Tuesday, June 30, 2015

WPA Ski Jumps

(A WPA-built ski jump in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Across the nation, WPA workers built 65 ski jumps, and reconstructed or improved 15 others. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network).

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A new WPA and a new CCC would help reduce the rate of Native American suicide

(A Navajo Indian learns how to use heavy equipment on a CCC project. Photo from the Office of Indian Affairs publication, "Indians at Work," December 1941 edition.)

The suicide rate for Native American youth is much higher than the national average. The unemployment and poverty rates for Native Americans are also much higher than the national averages. Unemployment and poverty are risk factors for suicide (see, e.g., here and here).

With respect to Native American youth suicide, it was recently reported that "In an area where the poverty rate is more than 50 percent and unemployment is above 70 percent...'children carry the outlook that things may not get better for them.'" In response to the suicide epidemic, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said, "We will not turn away from this issue until it is resolved"... which, of course, is a clear sign that Congress will turn away from this issue before it is resolved. U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said, "We’ve got to find a solution, we've got to find best practices, and then we have to fund those best practices." ("Native leaders tell senators how to help stop youth suicide," Huffington Post, June 25, 2015)

But we already know what the solution and the best practices are, there's no need to search for them: We need several public job programs for Native Americans who cannot find work in the private sector. We need a new WPA and a new CCC. These and other New Deal policies helped reduce suicide rates in the 1930s and they can do the same today.


(In the 3-minute video above, we see Indians working in the CCC. This film clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

Legislation introduced in Congress this year shows just how little help Native Americans can expect: "The legislation would create an 11-member commission to study the programs, grants and services for Native children that are already provided by agencies and tribes. The commission would then produce a report and work to advance the longer-term goal of increasing coordination between service providers, making better use of resources and strengthening partnerships with the private sector to measurably improve outcomes for Native children...The proposed commission makes no promises regarding broken treaties and makes no legislative commitments" ("Native Children Are Facing A 'National Emergency.' Now Congress Is Pushing To Address It." Huffington Post, June 27, 2015, emphasis added).

Though perhaps created by well-intentioned people, this legislative approach is little more than gobbledygook. Studies? Reports? Longer-term goals? Increasing coordination? Strengthening partnerships with the private sector? Please. If people need jobs, then jobs should be created directly, and not wished for through the mysticism of the "market." 

During the New Deal over 85,000 Indians worked in the CCC--on 200 reservations in 23 states--and the employment improved their financial situation and their morale (Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, pp. 31, 44-45). For example, in 1933 the following was reported: "The work furnished us for the eradication of Johnson grass, combined with that provided for road improvement, practically ends unemployment on the Yuma Reservation. The only Yuma Indians now to whom rations are issued are the old and the infirm" (U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, "Indians at Work," October 1933 edition, p. 26).


(In the two-minute video above, we see Native Americans working in WPA programs. At the one-minute mark, note the letters "WPA" in the beadwork art. This film clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

Many Native Americans were also employed or assisted by the WPA. For example, the following was highlighted in 1938: "Through cooperation with state, county and WPA road units, a number of Indians trained in Road Division work are taking their places with white men in outside jobs. There is generally a local market for experienced road workers, and it is becoming evident, through specific cases, our men can compete in their local labor markets with the best in their field" (U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, "Indians at Work," June 1938 edition, p. 17).

So, why doesn't Congress create a new WPA and a new CCC? The answer is fairly simple: Because many of the wealthy Americans who are controlling Congress's puppet strings with bribes campaign contributions don't want them to. In a survey conducted by researchers from Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities, wealthy Americans were asked whether they agreed with the proposition that "The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment." Only 8% did. (Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Perspectives on Politics, March 2013, Vol. 11 No. 1, p. 57, Table 5).

There is no doubt that a new WPA and a new CCC would help reduce the suicide rate for Native Americans (as they would for any group of people struggling with unemployment and poverty). Unfortunately, there is also no doubt that American plutocrats, and the politicians who serve them, will make sure that a public job program never happens. Instead, the problems facing Native Americans will be buried under commissions, studies, reports, and longer-term goals.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

WPA Theatre: "Will Shakespeare"

 

Above:
A WPA poster (put together from two separate images), promoting the WPA Theatre production of Clemence Dane's "Will Shakespeare." Clemence Dane was a popular British author and playwright during the early twentieth century. Images courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

 

Above: Clemence Dane, whose real name was Winifred Ashton, was born in 1888 and died in 1965. Dane won an Oscar in 1947 for her screenplay "Vacation from Marriage" and, according to the writers' agency Pollinger Limited, she was "Colourful, eccentric, clever and kind." Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Infrastructure madness in America...and the better, New Deal way

(A WPA work crew constructing a sidewalk in Wicomico County, Maryland, in November of 1937. Across the nation, WPA workers created or repaired thousands of sidewalks. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

About a week and a half ago, a water main that was installed shortly after the Civil War (yes, the American Civil War) burst in Philadelphia, sending about 8-10 million gallons of water rushing through a neighborhood. A resident who couldn't get to work because of the resulting flood said that the federal government has "their priorities all out of whack. You know how many jobs there could be fixing the American infrastructure? Instead, I'm sitting here with no way to get to work" ("A deluge of frustration," Philly.com, June 16, 2015).

Indeed, all across the country, conservative politicians have their priorities out of whack. Consider the strangeness, the madness of it all...

Isn't it strange that "Michigan Republicans want to raise taxes on the poor to pay for road repairs"... while the Forbes 400 keeps adding billions of dollars to their already-bloated fortunes? 

Isn't it madness that, after Republicans in Kansas gave huge tax cuts to their richest citizens... they had to steal money from their highway fund to make ends meet?

Isn't it strange that funding is uncertain for 38 damaged dams in Oklahoma... while Walmart is allegedly using foreign tax havens to avoid paying billions to the IRS?

Isn't it madness that Republicans can't find a "funding mechanism" for our nation's infrastructure... while they're simultaneously working to eliminate the estate tax for millionaires & billionaires?

