By Ms. Tilt

In 1933, reporter Lorena Hickok drove through the Tennessee Valley region to report on the effects of the Depression in rural areas. In a series of short, punchy descriptors, Hickok painted a picture of rural suffering and poverty:

“Table land. Thin soil. Terrible housing. Illiteracy. Evidence of prolonged undernourishment. No knowledge of how to live decently or farm profitably if they had decent land” (Lorena Hickok’s Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation).

Critics of big government look back at the Great Depression and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal as a time when the federal government ballooned out of control; FDR created programs that pushed the US deep into debt and fostered greater dependency among its citizens. However, these criticisms ignore the context in which FDR was acting – the dire poverty that Hickok and others saw around them as unemployment spiked and the prosperity of the roaring 20s vanished.

Amid the suffering, expanding government control played an enormous role in improving the lives of American citizens. Three programs in particular, most often criticized for their size and influence, provided the most relief: the WPA, which provided rewarding jobs for the unemployed, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which employed people throughout the southern United States to help prevent floods and provide cheap electricity, and Social Security, which provided income to impoverished retirees.

FDR developed the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, to provide direct support for the unemployed and their families. During the Great Depression, unemployment soared to 25% (Photograph B2). Consequently, many people were unable to provide for themselves or their families. In the image below, young African American children are at a meals program at Butler County Emergency School, a Works Progress Administration program in created in 1936. This program directly helped impoverished families by providing food for their children. However, by employing adult workers, the program also enriched impoverished families, allowing them to put food on their own tables. The WPA both provided essential support services and employed those suffering from unemployment during the Great Depression.

Photo: Young African American children at a feeding program at Butler County Emergency School, a Works Progress Administration program, 1936.

One of FDR’s greatest policy accomplishments was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Designed to provide jobs, prevent floods, and provide cheap electricity throughout the region, the TVA took responsibility for lifting a large section of Tennessee’s rural population out of dire poverty. Both historically and recently, the TVA has come under attack; leftist groups like the Sierra Club cite environmental concerns such as the Kingston Fossil plant spill, whereas right-wing business leaders have claimed that the TVA represents a government-owned monopoly designed to price private energy producers out of the market. However, this writer believes that it is unreasonable to judge the success of the program by these standards. At the time, circumstances called for dramatic government intervention. Reporter Lorena Hickok’s report responded to these conditions as she corresponded with Harry Hopkins, the Director of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, about the state of rural poverty at the time:

Out of nearly 70,000 families on relief in Tennessee, probably 30,000 or more live in small towns or in the country. Many of these are in abandoned lumber and mining camps. Most of them who are farmers apparently are living on sub-marginal or marginal land. Fairly typical, for Western Tennessee, I gather, was a district I visited yesterday. Table land. Thin soil. Terrible housing. Illiteracy. Evidence of prolonged undernourishment. No knowledge of how to live decently or farm profitably if they had decent land. “Five years is about as long as you can get any crop on this land,” one farmer told me. “Then it’s gone and you have to clear some more and start over again” (Lorena Hickok’s Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation).

It is fair to claim that Hickok’s letter suffers from New Deal ego, the belief that government bureaucracy and research held the power to reform the lives of backwards rural folk who may have wished to be left alone. On the other hand, rural Tennessee was struggling under the burden of traditional farming methods that left the soil depleted, families hungry, and many jobless. Its impact on the region was sudden and dramatic. Inhabitants received access to cheap electricity and 9,000 much-needed jobs were created, lifting many rural Tennesseans out of poverty.

Finally, the creation of the Social Security Administration (SSA) gave retirees and their families a safety net during the Great Depression and beyond. Though he recognized that Social Security would not provide total relief for all individuals, FDR argued in speech following the signing of the Social Security Act that it guaranteed important protection against poverty for children, those in ill health, and the elderly:

“This social security measure gives some protection to 30 million of our citizens who will receive direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions, and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.

We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the ups and downs of life, but we have tried to pass a law which will give some protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age” (Speech by FDR, 1935).

Certainly the SSA excluded too many people, in particular impoverished African Americans, who often worked ‘under-the-table’ jobs as sharecroppers, cash tenants, and domestic servants and who experienced disproportionate levels of unemployment due to racist hiring policies (Document B, NAACP). However, the groundwork laid by SSA should be celebrated as an important step in the quest to eliminate old age poverty.

During the Great Depression the government’s control, influence, and size greatly expanded. The WPA, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Social Security are only a few of the many parts of this expansion. However, these programs created new opportunities for Americans and freed them from the shackles of poverty at a time when the national economy was in shambles. Though we should be wary of unnecessary government intrusion into our daily life, these 3 programs show that big government can be a powerful tool for positive social change. This author hopes that future presidents and legislators recall the example FDR set the next time America hits turbulence, and that they step in promptly to address the suffering of our most vulnerable citizens.

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