On Labor Day, 7.5 million Americans lost their federal unemployment benefits, and another 3 million unemployed lost the $300 bonus that had been in place since March. That’s a lot of people with no immediate way to support themselves and their families, and it got me to wondering: What would Franklin Roosevelt — who put America to work during the Great Depression — make of the way Washington has responded to this economic crisis?
I began thinking about FDR last month, when my wife, Laurel, and I visited Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, where he and Eleanor spent many summers and where, at age 39, Franklin fell ill and lost use of his legs. I had recently finished reading an excellent history of the Works Progress Administration, "American-Made," by Nick Taylor. And a trip to Campobello offered the chance to see the home that Roosevelt visited in June 1933, just days after the close of the Hundred Days that "start[ed] the wheels of the New Deal," as he said that summer.
To get there, we drove our motorhome across the FDR Bridge that connects Campobello to America’s easternmost town, Lubec, Maine. The border had recently re-opened, and there was no line at the customs check.
"Have you been busy?" I asked the Canadian border agent.
"Busy turning people away," he replied.
In addition to proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test within 72 hours, Canada requires visitors to enter their information into an app. The agent told us most Americans lacked some of the necessary documentation, and Laurel sensed he was surprised that travelers in a Winnebago with New York license plates had all of theirs.
Just a few miles past the checkpoint is the old Roosevelt home, now part of a 2,800-acre international park jointly operated by the U.S. and Canada. At the visitor center, the receptionist told us that the afternoon tour of the grounds had been canceled because of a heat warning. It was 77 degrees. Oh, Canada.
The Roosevelt Cottage, as it’s called — it has three floors and 18 bedrooms — was open. Its large front porch facing west across Friar’s Bay offers spectacular views of the sun setting on America. Inside, a guide informed us that Eleanor’s decorating style — which might charitably be called motley — reflected her view that since there are all different kinds of people, the décor should be equally varied. The furnishings included an oil painting of a Confederate battleship that FDR hung in the White House, an inadvertent but inescapable reminder of the accommodation on Jim Crow that marred the New Deal — and, in Roosevelt’s defense, made it possible.
The New Deal’s attack on the Great Depression had four main components: temporary direct relief for the impoverished, in the form of cash grants administered by the states; a stronger social safety net, through new programs such as Social Security; an expanded regulatory state, with new policies and agencies aimed at stabilizing and strengthening the economy; and — most important of all, according to FDR — jobs for the legions of unemployed. As he said in his inaugural address: "Our greatest primary task is to put people to work."
Just four weeks after that speech, Congress adopted FDR’s plan for a program to employ unmarried men aged 18 to 25 to live in camps while working to plant trees, build reservoirs, strengthen flood-control systems, stop soil erosion and improve campgrounds. They were paid $30 a month but received only $5; the rest was sent home to their families. When 3,000 veterans of World War I showed up at the White House demanding early payment of a bonus due to them in 1945, Roosevelt turned them down — but offered them jobs in this new Civilian Conservation Corps. Some 2,600 accepted.
By August 1933, 300,000 young men and veterans were working for the CCC. By winter, more than 4 million more were repairing streets, building dams and constructing schools, playgrounds, pools, post offices and other public facilities. New Deal programs would also employ teachers to conduct literacy and vocational classes for the unemployed, artists to paint murals, actors to stage plays, writers to document the nation’s culture and folklore, and musicians to write songs. Woody Guthrie wrote "Grand Coulee Dam" while on the federal payroll to promote it:
"Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year ’33 / For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me."
Since even before President Joe Biden took office, Democrats have been likening him to FDR: a president with a chance to use an economic crisis to redefine the limits of government and transform the country. Nine months into his presidency, that’s still a popular line of thinking on the left, even though Biden’s most significant domestic policy accomplishments concern only the first of the New Deal’s four parts: direct relief, in the form of the additional unemployment benefits that began under President Donald Trump, a second stimulus check to most Americans, a 30% increase in average monthly food stamp payments, and a temporary expanded tax credit for families with children.
The Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending bill (which probably will be scaled back, given internal party opposition) and a variety of White House initiatives take aim at two of the other New Deal components: strengthening the social safety net and expanding government’s role in the economy. The spending bill includes funding for child care, pre-K, family leave, health care, affordable housing, long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities, and a host of other things, including clean energy and climate change.
These are worthy initiatives in the spirit of the New Deal. But what about FDR’s top priority, jobs for the unemployed?
The $550 billion in new infrastructure funding passed by the Senate will create construction jobs, provided it clears the House. But these jobs will largely be for career professionals (and union members), not the general population of unemployed Americans. And for the most part, the jobs will not materialize until 2024 and 2025. Over those two years, the bill is expected to create about 2.5 million jobs, a far cry from New Deal numbers, when the country’s population was two-thirds smaller.
Today, about 8 million people are out of work, and millions more are working only part-time. Unemployment has fallen from last year’s highs, but the nation’s two largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, both have rates above 10%. Chicago and Philadelphia are at or higher than 8%. The unemployment rate for Black Americans is 8.8%, well above the pre-pandemic low of 5.2%.
Since the start of the pandemic, Congress has authorized more than $5 trillion in emergency spending, much of it on relief. Some of this went toward keeping existing workers employed in small businesses and state and local governments. But not a nickel went to hiring the unemployed into temporary job programs created to help the nation tackle pressing challenges.
It’s true that Biden’s proposal for Civilian Climate Corps — an echo of Roosevelt’s CCC — is included in the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan, and it may yet pass. Even so, it would create only about 10,000 jobs, a tiny fraction of the army Roosevelt put to work.