Isn't it strange that Republicans keep saying, "We can’t spend all this money" on America's infrastructure... yet they're eager to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the war in Iraq - a war based on lies and misinformation?  And eager to start wars in many other mid-east countries too?

Isn't it madness that we have a quarter of a million water main breaks across the United States, every single year... but the Republican Party is more focused on making it easier for super-wealthy Americans to engage in illegal tax evasion?

(A man stands proudly over a WPA culvert project in Frederick County, Maryland, in May of 1936. Across the nation, WPA workers installed or improved over 1.1 million culverts. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

What we're witnessing today, is our country descending so far into plutocracy that domestic issues--issues that affect the common good--are becoming increasingly irrelevant. The super-rich are calling the shots with their millions of dollars in campaign contributions, and many (not all) of the super-rich are unconcerned about infrastructure issues. Super-wealthy Americans can avoid most infrastructure problems with a private jet, a private landing field, trucks delivering sparkling fresh drinking water, or a $14,000 Generac. And heck, even if their $100,000 SUV gets swallowed by a sinkhole, created by an old & broken water main, they can just buy another $100,000 SUV. After all, it's only money.

New Deal policymakers had a better philosophy on domestic matters than today's Republicans and Plutocrats. Indeed, New Deal policymakers invested in infrastructure in ways that most Americans can't even comprehend today. Why did they make these investments? Because they cared more about the strength of the nation than the luxury & comfort of a few hundred super-wealthy families. They thought that bridges for thousands of motorists were more important than 24-karat gold bathtubs for the children of the super-wealthy to soak & gloat in. They thought that a modern & safe water supply system for millions of people was more important than a $20,000 evening gown or a $20,000 bottle of wine.

(A WPA road project in Baltimore County, Maryland, in September of 1936. Across the nation, WPA workers created, repaired, or improved 650,000 miles of roads - enough roadwork to go around the planet 26 times. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

If we want to strengthen America's infrastructure, we need to reinvigorate the policies & principles of the New Deal, and we need to fight back against the "selfish stupidity of a few citizens."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The National Youth Administration and Hospitals

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In 1941 and 1942, young Americans employed in the National Youth Administration assisted 1,733 hospitals. Their duties included assistance with communication, housekeeping, mending garments, nutrition services, patient admissions, transporting patients, and aid to nurses. Though some NYA men worked in the hospitals, it was primarily NYA women who received this type of employment.

As a result of their work experience in hospitals, NYA enrollees experienced a high rate of employment in the private sector: "Hospitals themselves, took youth on as nurses' aides, office workers, and assistants in housekeeping departments. Other institutions such as orphanages or day care centers found this work experience made desirable employees. Doctors and dentists employed NYA hospital trained youth as office assistants."

(Source: Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, pp. 165-167)  

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Art for the Public

(A WPA poster, advertising one of the thousands of New Deal art programs & events that took place between 1933 and 1943. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

The National Youth Administration and Museums

(This WPA worker is cataloging shell specimens at the San Diego Natural History Museum in February of 1937. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

Like its initial supervising agency, the WPA, the National Youth Administration (NYA) assisted many museums across the country. For example, "NYA youth cataloged 1,123,000 museum articles in the fiscal years 1937 through 1942, and prepared or renovated 361,000 museum articles" (Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, 1944, p. 175).

I wonder if some museums could use that kind of help today. And wouldn't a new NYA be great for many young men and women too, especially since "A substantial share of America’s youth remains economically disconnected, even as the economy continues to recover. More than one in eight—13.8 percent—of young Americans ages 16 to 24 are neither working nor in school..." (link). (The NYA provided employment to millions of Americans between the ages of 16 and 25).

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A New Deal for the Virgin Islands

(Roosevelt Park in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island. Formerly called Coconut Park, it was renamed in 1945 to honor the President's 1934 visit. The park features a children's playground, picnic & chess tables, shade trees, and also serves as a venue for music, e.g., a local flute player and several jazz festivals. Most importantly, the park contains several urns and plaques that honor territorial "veterans who died defending the United States." Photo taken by a local resident, used with permission.)

The Virgin Islands, though beautiful, has long-struggled with poverty. In modern times, "The average  income of island residents is considerably lower than that of residents of the mainland United States...[a problem] further compounded by the relatively higher costs of living on the Virgin Islands" ("Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the United States Virgin Islands, 2009," United States Virgin Islands Bureau of Economic Research, p. 13).

When you consider that Congress has not adequately addressed poverty in its own neighborhood (Washington, D.C.), it seems unlikely that they'll ever adequately address it in the Virgin Islands. However, if some future Congress does show a greater willingness to help, it might look towards the New Deal for some policy guidance.
    
Consider these New Deal facts & figures for the U.S. Virgin Islands...

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

Between 1933 and 1935, FERA granted $1.2 million to the Virgin Islands for relief efforts (about $20.4 million in today's dollars). FERA funds typically went towards cash relief, rural relief projects, and a wide variety of work programs.

(Source: "Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration," 1942, p. 103)

Civil Works Administration (CWA):

When the sugar industry in the Virgin Islands crashed during the Great Depression, the CWA relieved some of the resulting unemployment during the winter of 1933-34.

(Source: Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, p. 103.)

(When President Roosevelt visited the Virgin Islands in 1934, he said: "My friends in St. Croix - I am very glad to come here and I am very grateful to you for this splendid reception and very hearty welcome, and I want you to remember that today, more than ever before, the people of the continental United States remember and realize that you, also, are a part of the American Family." Quote from, "Extemporaneous Remarks in St. Croix, Virgin Islands," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, p. 346. Photo above (not taken in the Virgin Islands) courtesy of the National Park Service.)
  
