After more than a half a century, the images of the Great Depression remain etched in the American psyche.  The Depression confronted families with economic crisis and uncertainty, with loss of support and substance.  This economic disaster caused a major revolution in the lives and welfare of American families and the role of the federal government.  Moreover, it caused a retreat from the traditional foundation of American self-reliance and replaced it with the idea the federal government had an obligation to intervene and to provide security against the risk of hunger and destitution (Mintz, 1988).  This shift in policy has in turn created a culture of dependency in the United States.

The economic crisis of the 1930s created new political pressure forcing the federal government to assume an active role in alleviating the sufferings and called into question two key tenets of American political life.  First, the depression threw into dispute the nation’s faith in limited government and generated a conviction that the federal government had a duty to intervene and rescue families from poverty.  Second, it toppled the notion that public assistance could be left to private charity and local government.  On March 4, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency with the promise of a New Deal for the American people.  This turned out to be a critical watershed in the history of the American family; for the first time the federal government became a major guarantor of family welfare (Skocpol & Ikenberry, 1983).

It is important to recognize how remarkably the New Deal altered the character of America.  If you had walked into any American town in 1932, you would have had a hard time detecting any sign of a federal presence.  As late as Herbert Hoover’s presidency, it was regarded as axiomatic that federal government activity should be minimal.  In the pre-Roosevelt era, even organized labor and the National Conference of Social Workers opposed federal action on behalf of the unemployed.  The New Deal sharply challenged these shibboleths.  From 1933 to 1938, the government intervened in a myriad of ways from energizing the economy to fostering unionization (Leuchtenburg, 2003).

The depression not only created poverty, but it also brought preexisting poverty to public notice.  As the economy contracted, it revealed poverty that had been largely ignored during the boom years of the 1920s.  In 1929, the Brookings Institution estimated that just eight percent of American families had income of more than $5,000 a year and more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000.  They also noted 42 percent lived on or less than $1,500 annually.  In 1929, “a family income of $2,000 may be regarded as sufficient to supply only basic necessities.”  Therefore, 60 percent of American families were already living at or below a basic subsistence level the day before the big crash (Allen, 1952, pp. 127-28).  So if 60 percent of American families survived poverty pre-FDR and his New Deal, how did they do it?  The answer is simple, they took responsibility for their own survival and they worked together.

During the nineteenth century, working class families accepted the necessity of a cooperative family economy, in which all household members contributed to the material support of the family.  This plan was essential to family survival.  The frequency of premature death, irregular employment, disabling accidents, and wages at or below the subsistence line coupled with the inadequacy of public welfare mechanisms, required individuals to rely on the kinship network for assistance and support (Mintz, 1988).

Since the formation of the colonies, nearly 300 years earlier, families were expected to turn “toward each other with greater, more intelligent interdependence.” (Ware, 1982, pp. 8-9 & Scharf, 1980, pp. 152-53).  As was expected, working-class families devised a number of strategies to maintain a degree of economic security.  Ownership of property, such as a house or agricultural land or even a garden, provided protection against financial insecurity.  Property ownership at least provided the opportunity to take in boarders.  Some even kept goats, pigs and chickens in the back yard (Mintz, 1988).

The depression not only played havoc on families physically but also psychologically.  Before 1932, the vast majority of men did what ever it took to support their families, including working multiple shifts and walking many miles for work.  They were treated with great respect from within the family and were seen as the leader of their household.  However, being unemployed significantly lowered the status of the husband within the family and undermined his role of primary decision maker.  The inability to support their families proved to be psychologically debilitating for many men, who lost sense of self-respect and were unable to effectively look for work.  One wife commented “they’re not men anymore, if you know what I mean” (Scharf, 1980, pp. 140-41).  Many fathers were over whelmed by guilt because they were unable to support their families.  One father told a New York Daily News reporter in 1932, “I haven’t had a steady job in more than two years.  Sometimes I feel like a murderer.  What’s wrong with me, that I can’t protect my children” (cited in Ware, 1982, pp. 15-17)?

