trump’s inaction in the face of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, has only added to the ranks of forgotten men and women.
Trump promised a robust investment of $1 trillion to repair and rebuild the nation’s crippled infrastructure. Consequently, blue collar voters — many of whom had remained within the Roosevelt Democratic Coalition — defected to Trump in large enough numbers in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to swing the 2016 election in his favor. But, instead of a benefitting from massive infrastructure programs, blue collar Americans saw Trump launch trade wars that killed jobs and closed factories. And the deteriorating roads, bridges, and tunnels throughout the nation remain as forgotten as the people.
FDR once stated, “Here is my principle: Taxes shall be levied according to ability to pay. That is the only American principle.” But Trump — whose net worth is $2.5 billion, and who paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2017 — added $2.28 trillion to the national debt with a tax cut that gave the wealthiest 20 percent of individuals and corporations 60 percent of the net benefits. FDR said that the test of the progress of a nation “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” On the other hand, Trump doled out tax cuts to the wealthy and forgot about Americans who, in the midst of a pandemic and an economic depression, found themselves unable to pay for food or rent.
While Trump railed against ‘the swamp’ in Washington D.C., and promised to “drain” it, he proceeded to fill his cabinet and inner circle with billionaires and Wall Street executives. In many cases, Trump went a step further by appointing individuals diametrically opposed to the mission statement of their department or — even worse — were wholly unqualified for the job. Trump the outsider — who unapologetically campaigned on being critical of both Democrats and Republicans — basically became a bombastic puppet for Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and the Republican establishment.
During the Great Depression and World War II, FDR gave the nation confidence that, under his leadership, we could succeed in the face of the monumental world events playing out in front of the American people. He boldly declared war on the Depression and on Fascism. Throughout his presidency, FDR instilled a sense of shared sacrifice in the American people. Trump, in contrast, has been largely unable to face the serious challenges facing the American people when it comes to COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn. As thousands of our fellow Americans died from COVID-19 each day, Trump — the self-proclaimed ‘wartime president’ — refused to wear a mask (the most basic way to combat COVID-19), mocked those who did wear masks, and held large, maskless indoor events. Instead of instilling shared sacrifice, Trump promoted at best selfishness and at worst callousness.
Ultimately, the Trump administration has left far too many Americans divided, cynical, and angry with how their government works; or in many cases, does not.
With the Democratic victory in the 2020 election, President-Elect Joe Biden has an opportunity to change the relationship the White House has with the still forgotten men and women of America. Biden will have to immediately address the COVID-19 pandemic, massive unemployment, the catastrophic effects of climate change, and Congress’s continued attempts to undermine the economic security programs that for generations have protected Americans when they most at risk of poverty and illness. He has the opportunity to embody Franklin Roosevelt’s principle of fighting for the interests of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In doing so, Biden may reignite faith in our great democratic experiment.
Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDR’s closest advisors, and author of ‘Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.’
Stephen Seufert is a Democratic committeeperson in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Social movements historically have used posters to spread the word, build solidarity and demand change. During the New Deal, the WPA employed artists, graphic designers and printers to promote public health, tourism, education, the arts and more. In the digital age, a new generation of activists is harnessing the power of the poster to demand a Green New Deal.
Over 1500 documentary photographs were taken by ten professional photographers in West Virginia between 1934 and 1943. These photographs continue to be exhibited, published, and referenced in discussions to this day.
Beginning in 2006, the West Virginia Humanities Council, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other sources, funded a series of mini-exhibits that toured photographs from the collection to the rural communities where they were originally taken. The Council also contributed to the publication of a book, published by the West Virginia University Press, that combined photographs from the mini-exhibits with those of other parts of the state.
The mini-exhibits and the book, as well as related interviews and presentations, have helped to bring the photographs to a wider contemporary audience. Many viewers and readers have commented that the photographs resonate with their memories or family stories about the New Deal era.
These photographs, as a whole, contrast with the images of abject poverty that have been used to characterize Appalachia in general and West Virginia in particular. While the standards of living of many families did not match up to more urban areas due to the lack of electricity and other public utilities, a common observation is that people did not realize that they were poor. The photographs have helped people to heal the disconnect between their own experiences and the way that their lives were later depicted.
At the same time, there is recognition that abject poverty existed during the Great Depression. One of the goals of the government project that sponsored the photographs was to point to basic needs so that people in cities would support the funds and programs that were needed to address them. Other goals were to show the successful government projects, document everyday life in rural areas and small towns, and, after the onset of World War II, also highlight life in cities and the support provided by the home front.
The photographs have been characterized as introducing Americans to America. They are credited with helping Americans to expand their perspectives beyond their local communities and develop the sense of national unity that was required to prevail in the war.
In West Virginia and across the country we are now divided in new ways that can be exacerbated by our advances in communications via social media and other means. Some of the fault lines are again between rural and urban. The New Deal photographs can continue to play a role in bringing people together across these divides.
We must go beyond our comfort zones to try to understand each other. These photographs, projects like this website, and new initiatives that are developed in this same spirit, can all help us to come together to meet the new challenges we face.
When Joe Biden gave his acceptance speech as president-elect, he referred to “FDR in 1932 — promising a beleaguered country a New Deal.”
Biden and his backers have frequently compared the crises Roosevelt faced in 1932 with the crises Biden faces today. Acting boldly like FDR, it seems, is what Biden intends to do.
Any U.S. president who acts boldly, however, must proceed within the three areas where the federal government has responsibility.
First, public safety. It’s the federal government’s job to protect us from threats to our safety, including our health.
Second, economic security. Americans now expect the federal government to ensure that adults have the jobs, wages, income and health care needed to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
Third, an effective market. Ours is a market economy. It is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure, through sound regulation, that the market works properly.
Franklin Roosevelt provided extraordinary leadership in all three areas.
In the second part of FDR’s presidency (1939-1945), he focused on safety. From 1939 to 1941, FDR strengthened the military and launched Lend-Lease. After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt galvanized the U.S. war effort that crushed Germany and Japan.
During the first part of FDR’s presidency (1933-1938), he led the “bold, persistent experimentation” aimed at meeting the federal government’s two other responsibilities: economic security and an effective market.
Roosevelt simultaneously worked with Congress to resuscitate a market that had collapsed. FDR quickly signed laws to revive the nation’s banks and restore the integrity of the stock exchanges. These measures — combined with “priming the pump” via increasing federal spending — in time helped rejuvenate the economy.
Biden, too, needs to act on all three fronts of federal responsibility: public safety, economic security and an effective market.
But there are big differences between how Roosevelt tackled the crises he faced from 1933-1945 and what Biden must do starting Inauguration Day 2021.
First, Biden must act immediately to protect the public’s safety. FDR was able to wait six years. Biden will not have that luxury. He must begin on day one to attack the COVID-19 pandemic.
Second, Biden has no choice but to simultaneously tackle our health crisis, and our economic security crisis and our market effectiveness crisis.
The third big difference will make it easier for Biden to succeed.
When FDR took office, he had virtually nothing to build on. There was no federal system of economic security. Nor was there any federal system of comprehensive market regulation.
Biden has this inheritance to build on.
But act — and act boldly — he must. Indeed, if Biden is to succeed, he must go far beyond driving down unemployment and restoring the market to the troubled position they occupied before COVID-19 fouled America’s economy.
Restoring this status quo ante is insufficient. To achieve economic security, Biden needs to create millions of transitional jobs, modeled on the New Deal’s CWA and WPA. Biden should also expand unemployment insurance to the millions of workers now excluded.
The new president also needs to raise the minimum wage well above $10 per hour, make it easier to form unions and bargain, and guarantee all workers paid leave.
Biden also needs to raise — well above the poverty line — the minimum disability benefit and the minimum Social Security retirement payment. Improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to provide millions of uninsured individuals with health insurance, is imperative.
In addition Biden must act to improve the effectiveness of the overall market. Achieving this outcome means protecting the environment from harm, ending wage theft and safeguarding consumers and investors from deception and harm.
Like all of us, Biden lives in the House that FDR Built. Thanks to the New Deal, he begins with a rich legacy of federal policy that he has the power to reshape. He can add policies to fill gaps. He can fix existing policies that are deficient.
Will Biden have the wisdom to see his challenges in these terms? Will he recognize that his primary task, beyond ending the pandemic, is to construct a 21st century New Deal?
If he does, he may go down in history as one of America’s great presidents.
David Riemer is a senior advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of ‘Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.”
Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.”
In his book titled, “’New Deal’ means being prepared for conflict,” author Steffen Lehndorff examines what we can learn from the New Deal of the 1930s. The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic requires urgent social, economic, and environmental reforms. Lehndorff reflects on the New Deal, how it was set in motion by the Roosevelt Administration, and how it can serve as a model for today’s reformers.
The author: Dr. Steffen Lehndorff is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Work, Skills and Training (IAQ), University of Duisburg-Essen.
The book is written primarily for a European audience, but it is also of interest for stateside audiences with an interest in the history of the New Deal and its relevance for the Green New Deal. Find more details about the book here.
Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.