The Virgin Islands Company:

The Virgin Islands company was created by the U.S. federal government with $1 million in start-up funds from the Public Works Administration (PWA). The goal of the company was to rehabilitate the island's sugar and rum industries. President Franklin Roosevelt summed up the situation in the Virgin Islands, before and after the creation of the Virgin Islands Company:

"In the years preceding 1933, there had been a gradual and serious decline in the economic well-being of the Virgin Islands...unemployment was so widespread that over 60 percent of the population was found to be eligible for relief...The major industry in the Virgin Islands has always been the sugar business...in 1930, the West India Sugar Factory, Inc., which controlled 75 percent of the sugar business in St. Croix, discontinued operations. Efforts to organize a successor company were unsuccessful. All of the people who had worked in the industry, and in the cultivation of sugar cane for it, were thrown out of employment...The Virgin Islands Company now manufactures raw sugar and a substantial amount of rum, and has been engaged in restoring wastelands to sugar cane cultivation. During the development of the physical equipment of the company, employment was given to approximately 1,500 people, a very large percentage of the unemployed on the island of St. Croix. In fact, during this period of development there was practically no unemployment whatsoever in that island...it is anticipated that a thousand persons will be constantly employed by that company  

(Sources:  (1) "Virgin Islands Laboratory for New Deal Experiment," Associated Press, July 7, 1934, found in the Reading Eagle newspaper (Pennsylvania), July 8, 1934 edition, p. 5. (2) Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, pp. 102-104.)

(In March of 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and made a note in her diary about the extreme poverty she saw. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

Public Works Administration (PWA):

Between 1933 and 1942, the PWA granted about $4.6 million to the Virgin Islands to help with 43 infrastructure projects (federal and non-federal projects combined) - or, about $77 million in today's dollars.

Among the PWA projects, were three urban housing projects and the creation of St. Thomas' Bluebeard Castle Resort. The latter was intended to boost the tourism industry of the Virgin Islands, and is still in operation today

Of PWA housing efforts, Luther Evans, the tenth Librarian of Congress, wrote: "Two-room houses are being built at a cost of about $200 each. The author can say from personal observation that these houses are far superior to those now occupied by the majority of Virgin Islanders..."  

(Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, "Third Annual Report, 1942," Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942, pp. 126-127. (2) Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, pp. 103-104. (3) Luther H. Evans, "The Virgin Islands: From Naval Base to New Deal," Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Press, 1945, p. 306) 

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC):

Former Vermont State Forester Perry H. Merrill described the work of the CCC in the Virgin Islands: "Enrollment for the conservation work on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix, Virgin Islands was authorized on December 6, 1934. For the two islands, 100 enrollees were assigned to camps there. Typical conservation work carried out by the native enrollees under the supervision of a forester included the development of wind breaks, propagation for mahogany and bay trees, and the development of springs" (other projects they engaged in can be seen in the video below).

Over time, the number of CCC enrollees may have grown to between 160 and 221.

(Sources: (1) Perry H. Merrill, "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942," Vermont, 1981, p. 32. (2) "The Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-42: Chapter 11, United States Territories and Insular Possessions," National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/ccc/ccc/chap11.htm, accessed June 14, 2015. (3) Works Progress Administration, "Report on Progress of the Works Program," October 15, 1936, p. 82.)


(In the video above, we see the Civilian Conservation Corps at work in the Virgin Islands. This film was created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, ca. 1937, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

National Youth Administration (NYA):

On any given month during academic year 1940-41, there were about 61 young men and women working in the NYA's student work program in the Virgin Islands. They worked part-time and earned about $4 a month (about $67 today).

On any given month between July 1941 and June 1942, there were about 270 young men and women working in the NYA's out-of-school work program in the Virgin Islands. They could earn up to $26 per month (about $433 today).

Though the pay was not great, participants in the NYA had opportunities for training, education, recreation, networking, and the building of social skills.  

(Source: Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, "Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943," Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, pp. 248-256.)

Treasury Department Art Projects:

In the latter part of 1936, the Procurement Division of the U.S. Treasury, which was operating two art programs--the "Section of Painting & Sculpture" and the "Treasury Relief Art Project"--reported that a project was "operating in the Virgin Islands, with a total of five artists engaged in easel painting."

(Sources: (1) U.S. Treasury Department, "Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1936," pp. 182-183. (2) Works Progress Administration, "Report on Progress of the Works Program," October 15, 1936, p. 82.)

(This mural is in the post office at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island. According to VInow, a Virgin Islands tourism website, it was painted by Stevan Dohanos with funding from a U.S. Treasury art program, circa 1937-1943. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

Works Progress Administration (WPA):

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided at least $2.8 million in funding towards work-relief projects in the Virgin Islands (about $47 million in today's dollars). These projects included roadwork, sanitation, water supply systems, pest control, studies of diseases, sewing projects, nursery schools, handicrafts, cabinet-making, fruit-preserving, farming activities, airfields, welfare services, and more.

The number of men & women employed on WPA projects in the Virgin Islands appears to have peaked in June of 1940, with 1,760 workers.

(Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, "Report on Progress of the WPA Program," June 30, 1939, pp. 124-125. (2) Federal Works Agency, "Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43," 1946, various tables, pp. 106-130.) 

Federal Works Agency (FWA):

When the WPA ended operations in June of 1943, Congress recognized that unemployment was still a major problem in the Virgin Islands - so it provided funds for a five-month work-relief program to help ease the transition. This program was administered by the FWA, an agency that had been created in 1939 to manage and coordinate several New Deal (and New Deal influenced) programs, including the WPA.

After the special work-relief program ended in November of 1943, the federal government and the FWA began a multi-million dollar infrastructure improvement program in the Virgin Islands (in accordance with Public Law 510, 78th Congress, approved December 20, 1944). Projects that were approved and started included the establishment of "A primary and a secondary set of roads...for each island" and a water supply system for the city of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas Island.      

(Sources: Annual Reports of the Federal Works Agency, 1944-1948.

(According to the Living New Deal, this mural, titled "Insular Possession: Virgin Islands," was painted by artist James Michael Newell in 1939, with funding from the U.S. Treasury. It is located in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith and the Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Wildfires in Alaska: A new CCC could help

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
 
Currently, firefighters in Alaska are battling two large wildfires. These fires have destroyed structures, forced evacuations, and are threatening homes. One resident described the fire as "horrific" and said, "You just see huge, billowing clouds of smoke in the air."
 
During the New Deal, the CCC in Alaska worked on "fire hazard reduction along major Alaskan highways" and "the establishment of fire-breaks" (U.S. Department of the Interior, Civilian Conservation Corps Program of the United States Department of the Interior, March 1933 to June 30, 1943, 1944, p. 24).
 
