California Forum

New Deal: An example for today?

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When Gray Brechin decided several years ago to develop a catalog of thousands of New Deal projects built in the 1930s, one of his goals was to show how government could help Americans when it embraced a humanitarian ethos.

At the time, Brechin, a UC Berkeley geographer, could not have known how much his effort would be relevant to the debate being waged in America today over the extent to which government should aid the least fortunate among us when a growing gap divides the top 1 percent and the rest of us.

With his website catalog, Brechin offers a spectacular gift: Accompanied by thousands of photos, the website chronicles the schools, hospitals, courthouses, city halls, post offices, bridges, water systems, art works and other projects across America that owed their existence in whole or in part to New Deal projects carried out during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Brechin’s work is particularly powerful because most Americans, as academicians will tell you, tend to live very much in the now with only a minimal grasp of their country’s history and what it says about their nation’s future.

David B. Grusky, a Stanford sociology professor who heads the university’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, described Americans’ lack of in-depth historical knowledge of their country when I questioned him recently: “We are not a country that likes looking back all that much – so the lessons of the past tend not to be taken into account as much as they should be.

“The New Deal could be understood as a recent example of how the U.S. government has successfully innovated to adapt to new challenges, but strangely we don’t celebrate it in the way that, say, the U.K. celebrates its National Health Service. Why not?” Grusky asked. “It’s not just that, as a country, we relentlessly look forward. It’s also that we have a special aversion right now to any rendition of history that would point to key examples of successful state activism.”

Brechin’s Web-based project, “Living New Deal: Still Working For America,” has so far identified about 5,900 New Deal projects mainly from the 1930s when the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression and many millions were unemployed.

Funded by public grants and private donations, Brechin has two goals that shape his website, To engage in an archeological hunt “to dig up what has been lost and forgotten” about New Deal projects – many of them elegant and imposing in design – and to shine a spotlight on the ethic of social responsibility underlying the New Deal “with its vast expansion of public service. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were Christians and believed it their duty to help others less fortunate than themselves.”

As Brechin, who is also a historian, has done his research, he has come to realize how New Deal-affiliated projects were responsible for remaking much of the face of America.

Just take the San Joaquin Valley as an example, he told me.

“When I went to the State Library, I found three scrapbooks of clippings revealing how the Works Progress Administration catapulted the Valley from the 19th into the 20th century,” Brechin said. That seven-year drive of frenetic activity “was aimed at extricating the region from the Great Depression, and it largely succeeded.”

“Suddenly all these towns had paved sidewalks and streets, parks, airstrips, clean water, clinics, public art, modern schools, city halls, sewage systems, fire stations, post offices, dams and irrigation canals that immensely increased farm productivity.”

Many of the projects had no plaque commemorating government’s role in their creation, so once the dedication ceremonies were over, the origin of the funding and the labor was quickly taken for granted and forgotten,” Brechin added.

Brechin is hoping that his project’s portrayal of New Deal achievements will help citizens better understand the uplifting, enduring role government can play – when they learn about the sweeping reach of New Deal construction projects and many of the vital social programs that originated during FDR’s presidency and continue to this day. Those programs include Social Security, which today pays benefits to 55 million of the nation’s 317 million citizens.

Because Brechin’s goals are so lofty, one could see him as an enthusiastic scholar on a Quixotic mission with little chance of capturing the hearts and minds of many Americans in this information- and technology-besotted 21st century.

Actually, though, Brechin’s research comes at a propitious time: In Congress and state legislatures, politicians are engaged in fierce debate over what role government should play in assisting the nation’s poor. The debate occurs in an era when the rich are thriving and the legions of poor are suffering. By quantifying successful New Deal works and emphasizing the New Deal’s humane ethic, Brechin challenges those politicians who seek to unravel New Deal-originating programs and cut government safety nets. Take this example: The farm bill, signed into law Feb. 7 by President Barack Obama, cuts $8 billion over the next decade from the food stamp program, which serves about 47 million Americans.