In the midst of the economic chaos and physical difficulties, FDR was planning a new day for America.  The centerpiece of the New Deal’s system of social welfare provisions was the Social Security Act of 1935.  This set the pattern for future programs of public assistance (Skocpol & Ikenberry, 1983).  Roosevelt truly did believe government had a right and most importantly, an obligation to step in and care for the general welfare of the people when he declared in his Annual Address to Congress in 1938:

Government has a final responsibility for the well-being of its citizenship.  If private cooperative endeavor fails to provide  work for willing hands and relief for the unfortunate, those suffering hardship from no fault of their own have a right to call upon the Government for aid; and a government worthy of its name must make fitting response (Leuchtenburg, 2003, p. 136).

The Lion of Idaho, Senator William E. Borah broke party lines earlier and concurred with FDR on June 10, 1932 when he spoke on the U.S. Senate floor:

To help them[families] when they are on the verge of hunger, when they are starving, when their families are being separated, is not to undermine character.  It is to implant in them the belief that they have a Government which looks after their interest when they are unable to look out for themselves, though doing the best they can to meet the situation (Borah, 1936, p. 128).

The problem with this idea is that it was the opposite form of government the U.S. Republic was intended to be.  While FDR critics argued this point, his supporters denied it, but that too soon changed.

On January 11, 1944, FDR gave his Annual Message to Congress and in it he knowingly departs from the traditional understanding of the role of American government.  This role was to provide security from physical attacks from aggressors.  In his address he said, “…true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.”  He goes on to say, “the one supreme objective for the future…can be summed up in one word: Security…It means also economic security, social security, [and] moral security” (Marini, 2007, p. 2).  Senator Borah agreed with FDR that the government should step in and help when he said:

These people are not idle because of any desire to be idle; they are not out of employment because they refuse to work; they are not disloyal in any sense to the principles of the American Government, nor are they shirking the responsibilities which rest upon American citizens.  The are, like the greatest of the land, the ablest of the country, unable to understand the cataclysm which has overtaken them, but ready at any moment, when any avenue to escape is offered, through work or otherwise, to accept it (Borah, 1936, p. 127).

As revealed, Borah believed the people would not accept handouts if they could earn it on their own in the first place.  Borah tells the Senate President, “Mr. President, in my opinion, if we could devise here some method by which to give these people employment, they would reject any assistance from the States or the National Government without hesitancy” (Borah, 1936, p. 127).

As it turned out, FDR did get the new deal he wanted.  The New Deal left America’s families many bequests, ranging from Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) to federal home mortgage insurance and insured bank deposits.  But some say the depression’s greatest legacy was not any specific program or policy but a major shift in public philosophy.  It revealed the inadequacy of the traditional family means of coping with economic disaster on the scale of the Great Depression without government aid.  Because of the depression, the federal government was induced, for the first time, to take active responsibility for alleviating the loss of earnings caused by unemployment, disability, sickness, and old age.  It is this precedent for growing government involvement in the lives and welfare of the nation’s families that is the central legacy of the New Deal (Mintz, 1988).

Arguments made against FDR’s welfare programs included that there were too much taxation and government regulation.  Furthermore, in order to pay for welfare payments and public works, the government had to finance the deficit.  But most importantly, the New Deal welfare payments subvert individual initiative and self-reliance (Norton et al., 2001).  Because of this, Senator Reed of Pennsylvania believed future historians would mark this time as the “the beginning of the fall of the AmericanRepublic” (cited in Borah, 1936, p. 127).  Borah countered, believing the American people would become independent, self-helping, as resourceful, and self-reliant as they had been in the past (Borah, 1936).

In our Foundering Fathers view, only a society who found sustenance in their own produce could achieve the combination of independence and equalitarianism which they envisioned for the ideal society (Potter, 2003).  Moreover, they wrote their beliefs in equality of the law into the U.S. Constitution.  Their concern was equality of opportunity, not absolute equality such as everyone starting life at the same level.  They expected room at the top for every one who was willing work for it.  And, they were totally against what they called ‘leveling” or income redistribution as Jefferson wrote:

To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired to much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not, exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his own industry and the fruits acquired by it (DiNitto & Cummins, 2007, p. 98).