The fact is, though we don’t often think of it this way, Democrats and Republicans have come to share a core economic conviction: In a crisis, government’s role in addressing unemployment is to offer relief, not work.
This reflects a general left-right consensus among the nation’s leading economists on how government should respond to market downturns. Maximizing the speed of the recovery, they argue, calls for cash payments and tax cuts. Makeshift jobs may only slow the pace of private investment and hiring. Had today’s bipartisan adherence to macroeconomic efficiency carried the day in the 1930s, FDR might have scrapped public employment in favor of broader and more generous direct relief — and the country would be poorer for it.
This common economic denominator is noteworthy, because for all the talk on the right about the Democratic Party’s radicalism, it remains far more conservative on economic policy than it was in FDR’s day. The Democratic Leadership Council that helped elevate Bill Clinton’s brand of centrism may be defunct, but its faith in the private sector to create jobs during a period of high unemployment still holds more sway over the party than Roosevelt’s belief in the need for direct temporary employment measures.
Yet today’s progressives stand to the left of Roosevelt in a crucial way: their willingness to provide cash relief without expecting — or empowering — anyone to work.
In his first month in office, FDR made plain his preference — and the public’s preference — for work over relief:
The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work. We can take a vast army of these unemployed out into healthful surroundings. We can eliminate to some extent at least the threat that enforced idleness brings to spiritual and moral stability.
He returned to this theme in his annual address to Congress in 1935:
" … continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief."
Today we do not hear Democratic Party leaders speaking of idleness posing a threat to society, or the power of relief to destroy the human spirit, or "the joy and moral stimulation of work," as Roosevelt put it in his first inaugural address — even though labor market participation rates have steadily declined over the past 20 years, and are now at levels last seen in the 1970s, when many women remained out of the workforce.
I suspect FDR would be surprised to learn that we have forgotten something he viewed as fundamental to the New Deal, as it is with any deal: an understanding that each side had obligations to uphold. Government had an obligation to provide relief, and able-bodied citizens had an obligation to labor for their checks.
During the pandemic, the compact between citizen and government has been mostly one-sided: Government provides. The $1.9 billion American Rescue Plan that Congress passed in March gave $611 billion in direct financial relief to Americans, in the form of $1,400 checks and $300 unemployment bonuses. The title of the bill — a "rescue plan" — reflects the Democratic Party’s heroic mindset: Save the helpless. But the voters Democrats are trying to pry from the Republican Party don’t want Washington to ride to their rescue. They want to be able to save themselves and their families through the work of their own hands — just as those who took New Deal jobs did.
The difference between a deal and a rescue is worth contemplating, given its broader political ramifications. Democratic leaders and activists are continually frustrated that so many working people vote Republican, and they usually lay the blame on cultural flashpoints, from abortion to immigration. Those certainly play a large role. But as I heard while traveling across the country over the past year, many people are concerned about what they perceive as the country’s declining work ethic, and they often lay the blame for that on a Democratic Party that they view as more concerned with providing benefits than promoting work.
This is not a new problem for the party. FDR battled Republicans who attacked the New Deal as nothing but "shovel-leaning" jobs that fostered dependence on government. But FDR countered their attack with results: The American people could see the fruits of the New Deal labor in their own communities, and workers took pride in knowing they had earned their paychecks. Both of these outcomes helped Democrats keep the White House for 35 years, interrupted only by the centrist war hero Democrats had hoped would run under their own banner, Dwight Eisenhower.
Today, Democrats employ neither FDR’s rhetoric around work nor his interventionist strategies. But had Biden and congressional leaders opted to offer Americans a deal rather than a rescue, they could have directed much or all of the $611 billion in stimulus checks and unemployment bonuses to creating temporary jobs benefiting the nation in a variety of ways: fighting wildfires in the West; helping communities recover from Hurricane Ida; running summer school sessions for the millions of students most harmed by remote learning; paying artists to enrich communities with public art; and tackling the $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects in our national parks, which have seen record attendance this year. Spending the money on jobs rather than relief also would have helped private employers fill positions, as more workers returned to the labor market.
It’s now common to think that a second New Deal is unrealistic because unemployed Americans are too out of shape or unskilled to do manual labor, a notion that is self-defeating. An American president could, as FDR did, use mass media to inspire participation in jobs programs.
What holds the U.S. back from adopting a large, temporary public employment program has less to do with the skills and fitness of Americans than with changed attitudes — as well as with the red tape that now routinely delays projects by months and years. The expansion of the regulatory state that accelerated under the New Deal has never stopped, and it has helped undermine any serious reconsideration of the New Deal’s focus on temporary work.
That strikes me as an opportunity for Democrats, since it’s at least conceivable that some Republicans might support a temporary jobs program that also streamlined federal regulations, especially if legislators were given input into the kinds of jobs that would be funded.
We can only guess what FDR might have thought of the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But from the Roosevelt Cottage on Campobello Island, Laurel and I could see Eastport, Maine, where there is a model of the Passamaquoddy Tidal Power Project, an idea hatched in the 1920s to generate hydroelectric power from the region’s powerful tides. As a neighbor, Roosevelt eagerly threw his support behind it, and as president, he directed $7 million to it. Thousands of workers arrived to begin constructing it, only to have Southern opposition defeat it before completion.
The project was ahead of its time, three generations before clean energy would become a national priority. Yet the historical model stands as a reminder of all the new needs facing the country, and the power that can be generated in a crisis by putting people to work.
Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, "Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads."