Thursday, December 15, 2016

New Deal Health Projects: 20 ways the New Deal improved our health and well-being

"We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation."

--President Franklin Roosevelt, at the dedication of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, October 31, 1940

Above: These African American children in Birmingham, Alabama, are awaiting a health exam at a WPA-run clinic, 1938. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Over the next 4-8 years, Republicans will be engaging in an all-out assault on our health. They'll be trying to kick low-income Americans off Medicaid; privatize Medicare; remove food, drug, and water regulations; reduce funding to public health agencies; pump more crap into the atmosphere (killing even more children across the planet), etc., etc., etc. At the same, of course, they'll be handing out huge tax breaks to the super-wealthy Americans who are already enjoying record wealth.

So, as our health is about to be violently attacked, it is interesting to remember the health projects of the New Deal. Let's look at 20 ways the New Deal improved our health and well-being.

1. Public Education Through WPA Posters

Above: A WPA poster promoting the benefits of breast feeding. The WPA created many hundreds of public information posters, many of which focused on public health and medical care. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

2. Cancer Research

Above: A WPA poster promoting early detection. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On August 5, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation creating the National Cancer Institute, an addition to the National Institute of Health. Three years later, at a dedication ceremony, he said: "The work of this new Institute is well under way. It is promoting and stimulating cancer research throughout the nation; it is bringing to the people of the nation a message of hope because many forms of the disease are not only curable but even preventable. Beyond this, it is doing research here and in many universities to unravel the mysteries of cancer."  

New Deal work-relief programs also contributed to cancer research. For example, it was reported in 1944 that "NYA students at the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin have done unusual work in cancer research. Through centrifugation these young medical students have advanced the knowledge available on cancer by determining the substances in normal tissue which regulate cell growth, either inhibiting or stimulating such growth" (Final Report of the National Youth Administration: Fiscal Years 1936-1943, p. 61).

Compare this type of New Deal activity, with the Republican shut down of government in 2013 - a shut down that delayed clinical trials for children struggling with cancer. (See, e.g., "Shutdown Blocks Kids With Cancer From Clinical Trials," ABC News, October 1, 2013; and "32 Republicans Who Caused the Government Shutdown," The Atlantic, October 4, 2013)

3. Hospitals & Clinics

Above: A WPA-built hospital in Mesa, Arizona, 1937. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A surgery inside the WPA-built hospital in Mesa, 1937. New Deal work programs built or improved thousands of hospitals and clinics across the nation. How many millions of Americans were treated at these medical facilities over the subsequent decades? How many Americans know this history today? Answers: "Many millions" and "very few." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

4. Mobile Health Units

Above: The description for this 1937 photograph reads: "Movable tuberculosis units built by WPA to be placed in patient's own backyard to isolate patient from rest of family." This innovative approach to health care, which kept an ill person close to his/her family and home, probably had a very beneficial effect on the patient. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Above: The description for this 1939 photograph reads: "Farm Security Administration (FSA) migrant labor camp. Two trailers, one to be used by camp manager for living quarters and office, the other as a clinic and health center. Comprise part of the mobile camp unit. This unit will follow the workers from harvest to harvest, where emergency camps will be started." The Farm Security Administration was created by New Deal policymakers in 1937. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: The description for this photograph reads: "Young mother brings her child to the trailer clinic on the day when the doctor will be in camp to examine some of the children. FSA (Farm Security Administration) mobile camp. Merrill, Klamath County, Oregon." Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

5. Sanitary Privies

Above: A new sanitary privy being installed in Dyess, Arkansas, ca. 1935-1940. New Deal work-relief programs installed millions of new privies across the country. A 1935 report from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) noted: "Some people have found humor in the statistics of sanitary privy construction under the CWA, the Work Division [of FERA] and the Works Progress Administration. These sanitary privies have already resulted in the elimination of much of the surface breeding of hookworm in the South, and have helped immeasurably in the fight against typhus. In the annual report of the Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service we find that in 1934 the typhoid fever death rate for the 47 states reporting was 'the lowest ever recorded...'" Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

