David F. Weiman
asks what life would be like without Social Security, cheap electricity and Reagan National Airport
The tea party’s backlash against the federal government envisions a return to an earlier, supposedly golden era in American history. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan floated in April would essentially privatize Medicare and Medicaid while lowering taxes on the top income bracket to their pre-1930 rate. House Republicans’ plan to solve the recent debt crisis would have shrunk the government to its 1950s size.
In other words, conservative plans like these would effectively repeal Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
So, what would a world without the New Deal look like?
It would be a fight for economic survival with no coordinated effort at recovery. The New Deal shifted responsibility for social welfare and economic development from city halls and state capitols to Washington. Starting in 1933, New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps created more than 3 million jobs over the next three years. But like the recent Recovery and Reinvestment Act, New Deal spending was too modest — by 1932, nearly 12 million workers, or more than 25 percent of the labor force, were unemployed.
Still, FDR exercised his authority to put America back to work. Any who doubt the New Deal’s effectiveness need only look at the double-dip recession of 1937, after a conservative backlash in Congress scaled down relief spending. Without Roosevelt’s intervention, the economic recovery that lasted from 1933 to 1937 would have been weaker and shorter — not unlike our own recovery after the Great Recession.
But the New Deal brought more than jobs — it enhanced quality of life, especially among the most vulnerable. We can see its impact on infant mortality, which increased during the early years of the Depression after falling sharply for more than a decade. Without the New Deal’s health and nutrition initiatives as well as investments in water and sewage-treatment infrastructure, millions of lives would have been lost.
This new idea of a federal safety net not only inspired Social Security in the 1930s, but also Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s. FDR and LBJ asked all working adults to care for American seniors and the poor. Before the New Deal, it was unthinkable that retired people could turn to the government for income or medical care. That responsibility fell directly to their children, if they had them. That’s why the Republicans’ proposed cuts to Medicare are so shocking — they shift these costs from the federal budget back to the family budget.
But even if these cuts get through Congress, they can’t take away America’s infrastructure. The New Deal’s Public Works and Works Progress administrations spurred rapid productivity growth in the midst of the Depression. New roads and electrical power networks paved the way for post-World War II economic expansion built around the automobile and the suburban home. Astonishing 21st-century innovations such as next-day FedEx deliveries and Wi-Fi still rely on these aging investments. We associate FDR with massive hydroelectric dam projects — including the Grand Coulee and Hoover dams in the West, and the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South — but the New Deal also electrified rural America through cooperatives that distributed cheap, reliable power. Nearly 12 percent of Americans still belong to these collectives. Without the New Deal, they would be stuck in the much darker 1920s.