Congress’s year-end slashing of food stamps and refusal to extend unemployment benefits for the 1.3 million people whose benefits were about to expire are just some of the latest examples of the heartless approach to poverty and unemployment that characterizes contemporary policy making. Not only have millions of the long-term unemployed started the New Year with no safety net, but many of those with full-time jobs earn less than the poverty level for a family of four (18 million people in 2012 or 17.5 percent of all full-time, year-round workers).
It was not always like this. There was a time in our history when the poor and unemployed experienced a more compassionate government. During the Great Depression the federal government not only provided safety nets in the form of relief, food aid, public housing, mortgage assistance, unemployment insurance, and farm aid, but more significantly, it undertook a series of job-creation programs that gave back to millions of unemployed workers and their families precisely what the Depression had taken from them—the opportunity to support themselves with dignity.
The jobs provided by the New Deal made it possible for them to put their broken lives back together again while they waited for the private economy to recover. Moreover, these jobs contributed invaluably to the building of the nation’s infrastructure, to the conservation and preservation of its natural resources, to its national culture and to the soul of its people.
So how is it that the 1930s approach to poverty and unemployment was such a far cry from the cruel indifference we see today? There are a number of reasons, among them the fact that when Roosevelt took office, conditions were far more desperate for a far larger segment of the population than they were when the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008. This was, ironically, thanks in part to the very reforms like unemployment and food stamps that the New Deal had established.
More importantly, however, the New Deal’s approach to economic distress was shaped by the kind of people Roosevelt appointed to deal with the crisis. These weren’t economic technocrats with Wall Street ties, like those appointed by contemporary presidents, but people who had come of age in the progressive era and who’d been imbued with the values of the Social Gospel. Many had direct experience working with the poor and unemployed in the urban settlement houses of the time.
Social Gospelers emphasized the ethical teachings of Jesus and sought the Kingdom of God through the transformation of the socioeconomic structures of society. Intensely critical of capitalism, they sought a more egalitarian and democratic society, some espousing one or another variant of socialism. By 1908 the Social Gospel movement had succeeded in penetrating the institutional structures of the churches with a “Social Creed” that was adopted by the mainline denominations.
Anticipating by three or four decades many of the reforms enacted in New Deal legislation, the Social Creed called for the alleviation of Sunday working hours, the abolition of child labor, a living wage, the negotiation and arbitration of labor disputes, social security for workers in old age, disability insurance, poverty reduction, and a fairer distribution of wealth. According to Gary Dorrien in Social Ethics in the Making (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), the Social Gospel movement, though often “sentimental, moralistic, idealistic and politically naïve,” nevertheless “produced a greater progressive religious legacy than any generation before or after it,” paving the way for everything else in social ethics.
Faced with mass unemployment, social workers-turned-government administrators like Harry Hopkins, head of Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and his assistant, Aubrey Williams, held the view that unemployment was caused by a lack of jobs, not by the failure of the unemployed to seek or accept work, which was the view (supported by the teaching of classical and neo-classical economists) on which the nation’s existing poor law system was based.
The belief that joblessness is the fault of the jobless has returned today in the assumption, shared by most Republicans, that the unemployed can be prodded into getting a job by the withdrawal of the “crutch” that extended unemployment insurance supposedly provides. Many liberal Democrats share a less pejorative variant of this belief, of course, attributing joblessness to a “skills mismatch,” lack of education and training, or the excessive demands of unions, all of which place the onus for unemployment on the victims instead of an economic system that fails to deliver enough jobs—in good times and bad.
Religious bodies follow suit. Instead of organizing their constituencies to reverse this assault on the poor and unemployed, they dole out charity. However well motivated, providing soup kitchens and homeless shelters can never meet all of the need; but more importantly, it doesn’t do anything to confront the psychological and moral devastation faced by those without the prospect of meaningful, self-supporting work.
Putting America to Work
The underlying logic of the New Deal was that society had an obligation to offer aid to persons denied the opportunity to be self-supporting. Hopkins, in particular, favored jobs programs over relief or “welfare,” although relief was to be available to those who couldn’t work. For New Dealers, the goal was to close the economy’s job gap, not to correct the supposed moral failings of jobless individuals or to put pressure on them to seek and accept work when there wasn’t any.
The most obvious strategy was to use public funds to create jobs, which the New Dealers did in two ways. The first was to increase federal funding for public works contracted with private companies. Over its seven-year life, the Public Works Administration (PWA) awarded contracts to build more than 70% of the nation’s new educational buildings, 65% of its courthouses, city halls, and sewage-disposal plants; 35% of its new public-health facilities; 10% of all of new roads, bridges, tunnels and subways, in addition to large dams, airports and recreational facilities. The first effort to provide affordable housing for the working poor was undertaken by the PWA.
The second approach was to establish public employment programs for needy workers in which the government itself acted as the employer. The creation of these new jobs then stimulated job creation in the private sector by increasing both consumer purchasing power and capital goods orders.