We could create a new CCC today (as Ohio congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has tried to do) if we stopped electing politicians with no vision, and stopped electing politicians who are beholden to Wall Street. We're not lacking the ability to prevent and control wildfires, we're simply lacking the willpower.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The New Deal brought water and people together. Some super-wealthy Americans are now forcing them apart.

(WPA workers building a reservoir in Elkton, Maryland, 1935. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

What happens when resources dwindle, in an environment of extreme income & wealth inequality? California offers a great case study (see "California's worst drought in 1,200 years in pictures," BBC, April 2, 2015 and "The California Chasm: A Look At Income Inequality In The Golden State," Capital & Main, Huffington Post, February 12, 2015).

Recently, a rich Californian complained that he and other wealthy residents "should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful. We pay significant property taxes based on where we live. And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.” Another wealthy Californian explained (perhaps oblivious to the homeless problem in California), "You could put 20 houses on my property, and they’d have families of at least four. In my house, there is only two of us, they’d be using a hell of a lot more water than we’re using.” ("Rich Californians balk at limits: 'We're not all equal when it comes to water,'" Washington Post, June 13, 2015)

A recent study by UCLA found that "on average, wealthier neighborhoods [in Los Angeles] consume three times more water than less-affluent ones," and one of the researchers noted that many of the wealthy are "lacking a sense that we are all in this together...The problem lies, in part, in the social isolation of the rich, the moral isolation of the rich" ("California's wealthy lagging in water conservation," Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015).

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

In times of drought and water restrictions, some wealthy Californians can afford to get water brought in by truck, and "affluent coastal cities such as Santa Barbara and Cambria" can afford to build their own desalination plants. Others just use as much water as they want, despite the restrictions, and pay the fines. After all, it's just money. Of course, lower income folks have much fewer options when times get tough.

With respect to water, the callousness of some (not all) wealthy Californians extends to the ocean - literally. California State Assemblywoman Toni Atkins recently pointed out that some "wealthy beach house owners" have been "unlawfully blocking public access to the coast" with razor wire, gates, boulders, chains, altered foot paths, and official-looking (but ultimately bogus) "no parking" and "no trespassing" signs ("The Beach Belongs to Everyone," Huffington Post, June 9, 2015). Why are they doing this? Well, it's pretty obvious: They want the beaches and the ocean all to themselves, and don't like the "commoners" being near them.

These types of problems are not restricted to California, of course. It seems to be human nature to hoard resources. For example, I grew up in Maryland and saw waterfront areas along the Chesapeake Bay gobbled up by the wealthy. In 2013, it was reported that "Only 2 percent of the bay has public access points for kayaks, canoes, fishing, bathing and other recreation." A retired economic development executive said, "I call it the world’s biggest gated community, the Chesapeake Bay. There are probably 100 beaches in Anne Arundel County, but they are private beaches. For the general Jack and Jill, there’s no other beach to go to” ("U.S., groups working to open more public access to Chesapeake," Washington Post, July 28, 2013). Things have actually gotten better over the past 5-6 years, but it took an executive order from the White House, to "expand public access to waters and open spaces of the Chesapeake Bay," to get the ball rolling. Many rich Marylanders certainly weren't going to show enthusiasm for the public's ability to reach the Bay. Some of them probably saw the executive order and moaned, "More of those pesky little crabbing boats getting in the way of my half-million dollar cigarette boat?!? Good Lord! Obama's a communist!"

(A worker on a WPA project in Annapolis, Maryland, uses a trench-digging machine to prepare the ground for a new water line. Across the nation, WPA workers installed 16,000 miles of new water lines to bring clean water to more people. Photo taken in 1938, and provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

What all of the above highlights is that we are living in a society where, as the climate changes and resources become severely limited, we are likely to break up along class lines. Some of the wealthy will live in "moral isolation" and say things like "we're not all equal when it comes to water." Others will put up razor wire to prevent people from reaching a drinking water supply or enjoying a day at the beach. Perhaps some will wonder why their golf courses needs to suffer, just because some of "those people" need to drink water.

New Deal policymakers had a completely different philosophy than many (again, not all) super-rich Americans have today. They sought to bring more water to the people, and more people to the water. Work crews in programs like the CCC and the WPA created drinking water reservoirs, installed new water lines, and hooked up homes to water supplies (the WPA made or improved 882,000 consumer water connections). With respect to beaches, they performed general clean-up, constructed bathhouses, fortified sand dunes, and more. 

 (The Civilian Conservation Corps developed Myrtle Beach State Park in South Carolina, and "A number of buildings built by the CCC in the 1930's are still in use at this park." Photo and information courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.)

With our growing water problems (chemical pollution, water main breaks, plutocratic governments shutting off water to low-income citizens, droughts in some areas, a greater frequency of extreme rain events in other areas, etc.) it will be good for us to heed the polices & principles of the New Deal, and work together, and not follow the people living in "moral isolation" who will increasingly claim that the amount and quality of water you receive should be based on your income & wealth.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Flag Day and the WPA

(The description for this photograph reads, "The NYC Flag Project, sponsored by the U.S. Army with the U.S. Navy as a cooperating agency, has as its object the restoration and preservation of historic battle flags. Here WPA workers are shown mending some of the tattered, faded, and battle stained emblems." This photograph was taken between 1935 and 1943, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)
 
(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A New Deal for Florida

(This clock tower at Daytona Beach, Florida was built by the WPA, circa 1936-1938. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Lately, low income residents of Florida have been hit hard by their mean-spirited government. For example, the Florida legislature has reduced their unemployment benefits and rejected federal money that would have helped them acquire health insurance. And, with Congress now controlled by Republicans, low income Floridians can expect even more punishment over the next several years (e.g, federal cuts to food assistance).

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. For example, in the 1930s and early 1940s, when Floridians were struggling through the Great Depression, New Deal policymakers (and the officials they worked with at the state & local level) assisted the citizens of Florida with jobs, education, and training opportunities. In return, these citizens built, repaired, and improved the state's infrastructure. 

