Depression and New Deal

  • Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
  • Gordon, Linda. Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

This week’s readings encompassed the New Deal and the Depression. The texts operate at different scales of historical analysis. Badger is interested in a larger scale view of the domestic nature of the New Deal and probing it’s supposed “revolutionary” or drastic changes in American society. Moving from the broader scope to a focus on a specific reform, Gordon focuses on the “single mother” and the welfare system. These varying scales help to illuminate the impact of New Deal programs.

In The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940, Badger is not interested in providing another chronological narrative of the New Deal or a narrative biography of FDR. Instead, he wants to explore “how individual programmes operated and to give some indication of the local dimensions of such activities.” [10] In order to achieve this, he focuses each chapter on a specific theme (industry and finance, organized labor, agriculture, welfare, and politics) in order to detail the various New Deal programs and legislation. Badger notes in his section on finance and industry, that the National Industrial Recovery Act fostered a system of business self-regulation that failed to improve the economic situation. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that FDR committed to Keynesian economics and spend his way out of the depression. Labor saw their position improved during the Great Depression with the establishment of the Wagner Act and its protection of unions. The agricultural reforms were largely a miss as planned scarcity and modernization efforts were rejected by farmers. Badger rebuts critics of the welfare state in noting that the policy-makers were facing an obstacle of 35% of the national population were at one point on public assistance and social insurance. He then goes on to detail the establishment of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration  (1933), Civil Works Administration (1933), Works Progress Administration (1935), and the Social Security Act (1935) as providing those dependent individuals with work and insurance. Politically, the New Deal and FDR fostered a “realignment of political parties” with numerous class-based groups supporting the New Democratic party. Returning to Badger’s argument, all of these programs w to fruition were only “holding” American society and that the real change came to fruition in World War II.

Gordon’s Pitied but Not Entitled is focused on “the historical transformation in meaning “of the word welfare. Identifying the period between 1890-1935 as experiencing the greatest amount of change regarding welfare, Gordon traces the intellectual history of “welfare” from the Progressive Era through to the Social Security Act and the development of the Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) provision in 1935. Gordon’s intent is to highlight the gendered and class-based framework surrounding “single mothers” and to illustrate the tensions within the welfare movement. “Single mothers” were largely defined by these female reformers in traditional gender roles such a being a widow and as a mother/non-wageworker. These reformers were largely driven by a maternalism or a motherly role over the poor and that their role as mothers made them uniquely able to lead these reforms. In 1912 the Children’s Bureau was established and Gordon identifies it as the biggest political influence on welfare. The Bureau would be involved in the creation of the ADC but ultimately would be hampered in that endeavor. Gordon is particularly attuned to the gendered roles of both men and women. She notes at one point that maternalism’s discouragement of working mothers mirrored the “New Deal strategies to promote wage-earning manhood”[196] Gordon also details a white women’s network of welfare and a black women’s network of welfare, noting the nuances of each. Black welfare leaders were ignored and their interests not addressed within the larger welfare reform. Gordon articulates an interesting dichotomy between civil rights and welfare and that such a dichotomy “arises precisely from applying a white notion of welfare.” [119]

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Rodger’s argument that the New Deal is the release of decades of progressive work correlate to both Badger and Gordon?
  2. In what ways does Gordon’s text support Badger’s thesis that “for many Americans the decisive change in their experiences came not with the New Deal but with World War II?
Depression and New Deal

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