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FDR prolonged the Depression?


My father and his parents would spin in their graves if they could hear the nonsense conservatives are peddling about the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. In case you haven't heard, the right wing's latest fantasy is that the New Deal made the Great Depression worse. Try telling that to the tens of millions of people who, like myself, grew up hearing stories of family members being rescued from abject poverty by one or more of FDR's New Deal programs.

As late as the 1960s, my paternal grandparents' living room walls held a couple of framed landscape scenes, some family pictures, a reproduction of Da Vinci's The Last Supper -- and a photograph of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I'll tell you why.

People in the South suffered greatly during the early 20th century when the region's agricultural economy collapsed, so they were hit particularly hard when the Great Depression piled on and upped the hurt even further. My dad, his parents and nearly everyone they knew were swept up in the calamity. To say that they had a hard time would be a harsh understatement. Grandpa's regular job disappeared, and he took whatever small part-time jobs he could find, mostly handyman work, some house painting, even delivering bootleg whiskey. Grandma was a fine seamstress who made dresses and did alterations, but the Depression drastically cut demand for her work, and she took to accepting food, even live chickens, as payment. Finally, the Works Progress Administration gave Grandpa a job, helping build a new movie theater, and later, laying railroad tracks. I remember him telling me that the WPA jobs "let me put decent food on the table again."

Later, when Dad came of age, he signed up with another New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent him to build roads in Utah, from where he mailed money back home. In short, without the New Deal, the Grooms family would have been screwed. And so would millions of others for whom Roosevelt's programs provided desperately needed help and, in many cases, saved families and lives.

So what's this new deal the conservatives are trying to push about the original New Deal? Their argument, stemming from the book The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes, boils down to this: The country endured a short but serious recession in late 1937 and early '38, five years into FDR's time in office. Conservatives, echoing Shlaes' argument, claim the recession is proof that Roosevelt's policy of pumping money into the economy was counterproductive and discouraged investment that would have allowed the economy to right itself in time. They also claim that unemployment decreased only slightly during the New Deal and didn't drop significantly until World War II started. Certainly, the New Deal had its share of problems, and it took the massive public spending needed for World War II to completely lift the United States out of the Depression. But Shlaes' arguments present four serious problems.

First, she fails to note that the recession took place after FDR's spending had brought four years of vigorous annual economic growth, in the 9 to 10 percent range.

Second, Shlaes' unemployment numbers are wrong: She doesn't include jobs created by FDR's programs as "real jobs," which allows her to overstate unemployment rates by a third. (I guess Dad's checks from the CCC and Grandpa's from the WPA didn't really exist, either.) The fact is that the period from 1933 to 1941, before Pearl Harbor threw the United States into WWII, saw the single largest drop in the unemployment rate in U.S. history, from 24.75 percent to 9.66 percent. Yes, unemployment rose during the '37-38 recession, but, as has been pointed out recently by various historians and economists, the recession occurred when FDR, responding to conservative complaints about deficits, was persuaded to cut spending -- at which point the nation slipped into recession. Roosevelt learned a lesson, ditched his spending cuts in 1938, and sure enough, the economy grew again.

A third, and larger, problem with the right's revisionist take on the New Deal is that it overlooks the very real relief FDR's programs brought to millions of citizens. You don't expect conservatives to care about that kind of feel-good stuff, but considering the dire straits the nation was in at the beginning of FDR's first term, their failure to give credit to the New Deal for alleviating national suffering is unconscionable.

Fourth, there's the simple matter of common sense: American voters elected Franklin Roosevelt four times. You think maybe their seeing first-hand the results of FDR's programs had something to do with his unprecedented electoral success?

I'm willing to bet conservatives' attacks on the New Deal have little to do with historical study and lots to do with Republicans trying to stop Obama's economic stimulus package. Hopefully, their bogus arguments will be rejected in Congress, and Obama's plans for massive public works spending will pass quickly. If, by some chance, however, the right's anti-FDR rants are successful, and a new New Deal is killed, get ready to feel an earthquake. It'll be the millions of Americans who were helped by FDR during the Great Depression, including my father and grandparents, spinning in their graves.

See U.S. Census Bureau statistics about unemployment during the Great Depression here:

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