By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.
It’s time to “give the devil his due.” I hereby admit that President George W. Bush did the American people a favor. Just one.
It was a very small favor, of course. And as with all favors bestowed by the Bush crime family, it wasn’t free. We paid at least 10 times the retail price for it. But still.
What was the favor? It’s summed up in this article from today’s New York Times: “Food Stamp Use Soars, and Stigma Fades.”
By looting and wrecking the economy, throwing millions of people out of work, Dubya and his cronies cured Americans of the idea that only the shiftless and incompetent could be unemployed. They shattered the popular nostrum that we are masters of our own destiny, and that if the world comes crashing down on our heads, it’s because we didn’t work hard enough or didn’t think positively enough. They reminded Americans that a “social safety net” is there for a reason; and that if their neighbors need food stamps today, they themselves might need food stamps tomorrow.
It’s not the first time Americans have needed and received this kind of wake-up call. The Great Depression of 1929-1941 had the same effect. It convinced Americans for the first time that poor relief and promoting full employment were legitimate functions of government.
The U.S. population originally consisted mainly of English immigrants. With them, they brought the legal practices and the social attitudes of their mother country. In 19th century America, workhouses were common and the poor were stigmatized just as they had been in England. Echoing the views embodied in the English poor laws of 1834, American writer Josephine Lowell argued that poor relief should be provided only in workhouses and only under conditions so unpleasant as to discourage anyone from taking it:
“We have already accepted the postulate that the community should save every one of its members from starvation, no matter how low or depraved such member may be, but we contend that the necessary relief should be surrounded by circumstances that shall not only repel everyone not in extremity from accepting it, but [that] … discipline and education should be inseparably associated with any system of public relief.” [Lowell, 1884, reprinted in Mink, Gwendolyn and Solinger, Rickie, Welfare: A Documentary History of U.S. Policy and Politics. New York: New York University Press, 2003.]
Notice Ms. Lowell’s belief, quite common both in her time and before the latest Bush recession*, that people are poor because they are “low and depraved.” Conversely, both Ms. Lowell and today’s Wall Street “masters of the universe” believe that people are rich because they are high and virtuous. Neither belief has much validity.
During the Great Depression, almost a third of the American workforce became unemployed. We’re not there yet, and the Obama administration’s halfway measures might well prevent the worst. But we’re in pretty dire straits. From 1929-40, hard times tutored Americans in the idea that poverty was not necessarily a result of laziness or sin. As a result, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could persuade Congress to enact an array of programs that formed the foundation of the American welfare state:
- The Social Security Act (1935): Together with amendments passed in 1939, this provided aid for several different groups, including retirees (Old-Age and Survivors’ Insurance) and children (Aid to Dependent Children, later renamed Aid to Families with Dependent Children).
- Unemployment compensation to help individuals who lost their jobs.
- Subsidies for medical care of poor families.
- Public-works jobs through the Public Works Administration (1933), Civilian Conservation Corps, and other agencies.
- Direct cash grants to states for poor relief under the Federal Emergency Relief Act (1933).
- Construction of public housing for the poor under the National Housing Act (1937).
After World War II, the Great Depression faded from memory and Americans once again became ambivalent about welfare programs. Social Security remained the linchpin of the welfare state, thus becoming a target of those who saw welfare as illegitimate.
In 1933, President Roosevelt told Americans that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In 2009, the only things we have to fear are Democratic timidity and Republican obstructionism.
We can only hope that the need for economic recovery before the 2010 elections, plus Roosevelt’s example, will make the Obama administration more courageous and aggressive in fighting for the rights and jobs of ordinary Americans.
*George H.W. Bush, president from 1989-1993, also caused a recession in the early 1990s. He could have done it earlier if John Hinckley, son of a Bush financial backer, had succeeded in his 1981 attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, making then-vice-president Bush president. In the Wikipedia article, see the section on “Bush-Hinckley Family Connections.”
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.