Consider these New Deal facts & figures for the Sunshine State...

Civil Works Administration (CWA):

In January of 1934, there were 93,000 Floridians working in the CWA, building or repairing schools, roads, bridges, and more.

(Source: "Analysis of Civil Works Program Statistics," 1939, p. 18)

(CWA workers built this civic center on St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1933-34. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/147933.)

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

In February of 1935, 774 college students in Florida were employed in FERA's College Student Aid Program. This was a program "undertaken in order to enable young persons who would not otherwise have been able to do so to continue their education, and thereby reduce the influx of young workers into the labor market" (recall that during the Great Depression there was a large drop in the demand for labor).

Between 1933 and 1935, FERA granted $50 million to Florida for relief efforts (about $851 million in today's dollars). FERA funds typically went towards cash relief, rural relief projects, and a wide variety of work programs.

(Source: "Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration," 1942, pp. 64, 103, and 232)

(A bridge in Miami, built with funds from FERA, 1935. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/138119.)

Public Works Administration (PWA):

By 1939, the PWA had contributed $32 million in funding towards 232 infrastructure projects in Florida (not including federal projects). In today's dollars, that's about $538 million.

(Source: "America Builds: The Record of PWA," 1939, p. 284)

(The Overseas Highway, running through the Florida Keys, was built with the assistance of a $3.6 million loan from the PWA (about $61 million in today's dollars). Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/244353.)

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC):

Between 1933 and 1942, about 49,000 men in Florida were employed in the CCC. This included about 45,900 junior and veteran enrollees, 100 Indians, and 3,000 staff. Among their many accomplishments were the planting of 19 million trees and the building of 2,700 bridges of various types (e.g., foot and vehicle bridges in state parks).

(Source: Perry H. Merrill, "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942," 1981, pp. 120-122)

(These army officers supervised and trained CCC enrollees in Bronson, Florida, 1933. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/137603.)

National Youth Administration (NYA):

During academic year 1939-1940, 676 schools and colleges in Florida were participating in the NYA program, employing about 5,300 students each month.

During any given month of fiscal year 1942, there were about 4,000 young Florida men & women in the NYA's out-of-school work program.

(Source: Federal Security Agency - War Manpower Commission, "Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943," 1944, pp. 246-247, and 254)

(These NYA men are learning how to build boats at Camp Roosevelt in Ocala, Florida, 1941. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/31420.)

Public Works of Art Project (PWAP):

Between 1933 and 1934, in Region 5 of the PWAP (Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina), unemployed artists were paid to create 13 murals, 17 sculptures, 25 oil paintings, and other works of art, for use in public buildings and parks.

(Source: Public Works of Art Project, "Report of the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury to Federal Emergency Relief Administrator, December 8, 1933 - June 30, 1934," 1934, p. 7)

Post Offices:

During the New Deal era, the U.S Treasury built or expanded Post Office buildings in Florida and commissioned artists to decorate them. See the Living New Deal's Florida pages for examples.

(This post office mural was painted by Stevan Dohanos in 1940, for a post office in West Palm Beach. Image courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/32409.)

Works Progress Administration (WPA):

Between 1935 and 1943, WPA workers in Florida produced 10 million articles of clothing; served 25 million school lunches; created or improved 7,300 miles of roads; built or improved 1,500 bridges & viaducts; installed or improved 7,000 culverts; engaged in 566 projects to build, repair, or improve schools; created or improved 155 parks; installed 264 miles of new water lines; constructed 413,000 linear feet of new airport & airfield runway (the most runway work in the country); and more.

(Source: "Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43," 1946, pp. 134-136)

(Lila Sinclair working on a painting in Wauchula, Florida, circa 1935. In the April 26, 1937 edition of the Evening Independent newspaper, Sinclair is described as a WPA art teacher who studied at the Art Institute in Chicago and taught in the public schools of Florida. It's likely that she was one of the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the Great Depression but were given employment opportunities in the WPA. All across the nation, the WPA utilized the talents of people like Lila Sinclair to offer free art classes to the public. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/11870.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

WPA Theatre: Haiti

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More dam failures are more warnings about our infrastructure

(Built as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority project, the Hiwassee Dam in North Carolina still provides hydroelectric power today. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Two Wednesdays ago (May 27), I highlighted a story about a dam failure in Texas ("A dam failure in Texas is a warning about our infrastructure"). On that same day, the Gun Lake Dam in Michigan failed. Thankfully, "Quick action by workers...prevented a catastrophic flood that could have destroyed homes and farms and turned part of Gun Lake into an unappealing swamp." The dam was built sometime between 1905 and 1940. ("Workers respond to leak in dam that threatened Gun Lake neighborhood," MLive, June 8, 2015)

Then, on Sunday, May 31st, in Cowetta County, Georgia, a 50-year-old dam failed and the lake it held drained away - completely. Unfortunately, "Because the lake sits on private property, there isn’t much the county can do other than advise residents how to go about rebuilding the dam, a potentially costly task" ("Lake disappears after thunderstorms in Cowetta County," WSB-TV 2, June 3, 2015).

(The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Herrington Manor State Park dam, in western Maryland (the dam can be seen in the photo above, to the right), and the dam has provided decades of recreational opportunities for visitors to the park (fishing, boating, swimming). I have fond memories of fishing with my father and brother on the lake, catching several bluegill and a rainbow trout. Photo by Brent McKee.)

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America's dams a letter grade of "D", noting "The average age of the 84,000 dams in the country is 52 years old. The nation’s dams are aging and the number of high-hazard dams is on the rise...The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams."

Despite the ACSE's warning, Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked infrastructure improvement bills (see, e.g., my blog posts "Senior Republican on Infrastructure: 'The problem...is really more Republicans than Democrats'" and "As its infrastructure crumbles, West Virginia embraces anti-infrastructure Republicans").

A significant part of the problem is that a lot of dams are on private property and many of the landowners can't afford to repair or improve them. Making matters worse, many governments--having prioritized tax-cuts-for-the-wealthy over infrastructure work--can't afford to fix them either (see, e.g., my earlier blog post about the dam failure in Texas). And this is exactly the kind of problem where a new WPA could help because, back in the 1930s and early 1940s, the WPA worked on private property dams (see, e.g., Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 53). And, with today's technology, we could do it even better.