6. Better Nutrition With WPA School Lunch Programs

Above: The description for this 1938 photograph reads: "WPA Hot School Lunch Project - School lunches are prepared and distributed by trucks for undernourished children to schools in the Dist. of Columbia. Photo shows children enjoying their hot school lunch." Across the nation, the WPA served 1.2 billion school lunches (Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, p. 134). Compare that to the Republican philosophy today - a philosophy embodied in the words of former Lt. Governor of South Carolina, Andre Bauer: "My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better" ("S.C. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer Compares Helping Poor To Feeding Stray Animals," CBS News, January 25, 2010). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

7. Immunizations

Above: A WPA poster promoting vaccinations. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, it is noted that "School children were given various tests, such as the Schick test for susceptibility to diphtheria; and immunizations against diphtheria, typhoid fever, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases were widely administered in schools and clinics" (p. 69).

In the early 20th century, Diphtheria was a major problem. For example, in 1921 over 15,000 children died from it.

8. House Calls

Above: During the New Deal, unemployed nurses were paid to make house calls. This nurse is checking in on a sick child in New Orleans, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: The WPA employed many jobless women to help low-income families with their child care and housekeeping needs. The description for this 1939 photograph reads: "WPA Housekeeping Aid attending a mother and a 9-day old baby in a rural home near Brewton, Alabama." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

New Deal house calls were a win-win situation. Unemployed workers were given useful jobs, and Americans in need--for example, low-income mothers--were given assistance. Today, we'd never dream of such a thing. Today, the philosophy is: "The unemployed are undeserving & lazy, and the poor can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps." And perhaps this modern, sociopathic mindset is why "Our infant mortality rate is a national embarrassment" (Washington Post, September 29, 2014).      

9. Medical Care and Physical Fitness in the Civilian Conservation Corps 

Above: Between 1933 and 1942, millions of depressed, undernourished, and inactive young men transformed into proud, hard-bodied forest soldiers in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In the process they created or improved hundreds of parks and forests across the nation - parks and forests that we still hike, hunt, camp, kayak, and fish in today. Image courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: A CCC track & field team in the Virgin Islands, ca. 1933-1942. Enrollees in the CCC had opportunities to play baseball, basketball, and more. Like their forest work, these activities turned them into physically fit young men. Could a new CCC help young Americans in this regard today, especially considering America's obesity problems? Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The young men who joined the CCC came from low-income backgrounds. Growing up, they were not permitted to have the same level of health care as rich Americans. But that changed, to a large degree, once they joined the Corps. James McEntee, who directed the CCC during its final years, described their health care:

"All of the men who served in the CCC were inoculated against typhoid fever and smallpox. Many others in various sections of the country were inoculated against other diseases including pneumonia and spotted fever. At every camp there was a small 'hospital' or infirmary of four to eight beds to take care of minor sickness or injury... In case of critical sickness or injury, enrollees were taken to the nearest available Government or private hospital to receive the most skilled medical attention which could be obtained. There was a standard ratio of two doctors for every three [CCC] camps... Dental care was also provided by travelling dentists who would visit the camps periodically... In line with the standards of preventive medicine... was the policy of immediate and thorough treatment of even minor sickness or illness. This early and competent treatment of apparently minor ills resulted in a relatively large number of patients treated - and it greatly reduced the severity of illness and injury" (Federal Security Agency, Final Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, April, 1933 through June 30, 1942, p. 54).

10. Better Drinking Water

Above: A waterworks project in Michigan City, Indiana, funded by the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA), ca. 1933-1943. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

New Deal work & construction programs provided funds and labor for thousands of waterworks projects across the nation, bring cleaner water to millions of Americans. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and his PWA, explained why they worked on all these projects - in words that, if we had heeded them, could have prevented the lead poisoning of millions of American children over the past several years:

"Water is life. Apparently this fundamental fact must be learned on the battlefront of experience again and again. When this lesson is forgotten, even for a moment, the consequences are immediate and disastrous. A brief lapse in maintaining the purity of a water supply occurred in 1928 in Olean, N.Y., a town with a population of 21,000. Typhoid germs rode into the Olean homes through the water pipes. Two hundred and thirty-eight cases of the disease resulted. Twenty-one people died... To prevent similar disasters, engineers everywhere to whom the Nation has entrusted the purity of its water supply must be eternally vigilant" (America Builds: The Record of PWA, 1939, pp. 169-170).

