FDR’s Fireside Chats were a staple of his presidency. During these evening radio addresses, Roosevelt calmly reassured the American people; explained the path to national recovery; and rallied national unity. Like all of you, we at the Living New Deal have been feeling our way into unknown territory. We take inspiration from the New Deal and those who in difficult times rise to the challenges and responsibilities of public service. We want to share such stories with you in The Fireside. We hope you find our compendium of news, commentary, history and highlights as welcome as a fireside chat.
It is an old trope, but true, that disasters often bring out the best in people. That, I think, is the case in the midst of a global pandemic as neighbors too harried to know one another a week ago stop to ask how they and their families are doing and what they can do to help.
But disasters can also bring out the worst; witness the current administration’s response to corona virus, a catastrophe long in the making as the entire public sector largely stitched together by FDR’s New Deal to fight the Great Depression has been starved of the funds needed to protect the public.
In that sense, the coronavirus disaster is analogous to the decades-long neglect of the nation’s physical infrastructure. Much of it was built during the 1930s not just to put millions to work but to vastly improve the physical and mental well-being of U.S. citizens. That long-range investment gave the U.S. the First World status that it subsequently forfeited as it allowed those public works — and entire cities — to fall into ruin.
Like the levees built by WPA, CCC and PWA workers along its rivers, the nation’s matrix of public health facilities and their dedicated staffs have been progressively undermined so that a long-predicted rogue disease could easily breach them, endangering the lives and livelihood of millions. As always, the poor will suffer first and most, but no one will be immune to a viral onslaught against which a collective absence of forethought provides scant defense.
Our task at the Living New Deal is to remind Americans that we do not have to live in a dystopia promoted as its opposite. We do not have to tolerate millions of our fellow citizens living in hunger, on the streets and in abject despair — tinder for the match of a new virus. We once had a federal administration that sought security for all as an enduring bulwark against fear itself. As the adjective “Living” in our name implies, the New Deal continues to embellish all of our lives. But we must first learn to see it as well as to learn the lost ethical language in which its relics are trying to speak to us of an alternate reality we once had.
In the meantime, as you shelter in place, reevaluate what you thought important just a month or even a week ago. Get to know your loved ones — but at a safe distance for a while. As you take hikes in the woods, think of the vast oxygen-producing, wildlife-sheltering forests that an international Civilian Conservation Corps could be planting to fight climate change and to promote peace among competing people just as Roosevelt dreamt his United Nations would someday do.
Listen to music, read books again, organize your long-neglected papers, and stop to pet your neighbor’s dog. Together, we will get through this, coming out the other side far greater for it.
Despite many warning signs, the stock market crash of 1929 took the nation by surprise. One Oklahoma teenager was so baffled when he heard newsboys shouting “Extra! Extra! Stock Market Collapses” that he thought it referred to a disaster at a cattle auction barn. The boys who cried the headlines knew better, and cashed in on the panic. Nine-year-old Dempsey Travis hustled the Chicago Defender right up to October 24, Black Thursday, but then sales plunged. “Before the year’s end,” he said, “my customers were more concerned about feeding their stomachs than feeding their minds.”
Few people were left untouched by the falling economy, and certainly not America’s newsboys. If it didn’t drive them from the trade, it stretched out their news careers longer than most would have liked. The proportion of newsboys between 16 and 19 years old rose during the decade, according to the US Census, and they had to contend with an influx of adults into their ranks.
In Detroit, automobile production ground to a halt and half the adult population lost their jobs. City officials converted factories into homeless shelters and issued the unemployed licenses to sell apples in lieu of relief. Four thousand hungry schoolchildren stood daily in bread lines while seventeen thousand worked the streets, almost half of whom either sold or delivered newspapers.
With so much competition, one newsboy gang formed a “vengeance squad” to protect its turf. In December 1931, four of the boys went looking for 15-year-old Joe Przystas for beating up a pal. They found him at home carrying a scuttle of coal upstairs. One of the boys pulled a rifle from his pant leg and fired at the scuttle to frighten Przystas but drilled him in the heart instead. The killing drew national attention as symptomatic of the moral breakdown accompanying the city’s economic collapse.
The most devastating financial crisis in American history, the Great Depression exposed newsboys to the vicissitudes of the market and the power of the state in unprecedented ways. The crisis sparked renewed debate at the highest levels of government about the social costs of child street labor. Newsboys came under federal protection for the first time with the passage of New Deal legislation, but publishers resisted such “meddling” as threats to press freedom. Rising discontent and a surging labor movement led newsies to mount strikes and support those of longshoremen, truck drivers, projectionists and other workers.
Caught up in this tug-of-war between a paternalistic capitalist press and an expansive welfare state, the newsboy became a contested figure in popular culture, appearing in plays, comics, movies, murals, photographs and fiction as a symbol of working-class resentment more often than as an icon of bourgeois virtue. He was the shrill, restless son of Franklin Roosevelt’s proverbial “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” and in this capacity helped America reassess the merits of laissez-faire capitalism and recalibrate government’s responsibility to citizens young and old.