Other New Deal work involving dams included: funding for large dams through the Public Works Administration; dams built in conjunction with the Tennessee Valley Authority; and dams built in public parks & forests by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today, many New Deal dams are still providing hydroelectric power, irrigation, flood control, erosion control, recreation opportunities, and drinking water for countless millions of Americans. And while there is certainly an argument to be made for the elimination of some dams (which a new WPA could do as well), many New Deal dams have provided useful service for three-quarters of a century.

(WPA workers building the Johnson's Pond Dam in Salisbury, Maryland, 1936-1937. The dam still operates today.)

How many dam failures, potholes, and water main breaks (we have about a quarter of a million of those per year) is it going to take before America wakes up and says, "Y'know, the strength of our infrastructure is probably more important than the tax breaks, the multiple yachts, the 24-karat gold bathtubs, and the socially-disconnected living compounds of millionaires & billionaires"?

(Also, see "World's dams unprepared for climate change conditions," Scientific American, September 16, 2011, and "Extreme rainfall becoming more common, new analysis finds," Huffington Post, May 28, 2015.) 

Monday, June 8, 2015

A New Deal for Connecticut

(This WPA mural is in the city hall of Norwalk, Connecticut, and was painted by artist George Avison, circa 1935. Image courtesy of the Norwalk Transit Department and the Living New Deal. See the webpage "Norwalk's Collection of WPA Murals" for an interesting display of New Deal art.)

Recently the Connecticut legislature passed a budget that increased infrastructure investments. Part of the revenue will come from increased taxes on businesses. The infrastructure investments are very much needed. In its latest survey of the state, the American Society of Civil Engineers noted, among other things, that 413 bridges in Connecticut are structurally deficient; 41% of its major roads are in poor condition; the state's parks have an $84 million maintenance backlog; and, over the next 20 years, the state's drinking water infrastructure will need $3.6 billion worth of work.

A spokesperson for the governor said, "We are asking our wealthiest and our corporate community to help pay for a transformational transportation and infrastructure system that will benefit Connecticut's economy for decades to come..." Unfortunately, three multi-billion dollar companies--G.E., Aetna, and Travelers Insurance--are stunned that they are being asked to help, and two have threatened to leave the state. A Republican state representative even received a phone call from a G.E. executive that left the legislator "shaken" and terrified.

It's a shame that these mega-wealthy corporations don't want to pay a little extra to help Connecticut improve its infrastructure, because the New Deal proved that good things can happen when government invests in things like infrastructure and education. Consider these New Deal facts & figures for "The Constitution State"...

Civil Works Administration (CWA):

In January of 1934, there were over 44,000 residents of Connecticut working in the CWA, building or repairing schools, roads, bridges, and more.

(Source: "Analysis of Civil Works Program Statistics," 1939, p. 18)

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

In February of 1935, 580 college students in Connecticut were employed in FERA's College Student Aid Program. This was a program "undertaken in order to enable young persons who would not otherwise have been able to do so to continue their education, and thereby reduce the influx of young workers into the labor market" (recall that during the Great Depression there was a large drop in the demand for labor).

Between 1933 and 1935, FERA granted $25.6 million to Connecticut for relief efforts (about $436 million in today's dollars). FERA funds typically went towards cash relief, rural relief projects, and a wide variety of work programs.

(Source: "Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration," 1942, pp. 64, 103, and 232)

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Public Works Administration (PWA):

By 1939, the PWA had contributed $27.8 million in funding towards 261 infrastructure projects in Connecticut (not including federal projects). In today's dollars, that's about $468 million.

(Source: "America Builds: The Record of PWA," 1939, p. 284)

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC):

Between 1933 and 1942, about 30,600 Connecticut men were employed in the CCC. This included about 28,400 junior and veteran enrollees and 2,200 staff. Among their many accomplishments were the planting of 5.5 million trees and the protection of 1.6 million acres of land from tree and plant diseases.

(Source: Perry H. Merrill, "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942," 1981, pp. 116-117)

(The wizard Merlin, from a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. This WPA mural is also in the city hall of Norwalk, Connecticut, and was painted by artist Justin Gruelle, circa 1935. Image courtesy of the Norwalk Transit Department and the Living New Deal.)

Public Works of Art Project (PWAP):

Between 1933 and 1934, in Region 1 of the PWAP (Connecticut and the other New England states), unemployed artists were paid to create 22 sculptures, 80 water color paintings, 150 oil paintings, 490 poster panels, and other works of art, for use in public buildings and parks.

(Source: Public Works of Art Project, "Report of the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury to Federal Emergency Relief Administrator, December 8, 1933 - June 30, 1934," 1934, p. 7)

National Youth Administration (NYA):

During academic year 1939-1940, 143 schools and colleges in Connecticut were participating in the NYA program, employing about 3,000 students each month.

During any given month of fiscal year 1942, there were about 2,000 young Connecticut men & women in the NYA's out-of-school work program.

(Source: Federal Security Agency - War Manpower Commission, "Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943," 1944, pp. 246-247, and 254)

(This young man is working in a defense industry factory in Bantam, Connecticut, in 1942. He received vocational training in the CCC and the NYA. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Post Offices:

During the New Deal era, the U.S Treasury built or expanded Post Office buildings in Connecticut and commissioned artists to decorate them. See the Living New Deal's Connecticut pages for examples.

Works Progress Administration (WPA):

Between 1935 and 1943, WPA workers in Connecticut produced 2.2 million articles of clothing; served 1.9 million school lunches; created or improved 4,800 miles of roads; built or improved 317 bridges & viaducts; installed or improved 3,600 culverts; engaged in 424 projects to build, repair, or improve schools; created or improved 157 parks; installed 262 miles of new storm & sanitary sewer lines; constructed 84,000 linear feet of new airport & airfield runway; and more.

