by Richard A Walker
Abstract: A Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change, economic crisis and social-political disintegration in one sweep. The original New Deal offers the best model for a Green New Deal because it faced similar challenges of conservation, economic collapse, immiseration and political reaction in the 1930s and was successful in overcoming them. Indeed, like the New Deal, the United States today needs nothing less than a program of national reconstruction and renewal that is more than the sum of carbon reduction, infrastructure investment, more jobs and better wages.
The New Deal was not only successful in its time but provides an excellent model for public policy today. As a nation we face a set of profound challenges comparable to the era of the Great Depression, requiring an equally ambitious and thorough attack led by the federal government – the only entity with the power, money and scale to take charge. The lessons of the New Deal enumerated here offer hope for an embattled nation and a guide to redirecting public policy following 40 years of neoliberal deconstruction.
The New Deal provides guidelines for how to attack the major crises of today. Climate change and economic recession get most of the attention because global warming is bearing down like a runaway train and the economy has gone off a cliff. But the nation faces a massive deficit of investment in infrastructure and lags behind Europe and Asia in modern public amenities. A gulf between the rich and the rest has precipitated a social crisis marked by underfunded education, gnawing poverty and personal despair. The US is in the throes of a deep political crisis that has the republic teetering on the brink.
The only way to address these challenges is the kind of sweeping program that the Green New Deal has come to summarize. A half-century of experience with neoliberalism has shown that there is no alternative to strong government action led by mass popular mobilization. Nothing less than a Green New Deal will save the country from climate change, economic depression, a crumbling foundation, social malaise, concentration of power and political disintegration.
It needs emphasizing just how radical the New Deal was in terms of the long sweep of US history and how thoroughly it refashioned the country and its politics. The left has spent too much time criticizing the New Deal and FDR for what they did not do – bring the revolution, end White Supremacy, liberate women, etc. We would do better to appreciate what they did, in fact, accomplish in just one decade, 1933-1942 – roughly the time left to deal with climate change.
How the New Deal Responded to the Crisis of the 1930s
The New Deal is a shorthand for the policies and achievements of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1942. It encompassed far more than the best-known programs, such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, involving over 60 laws and programs in all. The Living New Deal is documenting that amazing decade, reviving historical memory and rethinking deeply ingrained political tropes – because so much of the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong.
I will consider the New Deal’s accomplishments in six areas: economic recovery and regulation, employment and class, investment and modernization, conservation and restoration, programs for the people and national political revival.
Economic Stabilization and Recovery
The Great Depression was the greatest failure of capitalism in US history and one that challenged the legitimacy of the nation’s class system, dominant ideology and political leadership. By winter 1933, US output had fallen by one-third, unemployment risen to one-quarter of the labor force and profits and wages had declined sharply.
In 1933-34, the New Deal ended financial excess and put the banking system on a new foundation. This meant shutting down bad banks, separating commercial and investment banks and providing deposit insurance. In addition, FDR called in gold, devalued and solidified the dollar and stock markets were regulated.
Meanwhile, the administration set up price controls under the National Industrial Recovery Act and Agricultural Adjustment Act. The unpopular NIRA was later dropped, but the AAA became the basis of US farm policy for the next fifty years. More important was the creation of the PWA in 1933 to start the process of federal investment in infrastructure; it would be the central pillar of New Deal spending.
A massive relief effort began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933. FERA salvaged bankrupt state and local treasuries, ending the downward spirals of government revenues, spending and employment. In the winter of 1933-34, FERA created the first relief jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), for which Congress created a permanent replacement in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The New Deal cost roughly $650 billion in today’s dollars.  With today’s population that would come to over $1.1 trillion – a surprisingly modest sum. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the corporations, aided by revived alcohol taxes from the end of Prohibition, and the administration was willing to tolerate peacetime federal deficits for the first time in US history.
Crucially, economic recovery came before World War II. Under the New Deal, GDP grew at an average rate of almost 10 percent and had fully recovered by 1939. Contrary to popular opinion, the war did not solve the Great Depression, but it did dry up unemployment by recruiting millions into the military and by the greatest deficit spending in US history – the same formula as the New Deal.
