Depression and New Deal

Anthony Badger, in The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940, examines specific aspects of New Deal activity, including industry, organized labor, agriculture, welfare, and politics. He argues that the New Deal did not represent a sharp break with the past and instead functioned merely as a ‘holding operation’ for American society. Badger posits that more dramatic changes came for ordinary Americans with World War II, not the New Deal.

One of the strengths of Badger’s writing style is his clarity in organizing each chapter. Chapters are broken down into sub-sections, and Badger uses the final sub-section to really push his argument and demonstrate how more radical change came with World War II. Within the finance and industry sectors, Roosevelt closed the banks to stabilize the markets, and Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (1935), which was declared unconstitutional 1935. The NRA was meant to eliminate unfair competitive practices in industries, establish wage and hours standards, and guarantee collective bargaining rights for workers, but as it was primarily dominated by the businessmen it was supposed to regulate, the NRA failed to yield any significant economic benefits. World War II, not the New Deal, demonstrated the potential of deficit spending for stimulating economic growth. Taxation and anti-trust policies did not redistribute wealth or income, and did not bring about any changes to the infrastructure of American industry. There was an increase in labor unrest, particularly in 1934, when workers protested wage cuts, unemployment, and dangerous working conditions. The Wagner Act, passed in 1935, established the National Labor Relations Board in an effort to address workers’ concerns. Badger finds that the labor movement emerged from the New Deal and reached its pinnacle of strength during World War II. The federal government tested out many options for agricultural relief and reform, including planned scarcity, modernizing rural America, and eliminating rural poverty. New Deal agricultural policies were not particularly effective, as benefits went to states that had lost farm income dramatically after the crash, not to states that were permanently poor, and the farmers themselves were resistant to change. In terms of welfare, Congress created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civil Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, and the Social Security Act. As Linda Gordon so aptly demonstrates in Pitied But Not Entitled, these programs preferred to hire white male workers, and did not hire as many women or people of color. Similar to the agricultural policies, much of the relief money was given to the states to distribute as they saw fit. The Depression, and the federal response to it, precipitated a realignment of political parties. Roosevelt appealed to voters in urban locales, low-income voters, recent immigrants, city machine politicians, blue-collar workers, African Americans, and women. Additionally, Roosevelt attempted to wrest some control away from Congress by increasing the number of Supreme Court justices. Ultimately, Badger is effective at breaking down the process of creating and administering policy at the federal and local levels, and clearly demonstrates  the constraints and challenges inherent in expanding governmental power.

Linda Gordon examines the transformation of the meaning of welfare between 1890 and 1935 in Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935. Gordon argues that single motherhood is not a recent invention conceptually, and that poverty has typically been feminized. Single motherhood has been the central concern of those involved in creating welfare since the 1880s, and historically aid to single mothers has been a means through which they are kept from becoming “too comfortable” on their own.

The term “single mother” was applied to widows, married women with absent husbands, and unmarried single mothers. Within the first two decades of the twentieth century, reformers characterized single motherhood has a major social problem. During the time frame of Gordon’s study, the focus of mothers’ aid campaigns shifted from the mother to the child. A network of educated, New England or Mid-Atlantic-based, white women campaigned for welfare for single mothers. Many of these women rejected marriage in favor of community, but they believed that single mothers receiving welfare should adhere to traditional gender roles. The Children’s Bureau was established in 1912, and the Women’s Bureau was established in 1918. The Children’s Bureau, not the Women’s Bureau, became the main enclave of the welfare reform community. Black women  welfare reformers established schools, nurseries, care facilities for the elderly, medical clinics, and community centers. In the 1890s, black women’s welfare activity took three primary forms: mutual benefit societies, church groups, and women’s clubs, all of which were aimed at uplifting members of their community. Unlike the white reformers, black reformers did not consider reform careers as an alternative to marriage, and they understood that it was sometimes necessary for women to work outside the home. Married men, on the other hand, formed the backbone of reformers who worked towards social insurance, which was not directed exclusively toward the poor but toward wage-earners. Social insurance proponents wanted to create a well-regulated economy and advocated for a compensation plan that would give employers financial motives to improve safety conditions in their plants. The Great Depression affected single mothers and mothers’ aid programs negatively. Gender and family norms structured what little relief women did get–for example, relief checks were written out to the heads of households, but that money might not filter down to mothers or their children. New Deal policies gave more jobs to men than to women and people of color, and the work women and people of color did get were, usually, stereotyped, tedious, and low-wage jobs. Gordon outlines the various movements that were active during the New Deal in advocating for welfare, including labor, unemployed councils, professional social work organizations, “welfare populisms,” the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and informal political voices. Roosevelt and Congress created Aid for Dependent Children (ADC) as part of the Social Security Act, but the Children’s Bureau unwillingly had no control over its implementation. The Social Security Act helped to create and solidify superior (deserving) and inferior (undeserving) “tracks” within the welfare system. Additionally, the New Deal welfare system also created two arenas of social citizenship: federal and local. White men were usually covered by federal citizenship, while women and people of color were covered by local citizenship.

Discussion questions

  1. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Badger’s and Gordon’s approaches to studying the Great Depression and the New Deal?
  2. How does Gordon incorporate gender and race into her argument?

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