Friday, December 23, 2016

New Deal Christmas toys for California children: A sign of a better government

Above: The description for this photograph (taken December 5, 1940) reads, "Toy donations received at National Youth Administration's Long Beach [California] Office, 1206 W. 7th St., are inspected by Ray Schakel and Mary Weissker, National Youth Administration workers, who will help recondition the toys for free distribution through the Christmas Cheer Fund." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

During the 1930s and early 40s, New Deal work-relief agencies made, repaired, and reconditioned toys, for distribution (or loan) to children from low-income families. For example, in the December 12, 1936 edition of The San Bernardino Daily Sun, it was announced that thousands of toys would be distributed to area children, and that many of the toys had been reconditioned by a WPA toy-repair shop. It was also reported that some of the toys were rag dolls and stockings, created by WPA sewing room projects. ("City Agencies To Distribute Toys To Needy")

It was a different time back then, a different form of government. Employing the jobless, to engage in projects that helped the poor, or repaired infrastructure, was seen as a good thing. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt said: "We seek not merely to make Government a mechanical implement, but to give it the vibrant personal character that is the very embodiment of human charity. We are poor indeed if this Nation cannot afford to lift from every recess of American life the dread fear of the unemployed that they are not needed in the world. We cannot afford to accumulate a deficit in the books of human fortitude... Better the occasional faults of a Government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a Government frozen in the ice of its own indifference."

Today, the unemployed are far more likely to be labeled as "takers," than receive public works jobs. And poor children are far more likely to face cuts in government services than receive free toys from the federal government to bring them smiles. Indeed, the latter would bring hoot & howls, nervous hand-wringing, and desperate cries of "the End Times are here!" from those on the far political right (meanwhile, federally-funded perpetual war, which kills thousands of children abroad, doesn't seem to garner the same amount of frantic concern).   

It's so depressing to see a nation embrace callousness, when it could, instead, embrace the very words of its Constitution - words that described a government that would "promote the general welfare" and "provide for... the general welfare." The way many people act today, you'd swear somewhere in the Constitution, it said: "Hate those who are different! Get the 'takers' before they get you! Government is only allowed to help rich people, you low-income parasite!"

San Francisco psychologist Michael Bader recently wrote: "when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger and hopelessness. Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others... The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic" ("The Breakdown of Empathy and the Political Right in America," Alternet, December 22, 2016; also see "'Deaths of Despair' are killing America's white working class," Quartz, December 30, 2015, and "U.S. Suicide Rate Surges To A 30-Year High," New York Times, April 22, 2016).

When it came to government and empathy, the New Dealers had it right - as highlighted by (among other things) their toy repair, loan, and distribution projects. But today--after our embrace of "rugged individualism," and after our embrace of "winner-take-all capitalism"--it is clear that we're getting things dreadfully, dreadfully wrong. We're angry. We're scared. We're depressed. We're suicidal (the CDC reported that 9.3 million adults had suicidal thoughts in 2013). And, amazingly, we're about to double-down on all the things that have made us that way (wasteful military spending, trickle-down economics, and relentless attacks on the social safety net).

We need a New Deal... for children, for workers, for our finances, and for our mental health.

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