Employment and the Working Class
A pillar of New Deal policy was aiding the working people. The New Dealers saved capitalism but they saved millions of people from desolation at the same time, chiefly through programs for mass work relief: FERA, CWA, WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). These agencies combined created more than 20 million jobs for the unemployed over ten years, giving workers dignity and injecting income into bankrupt households. Those are impressive numbers compared to the 15 million unemployed when FDR took office and the 5 million who were still jobless when the war began in 1942.
The New Deal succeeded in raising working class wages and incomes by supporting unionization. Unions were legalized in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935; New Deal public works required fair and prevailing wages of contractors; and the Fair Labor Standards Act was added in 1938. It also created the first federal safety net through unemployment payments in the NLRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. Greater taxation of the rich and higher incomes for the working class sharply reduced inequality, ushering in the most egalitarian period in US history.
Not only were jobs programs life-saving financially, they restored workers dignity. Non-discrimination clauses brought jobs and wages to African Americans and other minorities. In addition, they aided economic recovery by raising wages, making relief payments to households and aiding state and local governments. Those flows stimulated aggregate consumption and raised net consumption out of the same total national income.
Investment and Modernization
The New Deal was more than a short-term program of recovery and make-work projects. The federal government invested in the infrastructure of the country, or what was then called “public works.” The government built tens of thousands of civic facilities, such as city halls, courthouses, schools, sewers and parks, as well as regional systems like dams, aqueducts and airports.
At the heart of this effort was the Public Works Administration (PWA). Just as important, the administration pumped money into existing federal agencies, like the Bureau of Public Roads and Bureau of Reclamation, and demanded contributions from the states. Governments at every level – federal, state and local – were reanimated. Moreover, the feds asked the state and cities to propose projects they wanted locally and thus gained important political buy-in.
Crucially, the New Deal walked on two legs: big regional infrastructure and small local projects. For the latter, the relief agencies were absolutely vital. The CWA, WPA, CCC, and FERA undertook local improvements numbering in the hundreds of thousands: playgrounds, recreation halls, baseball fields, picnic areas, water lines, street trees, ranger stations, park roads and trails and more. These, too, were projects asked for by local governments, with local financial participation.
Almost entirely overlooked is the degree to which the New Deal modernized the United States. It brought the entire country into the 20th century. The 1930s witnessed the second greatest leap in economic productivity in US history after the 1920s – higher than the World War by far. The New Deal aided modernization through its massive investments in hydropower and highways, at a time when industry and transportation were shifting en masse to electric motors and trucks.
This infrastructure was long-term investment that continued to pay off after the New Deal ended. The war effort was the first beneficiary, as was recognized at the time. But roads, dams, schools and hospitals continued to function for decades after that, and many are still with us.
Conservation and Restoration
An essential element of the New Deal was conservation – healing the land and resources along with the people. This massive effort is too easily overlooked because it took place far away from the urban centers—on rangelands, forests, farmlands, marshes and coasts. The New Deal was nothing if not green.
Most of the New Deal’s conservation programs were small-scale works. CCC camps planted 3 billion trees under the direction of the US Forest Service. A massive soil conservation program was set in motion on damaged range and farmlands under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which built erosion dams, regraded hillsides and planted windbreaks. Grazing controls were imposed for the first time on federal lands under the new Grazing Service.
Around 200 national wildlife refuges were established during the Roosevelt years, often at the president’s personal direction, and a new Duck Stamp program channeled millions of dollars from hunters to wildlife programs. Several new national parks and national monuments were established, and national forests were expanded. The CCC built the waterworks, roads and campgrounds that rendered federal recreational lands usable.
Many protected areas were purchases of degraded lands in the Dust Bowl or cutover forests, while agricultural policy paid for the withdrawal of millions of acres of farms from production, returned to wetlands and woods that aided wildlife.
Programs for the People
While the New Deal employment and relief effort was focused on the working class, it went much farther. It embraced farmers, retirees and the poor. In addition, there was an array of programs targeting the forgotten and neglected. An essential principle was universal programs with non-discrimination clauses. This was not only a matter of principle. It made such programs more popular with the public.
A number of programs aided tenant and marginal farmers and others targeted African Americans. The New Deal built the first federal public housing projects in both rural and urban areas. It also brought the first federal initiatives to meet the special needs of the handicapped and a major turnaround in the treatment of Native Americans.
