Good Enough for Grandpa

With 8.3% unemployment in the fourth year of this recession, it's hard to find much to celebrate.  We could remind ourselves that we're in better shape than Europe.  We could be glad we're not over 10% as we were in 2009.  We could be grateful for safety nets that provide some relief to the unemployed.

But jobs are what we need, not payouts in lieu of jobs.

Yesterday, went live with the 1940 US Census, now fully indexed by name in all states.  I couldn't resist checking in on the parents and grandparents.  Scott and I had grandparents living in California, Ohio and Illinois in 1940. Our grandfathers ranged in ages between 38 and 52 that year.

The census included lots of juicy information including:
  • how much schooling each had had, 
  • employment situation,
  • income, 
  • how many hours each person had worked for pay in a week, 
  • how many weeks they'd worked during the year or how long they'd been looking for work,
  • whether anyone in the household had done "emergency work" during the year,
  • whether the family had moved in the past five years and much more.
There were similarities between all four families.  None of the grandmothers worked for wages.  None of the families owned homes. All were living somewhere west of where they'd been born. None owned their own businesses.

What was most interesting to me though was that two of the four men had participated in the emergency employment programs set up by President Roosevelt and the Congress to get Americans working again.  One had worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the other for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  That's half of our grandfathers -- and their families -- benefiting from (and depending on) emergency jobs programs established to get Americans working during the Depression.

In 1940, 9.5% of the workforce (mostly male) was unemployed. That was a great improvement over the 20.6% unemployment in 1933.  President Roosevelt, a Democrat, enjoyed his party's control over both houses of Congress and pushed through several work programs.  The benefits of those programs live on today -- in rural electrification, in libraries, dams, bridges, roads, parks and other infrastructure.  There were also cultural programs, programs that focused on literature, the arts and preserving heritage.

The largest of these programs, the WPA, in 1935 cost 6.7% of the nation's entire GDP, the value of all goods and services produced.  An equivalent expenditure would be over one trillion dollars today.  Eight million Americans worked for the WPA at some time between 1935 and 1943.  One of them was Orley Menteer, Scott's grandfather, out of work again when the census taker arrived.

In 2009, Congress passed and the President signed a stimulus program for our times.  At $787 billion, it approached that trillion dollar target set by the WPA.  But remember that the WPA was one of many programs and was SOLELY a jobs program.

Our recent stimulus?  Mostly NOT a jobs program.  In order to pass it through a stymied Congress, one paralyzed by excessive use of the filibuster (so that simple majorities no longer could do business), the bill was designed to be one-third tax cuts and two-thirds spending.  The tax cuts created no calculable jobs leaving about $500 billion in actual spending, less than half the WPA precedent.  The stimulus did save and create jobs, but not nearly enough.  It extended unemployment benefits, Medicaid assistance and other safety net programs to help the jobless through tough times.  And it saved state and local government jobs (notably millions of teachers) whose jobs were promptly cut once the stimulus dollars ran out.

But for a jobs program, it was too unambitious.  The President then proposed other jobs programs, focusing on infrastructure needs around the nation, but could not get anything through a hostile Congress after the 2010 election.

And we still have 8.3% of Americans looking for work and finding none.  Orley barely subsisted with the help he got from the WPA.  Gailord was lucky to find work as a foreman on a Klamath Falls CCC project.  Nathan got by working 60 hours a week for his brother and William left his family to take a job for the Mississippi Barge Line.

In the first four years of the 1930s Depression, unemployment fell from 20.6% to 9.9%.  Most of the gain came from those emergency work programs, programs the government could not afford to launch but could not afford not to either.  (Disregarding those programs, unemployment in 1940 was still 14.6%) The nation took a gamble, risking deficits to get people working again.

Today, suggesting anything like what our nation accomplished 72 years ago is labeled "socialism".  All I know is that it was that sort of spirit, that sort of gamble, that made the United States the ultimate world power for the seven decades since.


  1. Wow! Strong and passionate! Fabulous facts and you did a marvelous job weaving the past and present together. Thanks for putting it out there like that for me to read.


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