(Source: "Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43," 1946, pp. 134-136)

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Reverse New Deal In Florida: Using lies and misinformation to deny adequate health care to low-income Americans

(New Deal policymakers thought that adequate health care was important for all Americans - even the non-wealthy. WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

The Florida House of Representatives--dominated by  Republicans--recently voted to  reject federal money to expand health insurance coverage for hundreds of thousands of their low-income residents. One of the Republican legislators, Doug Broxson, said: "It's something we cannot afford, not only in Florida but in the rest of the nation, if we have government controlled health care...I’m very concerned that we could spend all our gross national product on health care, and it would take away from every other program we have in the state."

Broxon's statement is so utterly outrageous that I hardly know where to start picking it apart. He is concerned that the United States will spend too much on government controlled health care, yet time after time after time it has been shown that countries with some type of universal health coverage (which can only be achieved with some type of government intervention) pay less--far less--than the United States (see, e.g., "Here's a Map of the Countries That Provide Universal Health Care (America's Still Not on It)," The Atlantic, June 28, 2012). And, under the Affordable Care Act specifically, the rate of health care spending in America has slowed down, although analysts differ as to whether the ACA has played a significant role in that slowdown (see, e.g., "U.S. Experiences Unprecedented Slowdown In Health Care Spending," Huffington Post, December 3, 2014).

Broxon also worried that the expansion of health care to low-income residents "would take away from every other program we have in the state." One of the programs he is probably concerned about is the Florida legislature's own government-run, taxpayer subsidized health insurance: "One of the chief arguments Florida House Republicans made Friday when they rejected the Senate plan to help 600,000 working poor get health insurance is that it would create a taxpayer-funded entitlement and would be hard to repeal. What they didn't mention during the debate is that they are entitled to a very generous health insurance package that costs $22,000 a year — with premiums mostly covered by Florida taxpayers" ("Florida legislators benefit from heavily subsidized health insurance," Tampa Bay Times, June 6, 2015).
 
This recent episode is just a continuation of a long history of lies, deceit, misinformation, and hypocrisy that Florida Republicans have used to endanger the lives of their state's low-income residents. For example, when the Republican Party of Florida ran a TV ad to convince Floridians that health insurance premiums were rising fast under the ACA, PolitiFact rated the statement as "Mostly False" ("Health insurance costs are skyrocketing under Obamacare, Republican Party says," PolitiFact, September 29, 2014). And Republican Governor Rick Scott, "meanwhile, has changed his mind on the issue several times. He initially opposed expanding Medicaid under the health care law, citing concerns over job growth. Then in 2013, he reversed course, citing his mother's death in professing his support for bringing federal funds to Florida to broaden health care coverage. The governor later backed off on his support, and earlier this year announced he would sue the federal government for allegedly forcing his state to expand Medicaid by withholding federal hospital funds" ("Florida House Rejects Plan To Expand Health Care For Hundreds Of Thousands," Huffington Post, June 6, 2015).

(Construction work at a state hospital in Chattahoochee, Florida, 1936, with funding assistance from the New Deal's Public Works Administration. New Deal work programs built, repaired, or improved hospital facilities all across the nation. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/166153.)

New Deal policymakers had a different philosophy about low-income Americans and health care. Through the WPA, they staffed and/or operated health clinics all across the country. Through the CCC, millions of young unemployed men received medical care. Through the PWA, large hospitals were built to serve more people. And when President Franklin Roosevelt gave his Second Bill of Rights speech in 1944, he advocated for the right of every American "to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health."
 
Not everyone has shunned the New Deal in favor of cruelty, of course - but in the Florida House of Representatives, well, welcome to the Reverse New Deal: Using lies and misinformation to deny adequate health care to low-income Americans.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

New Deal Action vs. Republican Dysfunction

Dysfunction - "abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group." 

(New Deal policymakers like Harry Hopkins, second from left, and Franklin Roosevelt believed in action. They didn't twiddle their thumbs while the nation's infrastructure deteriorated. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

In Kansas, the Republican government can't agree on how to finance the government. For many days now, they've been squabbling amongst each other in an overtime legislative session that's costing Kansas taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each day. (See, e.g., "It’s not easy for the anti-tax Kansas Legislature to raise taxes, even when the budget is written in red," Kansas City Star, June 5, 2015) 

On the national scene, senior Republican U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (Okla.) has blamed his fellow Republicans for being unable to figure out a way to fix the nation's infrastructure: "The problem...is really more Republicans than Democrats...If you remember the 27-month bill, we had a hard time with all these Republicans...We had a bunch of demagogues down there, Republicans who were trying to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do this. We can’t spend all this money on it.’ I thought that’s not right...Clearly, this is something that we’re supposed to be doing. A true conservative looks at it and says...we’re supposed to defend America, and build roads and highways" ("Top GOP Senator Blames His Party For Lack Of Highway Funding," Huffington Post, May 19, 2015).

And these are just two examples of Republicans being unable to govern. All across the nation we are seeing Republicans trying to push square pegs (infrastructure needs, education funding) through round holes (no taxes, no revenue). Dave Helling, of the Kansas City Star, summed up Republican management across the nation when he described the political situation in Kansas: "...a perfect storm of increasingly fractured intra-party politics, special interest money, inexperienced lawmakers and weak leadership."

And behind all this Republican dysfunction, of course, is big money - right-wing millionaires & billionaires who don't give a rat's behind about the nation's infrastructure or the educational opportunities of middle and low-income Americans. They just want their taxes kept low, because living on $200 million per year, as opposed to $250 million per year, would be tragic.

 (In this WPA-constructed building in Haysi, Virginia, unemployed women received jobs on WPA sewing projects. Across America, the WPA produced 382 million articles of clothing for low-income Americans. When the war started up, WPA sewing room workers began repairing and producing items for American soldiers. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.)

New Deal policymakers did things much differently than today's Republican policymakers. Instead of whining about taxes--and spending days, weeks, months, and even years trying to figure out how to pay for something with no revenue--they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They said, "Y'know what, we're going to raise taxes on the fortunate few. We're going to broaden the tax base a bit. And we're going to create several job programs to get people back to work, strengthen the nation's infrastructure, protect the environment, preserve our history, and increase economic opportunity for all Americans."