A primary quality of New Deal activity was its wide distribution, or “geographic universality”. There is hardly a county or city anywhere in the country that did not get federal funds for a high school, hospital or park from the New Deal – not to mention land restoration, farm subsidies and programs for poor farm families, such as the Resettlement Administration’s housing and town-building. When the New Deal invested in depressed places, the people saw the evidence of federal concern with their own eyes, both in what was built and who did the work.
Lastly, there was a firm belief in the need to address the whole person and the needs of the public as a whole. The New Deal prioritized aid to education from school lunches and teachers’ aides to college buildings and laboratories; built up health programs from school nurses to the National Institutes of Health; and invested in recreational facilities and programs from playgrounds to national parks. One of the most remarkable dimensions of the New Deal was its creation, en masse, of civic buildings, civic spaces and public art to edify and elevate the spirits of the people.
Political Renewal of the Nation
Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician and dealmaker who played his cards carefully. But he was also a true leader, coalition builder, progressive reformer and believer in American democracy. These qualities ran deep among all the New Dealers like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune.
The New Dealers first step was to take charge of a terrible situation with a real sense of urgency. They waded into the fray, ignoring precedent, deficits and naysayers to introduce legislation, issue executive orders and draw up plans for action. There was no blueprint, just a liberal pragmatism and willingness to try anything that might work. For all his patrician background, FDR was able to speak to the public in a manner that restored their confidence in government and gave them hope.
The New Dealers built a broad coalition across class, regional and racial lines. FDR knew that his legislative program depended not to alienating the South over race because he needed that left-leaning white populists of the southern delegation to pass New Deal legislation. That coalition frayed over the years as southern landowners reasserted their power.
FDR was willing to bring unions on board and address the catastrophic conditions facing the working class. Conversely, his aristocratic origins gave him the confidence to stand up to the rich and the corporations when he needed to. He wisely sought to defang radical uprisings by meeting some of their demands, as in the case of the Townsend Movement’s demand for old-age pensions.
A vital quality of New Deal leaders was their ethical commitment to the public good and to the welfare of the common people. They recognized the importance of work to self-worth; the value of civic works in uplifting communities; and that education, recreation and the arts were essential to the human spirit. Their sense of public service also meant no significant scandals hanging over the agencies dispensing such huge amounts of money.
Lastly, Roosevelt and the New Dealers understood that a nation devastated by the Great Depression and left rudderless by Republican leadership needed a new sense of national purpose. The New Deal gave Americans a project of national renewal in which they could participate, feel ownership, and witness in their everyday lives.
FDR was urged by many liberals to seize emergency powers, but refused. He was confronted by fascist movements, was abandoned by the capitalist class—many of whom were fascist sympathizers that feared FDR’s alliance with the working class. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a committed democrat who wanted, like Lincoln, to save the Republic from itself.
The New Deal was a political earthquake in American governance. The power of the federal government grew exponentially and the federal system was transformed. The Democrats replaced Lincoln’s Republicans as the dominant party for the next half-century. And, despite many failings of the New Deal on racial grounds, there was an epochal shift of African-American voters to the Democrats.
 Both were overturned by the Supreme Court but the AAA was revised and passed a second time by Congress in 1938.
 Fishback, Price and Kachanovskaya, Valentina. “The Multiplier for Federal Spending in the States during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2015, pp. 125-62.
 Romer, Christina. 1992. What ended the Great Depression? Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757-84.
 Leighninger, Robert. 2007. Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Books.
 Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward:1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
 Brinkley, Douglas. 2016. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. New York: Harper Books
 Alexander, Benjamin. 2018. The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 There has been too much criticism of the New Deal as ‘racist’, which is not true. It was not the Civil Rights revolution, but its programs were of enormous benefit to the vast majority of Americans. Sitkoff, Harvard. 2009. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Smith, Jason Scott. 2014. A Concise History of the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Leuchtenberg, William. 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
 Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
 Katznelson 2013.
I share your concerns that the left and those who focus on identity over universal policy tend to take an ahistorical view of the New Deal’s motives role in racial justice and the lives of black Americans. I sometimes fear that the left and progressives are undermining the necessary broad support required for the emergence of the Green New Deal as a result.
Thanks for taking this point on, but a greater elaboration of the more direct statement in footnote #9 would have improved the essay and helped start to dispel this damaging misconception (not many read the footnotes).
This is especially important in our current context.
I agree with the comment of Bill Wolfe.