11. Removing Wastewater

Above: The description for this 1937 photograph, from Carbon Hill, Alabama, reads, "Depicting old method of collecting sewerage before installation of modern disposal plant by WPA." Many conservative politicians like to say "government is the problem, not the solution." Are you kidding me?? Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: WPA workers installing a sewer system in Frederick County, Maryland, 1936. Across the country, WPA workers installed 24,000 miles of new sewer lines. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

12. Fighting Malaria

Above: This WPA worker is spraying oil into a culvert to destroy breeding mosquitoes, in Dyess, Arkansas, 1936. WPA and CCC workers drained swamps and sprayed for mosquitoes all across the country. Though some of their methods might, in hindsight, not have been perfect for the environment, they played an instrumental role in the virtual elimination of malaria from the United States. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

According to Dr. Carl Kitchens, of Florida State University, "Between 1932 and 1940 the malaria rate in [Georgia] counties that received WPA malaria projects fell from 25.9 deaths per 100,000 to 5.3 deaths per 100,000. The empirical estimates suggest that WPA malaria projects led to 9.1 fewer deaths per 100,000 or roughly 44% of the observed decline in treated counties."

13. Food and Drug Regulation

Above: A WPA poster warning about contaminated milk. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On June 24, 1938, President Roosevelt signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act into law. The act called for better ingredient labels, more scrutiny of drugs that made questionable claims, evidence of product safety, and more. One of the primary drivers behind the law was the death of over 100 people from "Elixir Sulfanilamide" in 1937. Apparently, the drug maker, S.E. Massengill Company, was unaware of a deadly ingredient they were using, failed to perform clinical trials, and shipped the drug off to pharmacies around the country. Many of the patients who took the medicine suffered an "extremely painful, excruciating death," sometimes going through several days of agony.

New Deal policymakers understood that life and death can't be left up to the "free market," unless you want a trail of dead bodies leading to various food and drug companies. Republicans, on the other hand, often see little need for regulation. For example, back in September, the Trump Campaign mocked the "FDA Food Police," questioning (among other things) why the FDA was so concerned about "food production hygiene, food packaging, [and] food temperatures" ("Trump floats rolling back food safety regulations," The Hill, September 15, 2016). This is the kind of mentality that gets people killed - just like the people who died in Flint, Michigan, from Legionnaires disease, after the city's drinking water was switched to a foul source to save money. As The Detroit News recently reported:

"It’s nearly certain the use of the Flint River as a municipal water source caused the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that killed 12 people and sickened 91 during the summers of 2014 and 2015, according to a team of scientists investigating the city’s water issues. Conditions created by switching the city to the river water without adding proper corrosion controls in April 2014 created a perfect environment for the deadly Legionella bacteria to thrive, Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards told The News. 'We have very little doubt that the outbreak was caused by the switch to Flint River water,' Edwards said."

This is the kind of world that Republicans and Libertarians are trying to create. A world where our lives and our health are at the mercy super-wealthy Americans and corporate-bought politicians. "Tainted food?" they ask. "A family member dead because of a bad manufacturer? Hey, no problem! No need for regulations! Just switch to one of their competitors! That's how the free market works!"