One of the strongest critics of government’s failure to address the widening chasm between the rich and the rest of us has been Robert Reich, a UC Berkeley professor of public policy, former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, and member of the Living New Deal’s board of directors.

In his columns, blogs and a 2013 documentary – “Inequality For All’’ – Reich pounds away at the nation’s powerful interests invested in keeping things just as they are.

In the documentary, Reich makes several resonating points – that society cannot prosper without a stable middle class that has money to spend; that the very wealthy use their money to lobby to keep their wealth entrenched; that if workers don’t have a voice, their salaries and benefits inevitably start eroding; and that in times of high inequality, increased polarization occurs and “we are seeing an entire society that is starting to pull apart.”

In Washington, the president has called the inequality between rich and poor in our country “the defining challenge of our time,” and, facing this challenge, I find value in looking back at how the New Deal benefited the neediest among us.

Benjamin M. Friedman, a Harvard economist, wrote in his book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth” that the New Deal “was the attempt to mobilize the effective energy of government to spread economic opportunity as widely as possible – to include those whom birth and the tide of events had left out of the distribution of America’s economic dividend.”

Fundamentally, what Friedman and some other historians see as the biggest change wrought by the New Deal is the shift it created in Americans’ perception of the role of government.

“During the Depression of the 1930s many Americans bore no personal responsibility for their economic hardships but were nonetheless unable, as individuals, to defend themselves economically,” Friedman told me in an email. “The Depression therefore raised, in an intensity never before experienced, the question of whether their government could undertake that task for them. In the United States, as in many other countries, by the time the Depression ended the clearly understood answer was yes: government intervention was necessary.

“The consequences of taking that turn have been enormous. Just here in the United States, the direct legacies of the Depression and our government’s reaction to it include Social Security, unemployment insurance, deposit insurance, securities market regulation, and disaster relief, to name just a few.”

In an earlier phone interview, Friedman also made this point: Now, more than seven decades after the New Deal, he doesn’t believe many Americans have much knowledge of the New Deal’s achievements or its underlying philosophy.

“My sense is most Americans are pretty spotty in their knowledge of history in general and even less sufficient in their knowledge of economic history,” Friedman told me. “When did Social Security start? The number of people who’d know this was a program dating back to the New Deal in the 1930s would be relatively few.”

In my case, my lack of knowledge about the New Deal’s triumphs is vividly apparent even though I should have known more. My parents were ardent FDR admirers. My late godmother, Diana Roosevelt Jaicks, was a niece of FDR, and I contributed $100 at a recent Living New Deal fundraiser at the home of another niece of FDR, Janet Roosevelt Katten. In my own family, Father, a psychologist, had written a labor-oriented, critical biography of Henry Ford. Mother, a lawyer and former public housing authority administrator, often represented people with little money. At home, our dinner table talk sometimes involved discussions about why modern-day politicians were such pale shadows of FDR, and what was it about Roosevelt’s era that made him able to achieve so much for those in need. We never talked, though, about the New Deal’s effect on our city, Santa Monica.

So one day recently I clicked on Brechin’s website. There had been New Deal work done at my elementary school, my middle school, my high school, my city college, my library, my city hall and my post office. Those buildings were part of my childhood, but I had never wondered where the money came from to build them or who worked on them and what vision lay behind those projects.

Today I want to believe we could be a nation that would launch a campaign to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and to employ and train those on the bottom to move them up the economic ladder. I have doubts, though, when I look at the increasing gap between rich and poor in America. But in response to my questions in an email, Reich insisted that this challenge can be met.

I cling to his words:

“Of course it’s difficult – major reforms are always difficult,” he told me. “Getting the Civil Rights Act was difficult. Enacting the Environmental Protection Act was difficult. Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, and Medicare and Medicaid were all difficult. Getting women’s suffrage and a 40-hour workweek and a progressive income tax were all difficult. The important thing to note is that every time over the last century that American capitalism has been endangered by its own excesses, we’re reformed it. We’ve widened the circle of prosperity. We can do so again.”