Why Obama Needs a Frances Perkins

By Kirstin Downey
Sunday, May 10, 2009

When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in the midst of the Depression, he was flanked by a prestigious brain trust of economic and political advisers: Adolf Berle, Raymond Moley and Rexford Guy Tugwell, all Columbia University professors. These were the Larry Summerses and Tim Geithners of their day, spouting elevated theories and cultivating lavish media coverage.

The president was casting about for a plan to slash unemployment, boost incomes and give relief to the needy. Yet the early stimulus effort that ultimately won most support was not engineered by these high-powered advisers. It came together through the efforts of a former social worker, a plain woman with luminous dark eyes, an individual of unique emotional intelligence whom Roosevelt appointed as his secretary of labor: Frances Perkins.

Perkins had known Roosevelt for two decades, and the two had worked together for four years, when she was state industrial commissioner while Roosevelt served as governor of New York. The only woman in the Cabinet, Perkins had spent almost 30 years studying the American workplace, talking to laborers and employers in factories, retail stores, harbors, mines and mills across the country. She was exactly the kind of person a neophyte president needed by his side.

I wonder, does Barack Obama have a Frances Perkins somewhere in his administration?

The unlikely partnership between Perkins and Roosevelt was instrumental in bringing about one of the New Deal's earliest creations, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The program is eerily instructive today, as is the relationship that inspired it. Perkins knew that Americans wanted to reinvigorate the country by going back to work, and she was committed to that goal. Roosevelt trusted Perkins, one of his closest friends, to help him set that course. The president conceived a plan to send the unemployed into rural areas to perform manual labor such as forestry and landscaping work. They could proudly earn money for doing productive work, he reasoned.

Perkins shared his goal but was skeptical of the proposal. When Roosevelt broached the idea at a Cabinet meeting in early 1933, she posed the questions that only she knew enough to ask.

"Take those poor men off the bread lines and take them up to the Adirondacks and turn them loose?" she asked. When FDR stuck to his idea, Perkins drew on her own knowledge of how to match human needs with abilities. "Well, you've got to have able-bodied people," she countered. "You know, an awful lot of these unemployed people have heart trouble, varicose veins, and everything else. Just because they are unemployed doesn't mean they are natural-born lumbermen."

But FDR was convinced that Americans needed a simple plan to restore their confidence, and the resulting Civilian Conservation Corps became a remarkable piece of social engineering. It offered manual labor at low pay, $1 a day, to young people whose families were already seeking relief. These young men and women were paid to restore and beautify the country under the watchful eyes of military reserve officers. Despite her early skepticism, Perkins testified in favor of the program before Congress, recruited laborers, worked with the military to set up the camps that housed them and helped decide who was eligible to serve. Ultimately more than 4,000 camps were created, and more than 3 million people participated. Many of them considered it a life-changing experience.

The CCC was controversial: A union leader called it "sovietism," and a communist blasted it as "forced labor" -- charges that echo today's accusations of socialism. But the majority of Americans understood what the program was trying to do -- provide meaningful employment for young people. The CCC became almost universally popular and was reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, until it ceased on the eve of World War II, when workers were needed elsewhere.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, of course, was only part of the transformative partnership between Perkins and FDR. Before Perkins agreed to become secretary of labor, she asked FDR whether he would support more radical proposals, including unemployment insurance, Social Security, a ban on child labor and work-hour limits. It took six years, well into Roosevelt's second term, for those New Deal laws to become a reality.

Today, the nonprofit National New Deal Preservation Association is proposing that Obama take a page from Roosevelt's playbook and work with lawmakers and his administration to reauthorize a new version of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The time may be right for a resurrection of the CCC. Unemployment has reached 8.9 percent, the highest in a generation. Many Americans need short-term jobs or must learn new trades. And there is much labor-intensive work to do, whether hauling away the debris that litters the nation's highways and rail corridors, landscaping public spaces or restoring wetlands.

Still, it is hard to imagine the ideas that animated the Civilian Conservation Corps taking root in these self-serving times. Would older Americans volunteer to supervise these efforts without pay? Would private contractors try to destroy the program if they saw no profit for themselves? Has America lost the will to do good things on a small scale, town by town?

Many of Obama's economic advisers hail from elite academic or policy circles, as did that first core around Roosevelt. However talented, they seem more attentive to institutional needs than human ones and lack the common sense that Frances Perkins brought to FDR.

Perkins avoided publicity, and in her final, impoverished days, accepted free room and board at Cornell University, where she was a visiting lecturer. Soon Americans had forgotten her.

Even so, I hope there is a Frances Perkins toiling somewhere inside the Obama administration. Perhaps we've just not met her . . . or him.

Kirstin Downey, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of "The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience."

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