As in FDR’s time, today’s supporters of welfare argue that the Constitution does support the federal government aiding the poor through the “general welfare” clause of Article I, Section 8.  On the other hand, those who disagree ask, if the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution authorized Congress to do anything that tended toward the general well-being of the country, then why had the Framers bothered to specifically list the powers of Congress in Article 1, Section 8?  This would logically preclude the possibility that the general welfare clause constituted a broad, open-ended grant power.  James Madison, the Father of the U.S. Constitution wrote in 1792:

If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in ever state, country, and parish, and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress (cited in Woods, 2004, p. 32).

What Madison was warning about is precisely what has come to pass with the New Deal and fully entrenched today.  So far has Washington and the American people drifted from constitutional government that the question of the constitutionality of legislation, which was so central to the 18th and 19th century congressional debates, is no longer raised.

Borah was mistaken about the American people when he told the Senate the American people would become self-reliant again.  The expansion of the public assistance system has led to the erosion of the American work ethic and self-reliance (Gilder, 1981).  The government has been too permissive by failing to set behavioral standards for those receiving assistance.  The government must hold those helped accountable for the assistance they receive and only those who show improvement should continue receiving assistance.  Today, the “culture of poverty” is taught by parents to their children.  What children learn from their parents is attitudes of indifference, alienation, and apathy, along with lack of incentives and of self-respect.  These attitudes make it very difficult for people who are poor to use the opportunities for upward mobility which are available to them (DiNitto & Cummins, 2007).  The poor are no different from other Americans who have made it to middle class.  All they need is policies that emphasize opportunity as well as changes in their environment, attitudes, and behaviors.  Current policies need to provide them with the ordinary means to achieve.  For example, job training programs, good schools, and career counseling informing them of the opportunities that are available.  The intervention that is required to change their lives, therefore, is one of supplying a means to achieve a level of income that most Americans enjoy (DiNitto & Cummins, 2007).  Additionally, role models who have come from similar situations but now are successful should be employed in the schools and other areas where these children associate.  Political scientist Lawrence Mead has the correct picture in this debate and the basis for a solution.  He writes:

…over all, I think conservatives have the better of the barriers debate-the chance to get ahead is widely available.  But liberals have the more realistic view of the psychology of poverty-the poor do not believe they have the opportunity, and this still keeps them from working (cited in DiNitto & Cummins, 2007, p. 117).

While psychologically some of the poor may be captive to poverty, but just like recovering from alcohol abuse, it takes hard work, and dedication to get out.  The safety net must be removed and they must be made to do what it takes to rehabilitate.  It takes accountability on the part of those who are helped.  Likewise, employers should step up and offer job training for those who need it and pay a livable wage once trained.  While in training and after securing a job, the policy must allow a gradual weaning off of the system unlike the current policy of all or none.  The welfare policy needs to be changed to resemble the Vocational Rehabilitation Act’s Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) and the Ticket to Work programs (DiNitto & Cummins, 2007, p. 176-79).

First step would be to require all participants to be legally residing in the United States.  The next step is to require a monthly drug test, first one given when assistance is applied for. This test should include the normal drug panel but also for alcohol, and tobacco.  After all, a pack of smokes is nearly five dollars and a case of beer can run up to 30 dollars.  Generally those who smoke also drink and visa versa.  If they can afford this, then they should not be on assistance.  This change of habit would be part of the rehabilitation program.  The next step is to get these people into a budget and money management class so they can learn how to best use the money they do have coming in.  In these sessions, unnecessary items such as satellite TV and unnecessary cell phones among other luxuries must be eliminated.  Mean while, their skills will be assessed and matched up to a partnered employer that can use the current skills and also train this individual in new skills so they become more employable and more of an investment to the company and to his or her-self.  For those who want to go back to school, then those options will be available as well.  This is a plan FDR, Borah and many more tax paying Americans stand behind.

At this point, the past and current social security welfare programs have caused immense damage to the American republic just as America was warned so many years ago.  While the program sounds good and makes one appear to be caring and moral to help another, in reality, it has been devastating to countless families by stripping away their self-respect, their self-reliance, their dependency on each other, and have enslaved their minds and bodies to generation of poverty and sorrel.  While the welfare programs can not be removed in our generation, it most certainly can be rebuilt.  Any help given must be a help up and not a hand out, and it should be an uplift and encouragement of self-reliance, and self-respect just like Borah and FDR had expected it to be.




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