News & Features » Miscellany

Before you throw out federal government programs, let's look at a little history.

Are you sure you hate big government?

I've just about had it with that sanctimonious woman on the TV commercial who tells us we don't want prescription drugs provided through a big government program. The thought of the government running anything seems to give her the willies.

As a survivor of the Great Depression and of Franklin Roosevelt's terms in office, I beg to differ and would like to remind the woman who mouths these words and the advertising group which wrote them that they should study a little history.

When Roosevelt was inaugurated, the country had few large government-run programs. According to David M. Kennedy's prize-winning history of the years from 1929 to 1945, "Freedom From Fear," Roosevelt took over a "strikingly sparse administrative capacity . ... That puny capacity was a legacy of historic Jeffersonian wariness of centralized power. ..." But the country certainly had a lot of crises. Hungry people who previously had prided themselves on earning their own way were begging at our back doors. Many of these people were ashamed of their plight and thought that somehow they — not the economy — had failed. The stock market we love so much today had crashed and along with it, went everyone's investments. In one day, Oct 29, 1929, $4 billion of investments went down the drain. Bank closings were epidemic — in 1930, 1.352 failed. My father, who had precious little anyway, lost all his money in one of our local banks. There was serious talk of revolution.

But with Roosevelt came "big government programs."

The Works Progress Administration offered work to the unemployed. In 1933, some 13 million (25 percent of the work force) were unemployed, and this agency provided jobs for 8.5 million during its existence. Incidentally, the program used the workers on projects, many of which we are grateful for today: According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the WPA was responsible for building 650,000 miles of roads, 125,000 public buildings, 75,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and 800 airports. In Virginia, the WPA employed writers to compile "Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion." This was such an interesting book that the Virginia State Library and Archives, along with the Virginia Center for the Book, republished it in 1992.

For the first time, electricity and telephone service came to many rural parts of our country through the Rural Electrification Administration. The program raised the percentage of farms that were equipped with electrical power to 98 percent.

Today, as a result of these Roosevelt-era governmental innovations, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation exists, and our bank accounts are insured up to $100,000.

The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates the investment market with restrictions that should keep us from suffering from a complete fall in the value of our investments.

Social Security exists for the elderly to have at least a little assured income.

The Federal Housing Administration and the Federal Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) have made homeownership possible for many who could not otherwise have achieved this.

The New Deal "big government" programs met intense opposition. Roosevelt was called "a traitor to his class." And a famous Peter Arno cartoon appeared in the New Yorker. It pictured a group of formally dressed, obviously wealthy people, and the caption read "Come along. We're going to the Trans-Lux [news-only theater] to hiss Roosevelt." Fortunately for the country, we didn't have sound-bite television to frighten us any more than we were already frightened and to persuade us to oppose the recovery programs.

Roosevelt's name still resonates with those who dislike the progressive income tax and welfare legislation, but it would be hard to argue against the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill of Rights, which Roosevelt promoted and signed. The returning servicemen were given education and training; loan guaranty for a home, farm or business; unemployment pay of $20 a week for up to 52 weeks; job-finding assistance; top priority for building materials for VA hospitals; and military review of dishonorable discharges. Thousands of G.I.s took advantage of the chance to go to college. A good argument can be made that much of our present-day prosperity can be traced to the education this law provided.

Of course big government programs have to be watched and watched carefully because human nature is more or less the same everywhere. And, of course, there was fraud and mismanagement in the New Deal, as there are in all big economic endeavors. But should I be forced to choose between two evils I, somehow, would rather cope with the Pentagon's $600-plus toilets than the $30 million compensation package Coca-Cola recently paid to retiring chairman Douglas Ivester.

Rozanne Epps is an assistant editor at Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

Add a comment