Yes, it's hard to believe, but that's their idiotic philosophy.    
14. Health education

Above: A WPA poster promoting one of its many health education programs. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Above: The description for this WPA photograph, ca. 1935-1943, reads, "Mothers [in New Orleans] receiving instructions on bathing and dressing babies at Maternity Center." Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

15. Sports and Recreation

Above: A man tees off at a WPA-built golf course in Bisbee, Arizona, 1937. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

New Deal policymakers understood that human beings need to get outside and get the blood flowing. They understood that life isn't just about "climbing the corporate ladder"; or sitting in a cubicle for 16 hours a day and making the already-rich richer; or sitting on a sofa and watching a bunch of self-absorbed "reality" TV stars; or being zombified by smart phones for hours on end; or being hypnotized by the millions of random thoughts posted on Twitter. They understood that America would become fat and sickly without proper recreation and physical activity (and so we have). So they built, repaired, or improved thousands of recreational projects all across the country - parks, playgrounds, athletic fields, handball courts, horseshoe courts, tennis courts, swimming pools, ice skating rinks, ski trails, golf courses, and more.  

16. Workplace Safety

Above: A WPA first-aid vehicle, on a WPA work-site in Mobile, Alabama, ca. 1935-1943. Workplace safety gained increasing attention during the New Deal. With the Wagner Act, for example, New Deal policymakers protected the right to bargain collectively. Thus, unions were able to push for safer working conditions - with less fear of retaliation. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: A WPA poster promoting workplace safety. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The WPA had an extensive safety program, as noted in its final report: "The WPA safety program has been the subject of much favorable comment by the Nation's press and by safety authorities generally. The WPA held full membership in the National Safety Council and was commended by that organization for its leadership in the accident prevention field" (p. 76).

17. FDR's Advocacy

Above: Franklin Roosevelt, 1941. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

During his Second Bill of Rights speech in 1944, Franklin Roosevelt advocated for the right of every American to have adequate recreation, as well as the "right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health." In a message to Congress in 1939, Roosevelt reported on a national health study he had started, and said: "The health of the people is a public concern; ill health is a major cause of suffering, economic loss, and dependency; good health is essential to the security and progress of the Nation."

FDR's advocacy was part of America's evolution towards greater health care for all Americans (think Medicare, and also the recent  Medicaid expansion).

18. Surplus Commodities and the Food Stamp Plan

Above: The description for this photograph, taken in Salem, Virginia, ca. 1935-1940, reads, "Two small colored boys pose with their mother in their new overcoats given to relief clients by the WPA-Surplus Commodities." New Deal policymakers & New Deal workers helped many families-in-need with surplus food, clothing, mattresses, towels, cotton, flour, and more. These commodities helped people deal with hunger and cold temperatures, thereby improving health. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: Our modern SNAP program has its roots in the New Deal's "Food Stamp Plan." The Food Stamp Plan was started in 1939, under the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (note the "F.S.C.C." in the upper left-hand corner of the stamps pictured above). The plan worked by giving out blue stamps to low-income Americans, for free, when they purchased the orange stamps. Photo from personal collection.

19. Better Housing For Better Health

Above: The description for this WPA photograph, from Newport, Arkansas, ca. 1935-1940, reads, "Family living in cave until it was condemned by social workers." Republican and libertarian voters who want to take America back to its pre-New Deal way of life, forget (or have never been taught in the first place) that many Americans lived in extreme desperation during those times. Without a social safety net, they resorted to living in caves, sending their children to work in the mines, letting contagious diseases go untreated (thereby putting all Americans at risk), and more. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: The description for this WPA photograph, ca. 1935-1940, reads, "Houses for poor families constructed at Arecibo, Puerto Rico." They're not much, but they're certainly better than caves, crumbling shacks, or cardboard boxes. New Deal policymakers tried very hard to create affordable housing or shelter for everyone. Sadly, many of our policymakers today have ice water running through their veins - and so they wouldn't even consider creating the modest little shelters you see above. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

20. Financial Security = Better Mental Health

Above: A WPA worker in Washington, DC, smiles after looking at his paycheck. In his autobiography, Ronald Reagan wrote: "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

A big component of the New Deal was increasing financial security for Americans who had been pounded into the ground by the Great Depression: Jobs & paychecks for the unemployed; Social Security for senior citizens; FDIC to protect Americans' bank deposits; protection for unions to bargain for better pay & benefits; special programs to boost the income of farmers; reduction of debt; and so on.

