Forgetting Decency

A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Flop House
A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Today’s San Francisco, even more so than other successful cities, is a study of jarring contrasts as sleek skyscrapers rise from streets on which ever-increasing legions of the desperate, destitute, and demented sleep, beg, and offend the sensibilities of tourists and residents alike. Poverty—with all its pathologies—has reached crisis proportions in tandem with pathological wealth.

President Roosevelt’s administration dealt with many of these same problems. By contrast, Washington today is ignoring or actively worsening the social ills that the New Deal tackled head on.

Based on what he witnessed in San Francisco, the 19th Century political economist Henry George explained in his bestseller Progress and Poverty how concentrated wealth produces widespread poverty.

Homeless: I used to be your neighbor

Homeless in San Francisco
Homeless: I used to be your neighbor  Source

Such social inequality is the subject of much of the art produced during the New Deal. The Federal Theatre Project’s widely seen play, One-Third of a Nation, was based on Roosevelt’s 1936 inaugural declaration in which he said he saw “one third of a nation ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed”— and promised to use the federal government to do what the market could not do to alleviate that disgrace.

It is telling that the opulent San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a site in a neighborhood once known for flophouses—the cheap housing that urban redevelopment cleared away to accommodate the city’s expanding financial and retail districts. Flophouses gave seasonal workers and those too old to work marginal shelter, but even as that housing was being eliminated by redevelopment, so were their jobs by automation, off-shoring, and market downturns.

Nowhere are the multiple dysfunctions associated with poverty more evident than at downtown San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. A front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle—“Complaints skyrocket over syringes on streets in S.F.”—accompanied a photo of a city worker collecting used needles in a long-neglected fountain commemorating the founding of the United Nations in 1945 just three blocks away.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Homeless Man Sleeps on a Bench
FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laboriously shepherded through the UN by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 in hopes of ending future wars reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It codified much of what Franklin Roosevelt had succinctly enunciated as a Second Bill of Rights in his fourth inaugural address, including “The right to a useful and remunerative job” and “The right of every family to a decent home.

Labor Secretary Francis Perkins recalled that “”Decent’ was the word (Roosevelt) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

That we have opted for indecency as a way of life is evermore evident on our streets and battlegrounds as they become one and the same.

From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age:
The New Deal in Context

FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932

FDR and farmers
FDR stumping along the Jersey shore, 1932
Photo Credit: Farm Security Administration

The New Deal, arguably one of the forgotten eras of U.S. history, grew out of earlier, also largely erased reform efforts. The Grange Movement’s roots are in the mid-19th century when, after the Civil War, Midwestern farmers organized to oppose the monopolistic railroads and grain elevator companies that charged exorbitant rates to move their crops to market. At its peak, the Grange Movement had over 850,000 members in several states.

By the late 1800s the Farmers’ Alliance, another populist movement, fought back the robber barons. It grew to three million members, spreading the gospel of farmers’ co-ops, conservation, and mutual aid through a network of some 40,000 lecturers and organizers. The movement eventually led to the Populist Party, which garnered well over a million votes in the national election in 1892. Its platform included nationalizing the telegraph, telephone, and railroads, a graduated income tax, and “postal savings banks,” a solution often cited for today’s struggling postal service.

As the Farmers Alliance waned at the end of the century, muckrakers exposed Gilded Age injustice and corruption. Teddy Roosevelt won the presidency as a “trustbuster.” His successor, Woodrow Wilson, oversaw passage of the progressive income tax.

Following World War I, Wall Street went off the speculative deep end, bringing on the Great Depression. FDR’s New Deal revived many ideas of the early Progressives, including those of FDR’s cousin, Teddy.

Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Oligarchy
Political cartoon from the Gilded Age showing business controlling the government.

Labor’s gains in the 1930s came out of FDR’s push for legislation requiring collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act in 1935 gave workers the right to organize, providing a counterbalance to corporate power. Empowered, unions pressed for the progressive reforms that raised the standard of living for the middle class and provided some economic security to the elderly, disabled, and poor.  Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Grange members, and supported creation of a cooperative farm loan association to limit foreclosures. FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944 posited that all humans have inherent economic rights.

The country’s turn to the Right in the 1980s and neoliberal austerity ever since gave tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the needy. Free market economics unleashed deregulation and moved to privatize the public sector. Union membership has fallen precipitously—thanks in part to so-called “right-to-work-laws.”

Graduation Day protest

Student Debt
Graduation Day protest
Photo Credit: Nation of Change

There are signs of resistance. The American Postal Workers Union has formed Grand Alliance Save our Public Postal Service. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local activists, and city governments have sued the U.S. Postal Service over the sale of historic post offices to private developers. And millions of young people saddled with student debt are beginning to demand relief.

As history has shown, these are how reform movements start, and how Americans can come together again to address the biggest wealth gap since the Gilded Age.