The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Perkins and Roosevelt built first line of defense against economic ruin

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on April 18, 2009 at 7:31 am

Kirstin Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal, recently wrote an editorial in the AFL-CIO Now blog, “Frances Perkins Rides to the Rescue–Again.” Here’s an excerpt:

Americans’ fears about the economy worsened when the Department of Labor reported that unemployment had skyrocketed to 8.5 percent in March, the highest rate in 25 years.

These are not just statistics. The numbers represent real people. At 10 a.m. on a recent morning, more than 150 men stood alongside a main highway into Washington, D.C., in the Virginia city of Annandale, clustered in small groups, huddled against the wind, peering into the windows of passing cars, hoping for work. Motorists sped by quickly, looking away to avoid attracting attention and raising false hopes. Unemployed laborers are a frightening sight to those who are still working.

It is in alarming times like these that some of the key programs of the New Deal demonstrate their continuing significance and highlight how much Americans continue to rely on solutions fashioned then in response to lessons learned, in times that seem eerily similar to our own.

In this case, the economic shock absorber system is unemployment insurance. It is the FEMA of economic hurricanes, and it is keeping more than 6 million households afloat during these bad times.

The unemployment insurance system was propelled into existence by Frances Perkins, the canny but little-known social worker who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor. She had studied the U.S. economy for 20 years before she took up her Cabinet post, and she was Roosevelt’s industrial commissioner from 1928 to 1932 while he was governor of New York. Together, they watched the Great Depression arrive and cast its shadow across the American landscape.

Frances Perkins is most famous today for her role as primary architect of Social Security. But in 1933 and 1934, the program she championed most fiercely was unemployment insurance. Now it has become a first line of defense against capitalism’s ruthless pattern of boom-and-bust cycles.

To read the entire blog post, go to


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