Why The New Deal Matters

Rural Electrificatio

Rural Electrification
Members of the REA cooperative in Hayti, Missouri at an annual meeting. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The New Deal’s legacy is everywhere, in ways both grand and modest. If you want to see the New Deal you don’t really need to know where to look: you just need to know what you’re looking at.

Our public spaces were, and still are, shaped by the New Deal. Almost anywhere in the United States you are probably near a post office, library, school, park, museum, bridge or sidewalk built or improved by the New Deal. So, it’s not surprising that the New Deal of infrastructure is probably the New Deal that first comes to mind.

But when I say that New Deal is everywhere, I really mean everywhere, especially in economic activity.

If you have a bank account, your deposits are insured by the New Deal’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, operating since 1933.

If you’ve used money to buy stocks, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Securities and Exchange Commission, established in 1934 to enforce trading transparency laws.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West
Built by the PWA, the 100-mile-long highway stretches over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy, State Library and Archives of Florida.

If you’ve bought a house, you’ve certainly made use of, at least indirectly, the Federal National Mortgage Association better known as Fannie Mae, created in 1938 to enable a national mortgage market.

But you don’t have to be carrying on high finance to feel the economic impact of the New Deal in your daily life.

If you’ve joined a union, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the right to organize and bargain collectively.

If you’ve earned minimum wage, thank the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also barred child labor.

If you or someone in your family has drawn a federal old-age pension, disability benefits, or unemployment insurance, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Social Security Act of 1935.

But even that summary underestimates the economic ubiquity of the New Deal:

The dollar we use today is a creation of the Roosevelt Administration’s first days in office, when the president took the dollar off the gold standard and secured from Congress the authority to change the value of the dollar to ensure the smooth functioning of the economy. If you’ve ever been paid, saved, spent or even handled a dollar, you’ve come into contact with the New Deal.

The New Deal shaped the land. Policies we still have today to control production and sustain use of the soil began with the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the 1930s.

New Deal agencies, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, built dams to generate power for impoverished rural regions, transforming the kinds of industry that could take place there.

Developing National Parks

Developing National Parks
CCC crews leave for job sites in Grand Canyon National Park, 1934. Courtesy, Grand Canyon NP Museum Collection.

The original New Deal was—in its way and for its day—green. It introduced the idea of ecological thinking to large-scale policy. When we think about a Green New Deal, we should remember the innumerable trees, parks, trails and firebreaks installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The New Deal also brought an end to the 19th-century policies of homesteading and allotment, which broke up federal and Native lands and parceled them out to individual owners. It restored control of Native lands to Native nations, which renewed recognition of their sovereignty.

Road-building programs—by far the largest part of the Works Progress Administration—knitted disparate parts of the nation together, making remote locales accessible for travel and commerce, thus making the postwar economic boom possible.

The Air Traffic Control system is a result of the New Deal, as is the Federal Communications Commission.

  Workers at the Social Security Administration 

Workers at the Social Security Administration 
The SSA used IBM tabulators to keep track of enrollees in the system. Courtesy, Wikimedia.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and, indeed, the United Nations itself are institutions that carried New Deal programs and ideals into the postwar world.

To say the New Deal matters is to realize that it gave shape to our world and that we reckon with it every day. But its ubiquity is only one reason the New Deal still matters.

We remember the Great Depression as an economic crisis. But we should also remember that to Roosevelt and many who voted for him the Depression caused a crisis of democracy.

Americans went hungry as unemployment skyrocketed. Millions of Americans became refugees in their own country.

At least so far as FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover was concerned, government could do little, or at any rate, would do little, to help. When Americans protested this inaction, the government proved it could rouse itself quite swiftly to send out the army to teargas protesters and run them off.  Within the United States and around the world, many wondered if democracy had reached its end.

Roosevelt was, more than most people, sensible of this threat. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, just after FDR won election to the presidency. A friend told FDR if he succeeded he would be remembered as one of the greatest American presidents, and if he failed, he would be remembered as one of the worst. Roosevelt responded, “if I fail, I may well be the last.”

The New Deal was, and remains, imperfect. But it held out the promise and demonstrated the possibility of an improved democracy for Americans, which is why, even to those mindful of the New Deal’s shortcomings, the New Deal still matters very much today.

Frances Perkins: The Woman behind the New Deal

Frances Perkins, The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.

Frances Perkins
The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Frances Perkins Center

In 1963, at the age of 83, Frances Perkins gave a series of lectures at UCLA entitled, “Labor Under the New Deal and the New Frontier.” She told her audience that for years after her tenure as FDR’s Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, people would frequently ask her, “What was the New Deal anyway?”

“It was an attitude,” she would answer, “an attitude toward government, toward the people, toward labor . . . an attitude that found voice in expressions like, ‘the people are what matter to government,’ and ‘a government should aim to give all of the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.’”

The first woman to serve in a U.S. presidential cabinet, Perkins spent 33 years of her long work life in government service–twelve of those years as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

Born Fannie Coralie Perkins in Boston in 1880, she spent her childhood between her family’s home in Worcester and the Perkins farm in Newcastle, Maine. Her grandmother, Cynthia Otis Perkins, a source of Yankee wisdom as well as family stories of life before and after the Revolution, encouraged her not to shy away from opportunity. “If a door opens, walk through it,” she said.

Frances Perkins, Factory inspector, 1911

Frances Perkins
Factory inspector, 1911

Thus, Fannie came of age with a deep respect for the American dream and the belief that everyone, with opportunity, could be whatever he or she wanted to be.

That idealism was reinforced at Mount Holyoke College where, during a course in the history of industrialism, she visited factories in neighboring Holyoke, Massachusetts, and observed first-hand the drudgery and dangers endured by working men, women, and children. She knew she had to do something about what she saw as “unnecessary hazards of life, unnecessary poverty.” Upon graduation she taught at an elite school for girls in Lake Forest, Illinois, and spent her free time volunteering at Chicago Commons and Hull House, two pre-eminent settlement houses. She changed her name to Frances and her religious affiliation to the Episcopal Church, where she was a devout congregant for the rest of her life.

Upon receiving her Master’s from Columbia University in 1910, she accepted a position with the New York City Consumer League where she gained a reputation as an effective lobbyist on behalf of working people and workplace safety.

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

U.S. Labor Secretary Frances Perkins
Time Magazine Cover, August 14, 1933

On March 25, 1911, Perkins witnessed the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where 146 garment workers—mostly young women—lost their lives. It was, she later said, the day the New Deal was born.

In the wake of the fire, she was appointed to head New York’s Committee on Safety and principal investigator of a legislative commission that resulted in the most comprehensive state laws on workplace health and safety to date. Governor Al Smith appointed her to the state’s Industrial Commission in 1919 and later named her its chair.

Perkins joined FDR’s cabinet when he served as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. Before appointing her, the two spent a day at the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. As FDR drove them around the property, she told him that if she accepted the position she would promote a progressive policy agenda that would limit the hours women worked, restrict child labor, develop a better workman’s compensation system, and broaden the state’s labor laws to more industries. He agreed and promised to help her. She soon became the most prominent state labor official in the nation, responding to the deepening economic depression and, at the same time, advancing her boss’s visibility.

Perkins arrives at the White House for a Cabinet meeting in September 1938

Perkins arrives at the White House
Cabinet meeting in September 1938

With his election as president in 1932, FDR was under pressure to appoint a woman to the cabinet. It was no surprise that he chose his trusted advisor as Labor Secretary. In a conversation reminiscent of that day in Hyde Park, Perkins wanted to be sure the new president would share her goals. She pledged to work for a forty-hour work week, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment compensation, a prohibition on child labor, expanded public works projects, Social Security, and health insurance for all—a list she called “practical possibilities.”

By the end of her long tenure as Secretary, she had accomplished every item on that list except the last.

Collier’s Magazine in 1945, described her accomplishments as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal as… the Perkins New Deal.”

Shaking hands with steelworkers

Shaking hands with steelworkers
Homestead, PA, 1933

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act

Perkins stands behind FDR as he signs the Social Security Act
August 14, 1935