While conservatives frequently accused these programs of being useless “make-work,” a waste of taxpayers’ money, the reality is just the opposite. Useful work which would not otherwise have been done literally changed the face of the country and provided a lasting legacy. Workers built and repaired 1 million miles of roads and 200,000 public facilities—including schools, playgrounds, courthouses, parks and athletic fields, swimming pools, dams, bridges, and airports—drained malarial swamps, eradicated malaria, and exterminated rats in slums. They planted over 3 billion trees, essentially reforesting a country whose original forest cover had been decimated, taught farmers how to conserve soil after nearly one-sixth of the nation’s topsoil had blown away in the Dust Bowl, reseeded a large part of the Great Plains, restored wildlife and built a system of over 800 state and county parks.
They electrified an entire region of the country, bringing what had been America’s “Third World” up to 20th century standards. They created works of art, gave concerts, set up theaters throughout the country, ran nursery schools, served over 1.2 billion school lunches to needy children, gave immunizations, taught illiterate adults to read and write, conducted surveys of economic, social and geophysical conditions, collected forgotten pieces of the nation’s heritage like the slave narratives, and wrote state guidebooks—classics that are still in use, providing invaluable material for historians and writers. They sewed 383 million coats, overalls, dresses and other garments, and, using surplus cotton, made more than a million mattresses that were given to destitute families, as were the garments.
These work programs weren’t perfect. Enacted on an ad hoc basis they were temporary emergency measures—and the number of people they could employ was limited by political opposition and the fear of government deficits. Moreover, the racial and gender discrimination of the time, enforced by Southern Democratic control of key committee chairmanships, limited their capacity to reach everyone who needed work.
Nevertheless, beyond the material benefits to the nation, these programs brought hope, a sense of purpose and dignity, and a feeling of national unity and pride to millions of people who had been beaten down and deeply stressed. They were a manifestation, however limited, of the “Kingdom of God” the Social Gospelers had preached about, and they showed a nation steeped in an ideology of individualism that government could alleviate problems beyond the scope of the private sector.
Near the end of World War II, President Roosevelt, fresh from the experience of the Great Depression and having seen how economic desperation had led to fascism in Germany, called for an Economic Bill of Rights that began with the guarantee of what he subsequently referred to as the “paramount right”—the right to living-wage work that would “earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”
In addition, he called for the right to decent housing, adequate medical care, good education, adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, and freedom from unfair competition and monopoly power. Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s untimely death, the military industrial complex that emerged from the war, and the failure of organized liberals to place job creation at the top of the agenda doomed this proposal to failure.
The Rise of Timid Religion
By the end of the war, those who’d been inspired by the Social Gospel—those who’d seen poverty and unemployment up close—were no longer in charge of the government. In the liberal churches and seminaries the Social Gospel gave way to Christian realism and neo-orthodoxy with some liberals during the Cold War even turning to neoconservatism. With a private economy booming as a result of the new markets opened up by the Marshall Plan and deferred domestic demand, the specter of mass unemployment no longer loomed, though unemployment would continue to be a chronic problem.
Even in the boom years of the 1960s there were twice as many job-seekers as there were jobs. And despite the 1963 March on Washington which had called for “jobs and freedom” and Dr. King’s call for a “Poor Peoples’ Campaign,” with his death the moral traction for economic justice was aborted.
But did that moral traction have to die with King? Why, at this pivotal moment was there no prophetic religious movement to carry his banner forward? There may be several answers. Certainly, the assassinations, the political trials and the ongoing Vietnam War had a traumatizing effect on the nation. In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador, 2008) Naomi Klein wrote that when traumatizing events like these happen, capital rushes in to take advantage of the crisis to restructure the economy in favor of the radical free market. It was this period—the end of the 1960s and early 1970s—when the business community embarked on a war of ideas to take back the country from the “radicals” who had been undermining faith in the free market.
One of their targets for conversion was the country’s religious leadership. Using both the carrot (invitations to all-expenses paid weekend retreats where the values of laissez-faire were extolled) and the stick (the establishment of religious fronts like the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD) among others that targeted liberals and progressives in the mainline denominations), they succeeded in both enabling the rise of a militantly political religious right and in weakening if not destroying whatever was left of the Social Gospel in the mainline denominations and their ecumenical bodies.
The liberal churches were ill-equipped to counter this assault on their values. Some time during the post-war dominance of the New Deal coalition they had given up the prophetic edge to a politics that sought accommodation within a liberal status quo. They would lobby the government on issues of “fairness,” seeking more funds for poverty alleviation or affordable housing, or, as they are doing today, for an extension of unemployment insurance or a raise in the minimum wage, but they dare not question the underlying structures that create poverty or homelessness or long-term unemployment. The more they were targeted by the Right for even these liberal aspirations, the more timid and uninspiring they became. In the liberal pews there is rarely a naming of the “principalities and powers” that now dominate our landscape. Is it any wonder that according to a recent Pew Research poll, millenials today have fewer attachments to traditional political or religious institutions than any other generation in the last quarter century?
With no movement like the Social Gospel to develop the ideas that could carry us into a new millennium and inspire young people with the idealism that the people, working through their government, could create a more humane social order, the stage was set for the triumph of the business counterrevolution with its ruthless privatizations, its wholesale destruction of democracy and the environment, and a return to the days of the Poor Law.
In the progressive era the banner for economic justice had been carried by the Social Gospel movement with its belief in the redemption of the sociopolitical order, a message inspiring enough to set the stage for some of the most significant reforms this nation has ever seen. We could use more of that alleged political naiveté today.