My Day, The First Lady in Her Own Words
By Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg

Far and wide, over this country, I have said that for generations to come, there would be people using the things created by WPA workers during this period of depression. The sad part of it is that, of course, few people will realize who built the schools, or the parks, or the playgrounds or the recreation centers.

—Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, August 1939

 

Mrs. Roosevelt , journalist

Mrs. Roosevelt , journalist
She wrote “My Day” six days a week for more than 20 years.

Imagine writing a 500-word newspaper column six days a week, some of them while serving as First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt’s syndicated column, My Day, which ran from 1936 until 1962, appeared in 90 newspapers in all parts of the country and, at its height, reached an audience of more than four million.

Inviting her readers into the White House, ER’s column told them about what she did as First Lady, introduced them to her family and friends, and offered her impressions of books, concerts, and plays. Chatty and informal, My Day nonetheless was imbued with ER’s inimitable humanitarian perspective. Later, “on her own,” she wrote about serving as U.S. delegate to United Nations and framing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s column appeared in 90 newspapers across the country.

My Day
Eleanor Roosevelt’s column appeared in 90 newspapers across the country.

As First Lady Eleanor was a great proponent of the New Deal programs that provided jobs to millions of unemployed workers while greatly expanding and enriching the nation’s resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in My Day, where she reported on her nationwide travels to visit projects undertaken by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC,), Public Works Administration, (PWA), and National Youth Administration (NYA).

Here are a few examples:

March 10, 1936, Detroit: I set out to visit some WPA projects. First, the project where immunization against whooping cough is being studied….Then we went to another project, a municipal garage which will be a tremendous building…. this project is being supervised by the city engineers and the work was considered as good as any contract work.

November 13, 1936, Milwaukee: I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent…. a handicraft project for unskilled women…They are binding scrap books for children; books to be used in hospitals; and books for the Braille project….

In 1937, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone for WPA project in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

Visiting New Deal projects
In 1937, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped lay the cornerstone for WPA project in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

March 21, 1937, Austin I went out to see a roadside park, one of the NYA projects that has proved most successful in this state. They have built one hundred and sixty-six of these parks….

March 17, 1938, Los Angeles … the Fresno airport… has been greatly improved by WPA labor…some of the buildings have been moved and the administration building has been built. Then we drove through the park to see the artificial lake the WPA has constructed.

February 13, 1939, Washington, DC… a visit I paid to the new Department of the Interior building to look at the murals. Henry Varnum Poor’s mural of wildlife is a grand piece of work. You almost feel that you are walking right into the scene and that the men and birds are alive…. Don’t fail to see them if you are in Washington.

The First Lady on the air, 1941

The First Lady on the air, 1941
In addition to her newspaper column, she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

For many years, the memory of these projects and its workers faded– as Mrs. Roosevelt feared they would. Thanks to the Living New Deal, the public is being made aware of these enormous contributions. May such recognition lead us to recognize that our great gaps in infrastructure, environmental sustainability, human services, and access to culture could once again be filled by men and women in need of living-wage work.

Social Security at 80: Still Missing the Keystone

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
FDR signs the Social Security Act with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet.

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, declaring:  “If the Senate and the House of Representatives … had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt acknowledged that the groundbreaking legislation was “a cornerstone in a structure … by no means complete.”

Once the cornerstone was laid, Social Security soon expanded. Initially, its two social insurance programs, Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, covered only a portion of the work force. Left out were workers in very small establishments and the public sector, along with the self-employed. Also excluded were domestic workers—largely women and agricultural workers—occupations in which many African Americans were employed.

Within four years Social Security extended benefits to widows and orphans. In 1950, Congress added coverage for domestic and agricultural laborers. Disability insurance was also added in the fifties, and Medicare in the mid-1960s. In 1972, automatic cost-of-living increases began. Unemployment Insurance has been less expandable, but groups previously excluded became covered in 1970 when Congress also provided for automatic extensions of benefits during recessions when many workers are laid off.

Social Security Poster 1935

Social Security Poster 1935
Social Security was funded entirely by payroll taxes.

Headed by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the Social Security Act, recognized that “employment assurance” was the key to economic security. The committee acknowledged that public-work programs might be necessary not only during periods of economic depression, but during normal times as well. Roosevelt and Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins considered creating a permanent government employment program for those still jobless after receiving short-term unemployment compensation.

Ultimately, the government settled on permanent, short-term Unemployment Insurance as part of the Social Security Act, and a temporary employment program—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people and vastly enriched the country’s physical, social, and cultural resources. The WPA was terminated during World War II when job creation became temporarily unnecessary. Thus, Perkins wrote in the mid-1940s, “Unemployment Insurance stands alone as the only protection for people out of work.”

What might Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Perkins have said when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, many jobless workers collected extended unemployment benefits instead of getting paid to restore the country’s decaying infrastructure, making our economy and planet more sustainable, and providing sorely needed social services?

Ida May Fuller, 1940

Ida May Fuller, 1940
Ida May Fuller was the first to receive a monthly Social Security check. She received $22.54.

Nearly seven years after the Great Recession 20 million people remain jobless or are forced to work part time. The proportion of working-age people working or actively looking for work is the lowest since 1976.

Federal legislation pending in Congress comes close to completing the Social Security edifice begun 80 years ago. The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment & Training Act, http://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/jobs introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) commits the U.S. to full employment at a living wage, paid for by a small tax on financial transactions. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH) bill for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps http://kaptur.house.gov/images/114th-Kaptur-CCC-bill.pdf would, like its famous New Deal predecessor, create needed jobs dedicated to preserving and restoring the nation’s resources.

Let’s observe Social Security’s 80th birthday by taking steps toward employment assurance—jobs—the keystone of economic security.