How did they do this? Well, here's just a tiny, tiny sampling...

Getting people back to work - Between the WPA, the CCC, the NYA, and several other New Deal work programs, about 20 million Americans who had been shunned by the private sector received employment. That's action.

Strengthening the nation's infrastructure - The WPA alone performed 650,000 miles of roadwork, installed 16,000 miles of new water lines, created or improved 8,000 parks, and much, much more. That's action.

Protecting the environment - The CCC planted between 2 and 3 BILLION trees. Enough said.

Preserving our history - Workers in New Deal programs restored historic structures, assisted museums, organized & preserved records (records that researchers and genealogists use today), and wrote histories for every state and many cities & towns (for example, the famous State Guide series). That's action.

Increasing economic opportunity for all Americans - The WPA alone engaged in nearly 40,000 projects to build, repair, or improve schools. And, after World War II, the middle-class grew like never before or since. The American economy expanded along New Deal roads, across New Deal bridges, in New Deal buildings, and out of New Deal airports. And it grew on the foundation of New Deal policies - the minimum wage, protections for collective bargaining, Social Security, unemployment insurance, FDIC, and so on. That's action.

So, which do you prefer: New Deal action, or "a perfect storm of increasingly fractured intra-party politics, special interest money, inexperienced lawmakers and weak leadership"?  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Cult of Personal Responsibility, and our future poverty

(President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.)
 
When a recent article highlighted America's impending retirement crisis (lack of savings, lack of fixed pensions, threats to Social Security, etc.) one of the first comments to the story read, "SS was NEVER intended to be the sole means one took into retirement. Of course when you hammer out personal responsibility and hammer in an entitlement/victim culture, WALL-LA! You have exactly what is happening now." ("Old and Broke in America? It Doesn't Have To Be This Way, Says Sanders," Common Dreams, June 3, 2015)

This comment, of course, is one of the most popular battle cries of the the political right (perhaps second only to "Millionaires and billionaires need tax cuts!"). They believe that if you end up in a bad situation, it means one thing and one thing only: You didn't practice "personal responsibility."

In Colorado, for example, when Republicans refused additional funding for a breakfast program for low-income children, a Republican state legislator said, "As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family." The implication was clear - "Those parents don't practice personal responsibility...I do. And it doesn't matter if they can't find a decent-paying job or haven't seen a raise in years. They're just not practicing personal responsibility." ("Party-line vote on legislature's budget panel blocks new funding for school-breakfast program," Denver Post, January 21, 2011)

When Mitt Romney made his famous 47% speech during his presidential campaign, he said, "I'll never convince [low-income Americans] that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

There are, of course, people who are reckless in their day-to-day behavior. And every person makes mistakes in judgment from time to time - that's part of being human, we're not perfect creatures. But stereotyping struggling and low-income Americans as people who are lazy and don't take personal responsibility is utter nonsense. Consider...

--> If someone loses his/her job because the employer sends it to a third-world labor market, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If that same person is the victim of employment discrimination against the unemployed, and has a hard time finding another job, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If that same person's credit is destroyed--because he/she lost the job, experienced employment discrimination, and couldn't pay the bills anymore--and then experiences even more employment discrimination because of that credit destruction (this is a Kafkaesque downward spiral that many Americans have gone through)--how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If worker productivity increases, but wages stagnate and prices for goods & services increase, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If companies are spending profits on stock buybacks instead of better wages for their better-producing employees, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If college graduates are earning less, on average, than they did 15 years ago, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?   

--> If Corporate America transitions from secure, fixed-pension systems to more illusory, stingy, and risky 401K systems (that are, by the way, more dependent upon those stagnant and dropping wages), so that their wealthy executives & investors can become even more wealthy, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

--> If the economy goes into recession due to rampant white collar crime and fraud (as it did in 2007-2008), and millions of people lose their jobs, how is that a lack of personal responsibility?

The answer to all of these questions is: "It isn't." Unfortunately, addressing structural problems is difficult. It requires deep thought, critical thinking skills, and work - a lot of work. And the people who throw out insults against struggling Americans, well, they simply don't want to do that work. It's much easier to say, "They lack personal responsibility," than it is to research problems, craft solutions, and implement solutions. It takes work & effort to separate people who are trying hard to be successful from those who are not. It's much easier to lump them all together and say, "They're lazy." Indeed, it is the people who are blathering on about "personal responsibility" and casting a whole group of Americans as "lazy" who are themselves the lazy ones. They're too lazy to consider people individually, too lazy to consider macroeconomic problems, and so they sit on the couch, throw out insults, and consider the matter done.

Ironically, the Cult of Personal Responsibility is personally responsible for our looming old-age poverty crisis. They provide cover for white collar crime & fraud, laugh off job outsourcing, and are oblivious to the phenomenon of increased worker productivity and stagnant (or dropping) wages. Instead, they heap all of the blame onto the unemployed, the homeless, the working poor, and every other non-wealthy group in America. The Cult of Personal Responsibility will look at an impoverished retired person and say, "You say your house lost its value after the fraud-fueled recession? You say you never got a raise, even though your company's executives kept getting bigger and bigger bonuses? You say you are mired in debt from a college degree that never paid off? You say you were laid off when your job was outsourced to another country? Hmmm....sounds like you, my friend, did not practice personal responsibility! Shame on you!!!"

It's this imbecilic and irrational thinking that's driving old-age poverty and, mark my words, it's this imbecilic and irrational thinking that will prevent us from properly addressing old-age poverty. The political right (the Cult of Personal Responsibility) will cast every struggling senior citizen as a person who failed to practice personal responsibility, and then, wringing their hands and moaning to the heavens, they'll block every government effort to help them.

The New Deal pointed to a better way. New Deal policymakers understood that larger forces and economic patterns often hindered the ability of Americans to better themselves. For example, when President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, he said: "The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure." One might supplement that statement today, and say: "The simple-minded cry of 'personal responsibility' does not adequately address the vast complexities of life and the great power of economic manipulation that rests in the hands of high officials, corporate chiefs, and billionaire power brokers."