The New Deal sought to relieve financial stress and anxiety because, when you can relieve those two things, mental health improves - people are happier and have greater peace of mind. Compare that to today, where we have tremendous financial stress across the population (e.g., stagnant wages, outsourced jobs, and crushing student loan debt) but most of our policymakers shrug their shoulders. As long as they can continue collecting cash from their billionaire donors, the pain and suffering of the masses matters not. In light of this, is it any wonder that the United States is experiencing more suicide, more deaths of despair, and a dropping life expectancy?

The Results of New Deal Health Projects 

The New Deal had a great positive impact on the health of Americans during the 1930s and 40s. For example, researchers from Oxford and Stanford universities estimate that "every $100 in New Deal spending per capita was associated with a decline in pneumonia deaths of 18 per 100,000 people; a reduction in infant deaths of 18 per 1,000 live births; and a drop in suicides of 4 per 100,000 people" ("How Austerity Kills," New York Times, May 12, 2013).

And subsequent to the New Deal, how many millions of Americans were treated in the thousands of hospitals and clinics that the New Deal built, repaired, or improved? How much disease was averted, over the decades, thanks to New Deal water lines, wastewater removal, and malaria control? How many workplace injuries were avoided, thanks to (New Deal-protected) collective bargaining for safer working conditions? How many lives have been saved by regulations keeping deadly "medicines" from consumers?

Amazingly, Republicans and Libertarians want to undo this legacy. For example, ThinkProgress recently reported on a speech that Newt Gingrich gave to the right-wing Heritage Foundation:

"Gingrich twice brought up the possibility of rolling back Roosevelt’s model of governance, at one point telling the conservative audience that, if Trump is succeeded by another Republican, that would establish 'firmly that we have replaced the FDR model and that we are now in a period of very different government.'"

And what does that "very different government" look like? It looks like--indeed, it is--fascism and plutocracy. It is a government where the extent of your freedom, and the health of your body, is directly linked to your wealth. It is government where, if you have no sizable political donation to make, your life doesn't matter. Of course, we've been moving towards this type of government for decades now, with Republicans pushing trickle-down economics on us, Libertarians pushing Ayn Rand on us, and Democrats losing their spine and turning their backs on the New Deal; but now, with Republicans in charge of all three branches of federal government, as well as most state governments, we'll be moving towards fascism and plutocracy with light speed.

How will our health be impacted by full-blown fascism and plutocracy?

And think about this: If Republicans convert any more states to right-wing governance, they'll be able to call a constitutional convention and fundamentally change the way we live. They'll create a toxic stew of fascism, plutocracy, and theocracy, and the words "general welfare" will be crossed out of the Constitution forever. Does that sound far-fetched? Well, a year ago, so did a Donald Trump presidency. (See, e.g., "Republican success opens door to amending U.S. Constitution," Chicago Tribune, December 5, 2016.)

In sum, the New Deal improved our health and well-being. Trickle-down economics and Clinton-style neoliberalism have seriously damaged it. But the coming right-wing federal government, and the potential re-write of our entire U.S. Constitution, may put the final nails in it.

"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."

--President Franklin Roosevelt, acceptance speech for the renomination for the presidency, Philadelphia, June 27, 1936


  1. Excellent work. Very comprehensive coverage of the changes made. I might add a couple of additions, one for retirement or nursing homes. In my pervue of town reports in New England, the Town Farm was the prevelant "dumping ground" of the elderly, transients, mentally handicapped, etc. for rural communities and New Deal assistance for these was common as I saw from a newspaper article about the CWA doing repairs on the one in my home town of Madison Maine. Two, is the adoption of the Hill Burton Act in 1946–Burton_Act as the first national health care policy to insure a proper percentage of beds per population in each county and most importantly, provisions to provide the means of providing health care to those unable to pay. It was replaced with the HMO system in 1975 by Nixon who similarly destroyed the FDR influenced Bretton Woods System under advice of ghouls like Milton Friedman.

    1. Thanks Drew. Yeah, I had to stop at 20, for time sake.