Commentary: What FDR got right and Biden got wrong about relief

Frank Barry, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Political News

On Labor Day, 7.5 million Americans lost their federal unemployment benefits, and another 3 million unemployed lost the $300 bonus that had been in place since March. That’s a lot of people with no immediate way to support themselves and their families, and it got me to wondering: What would Franklin Roosevelt — who put America to work during the Great Depression — make of the way Washington has responded to this economic crisis?

I began thinking about FDR last month, when my wife, Laurel, and I visited Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada, where he and Eleanor spent many summers and where, at age 39, Franklin fell ill and lost use of his legs. I had recently finished reading an excellent history of the Works Progress Administration, “American-Made,” by Nick Taylor. And a trip to Campobello offered the chance to see the home that Roosevelt visited in June 1933, just days after the close of the Hundred Days that “start[ed] the wheels of the New Deal,” as he said that summer.

To get there, we drove our motorhome across the FDR Bridge that connects Campobello to America’s easternmost town, Lubec, Maine. The border had recently re-opened, and there was no line at the customs check.

“Have you been busy?” I asked the Canadian border agent.

“Busy turning people away,” he replied.

In addition to proof of vaccination and a negative COVID test within 72 hours, Canada requires visitors to enter their information into an app. The agent told us most Americans lacked some of the necessary documentation, and Laurel sensed he was surprised that travelers in a Winnebago with New York license plates had all of theirs.


Just a few miles past the checkpoint is the old Roosevelt home, now part of a 2,800-acre international park jointly operated by the U.S. and Canada. At the visitor center, the receptionist told us that the afternoon tour of the grounds had been canceled because of a heat warning. It was 77 degrees. Oh, Canada.

The Roosevelt Cottage, as it’s called — it has three floors and 18 bedrooms — was open. Its large front porch facing west across Friar’s Bay offers spectacular views of the sun setting on America. Inside, a guide informed us that Eleanor’s decorating style — which might charitably be called motley — reflected her view that since there are all different kinds of people, the décor should be equally varied. The furnishings included an oil painting of a Confederate battleship that FDR hung in the White House, an inadvertent but inescapable reminder of the accommodation on Jim Crow that marred the New Deal — and, in Roosevelt’s defense, made it possible.

The New Deal’s attack on the Great Depression had four main components: temporary direct relief for the impoverished, in the form of cash grants administered by the states; a stronger social safety net, through new programs such as Social Security; an expanded regulatory state, with new policies and agencies aimed at stabilizing and strengthening the economy; and — most important of all, according to FDR — jobs for the legions of unemployed. As he said in his inaugural address: “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.”

Just four weeks after that speech, Congress adopted FDR’s plan for a program to employ unmarried men aged 18 to 25 to live in camps while working to plant trees, build reservoirs, strengthen flood-control systems, stop soil erosion and improve campgrounds. They were paid $30 a month but received only $5; the rest was sent home to their families. When 3,000 veterans of World War I showed up at the White House demanding early payment of a bonus due to them in 1945, Roosevelt turned them down — but offered them jobs in this new Civilian Conservation Corps. Some 2,600 accepted.


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