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What issues would Frances Perkins be tackling today?

In Economics, New Deal Legislation on September 21, 2010 at 9:20 am

I’ll lead off with this stunning chart from Matthew Iglesias’s blog on ThinkProgress. Note that red line.

povertytrends

You see a lot of different things happening here. One is poverty among seniors declining thanks to Great Society expansion of retirement support programs. The other is a jump in poverty for non-seniors during the 1978-82 period that persisted throughout the Reagan-Bush years. This was in part driven by an increase in the proportion of female-headed households without husbands, but the same pattern appears within that subset. We then had a giant reduction in poverty among this group in the 1990s which was a combination of strong economic performance, “welfare reform,” and also the fact that the Clinton administration really wanted to make welfare reform work so threw lots of stuff—EITC expansion, SCHIP, etc.—at making it work. Then we saw a slow, steady erosion of that progress.

———————————————————

Then I want to quote the author of the new book, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent: How the European Model Can Help You Get a Life by Thomas Geoghegan. This is an excerpt from an interview with Geoghegan that appeared in Salon in late August:

How did Germany become such a great place to work in the first place?

The Allies did it. This whole European model came, to some extent, from the New Deal. Our real history and tradition is what we created in Europe. Occupying Germany after WWII, the 1945 European constitutions, the UN Charter of Human Rights all came from Eleanor Roosevelt and the New Dealers. All of it got worked into the constitutions of Europe and helped shape their social democracies. It came from us. The papal encyclicals on labor, it came from the Americans.

As the Salon introduction notes, in Germany “they have six weeks of federally mandated vacation, free university tuition, nursing care, and childcare.” And, while a six week vacation would surely be welcomed by single mothers and their families, it’s the last three items that really make the difference. Affordable higher education, accessible preventive health care, and affordable quality childcare — those are the big pieces missing in the United States today. And without them, single mothers face a very difficult uphill battle.

While Geoghegan credits Eleanor Roosevelt, certainly Frances Perkins was right in there, also. We know that Perkins was engaged in the drafting and dissemination of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights. And what a different society we would be living in today if that agenda had been carried forward in the U.S. as it was in Germany and the other countries of the E.U.

Here is that Second Bill of Rights (1944):

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.

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Happy Birthday, Social Security!

In Events, New Deal Legislation on August 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

We had a great day yesterday celebrating the 75th anniversary of Social Security at our Frances Perkins Center 2nd Annual Garden Party . We’ll post more pictures and details later, but for now, here are a couple of photos as a preview:

Here's the birthday cake

We had two New Deal grandchildren on hand to cut the cake. Professor June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall is Frances Perkins grandson. Perkins was the chair and Hopkins was a member of the Committee on Economic Security, which created the Social Security Act.

Frances Perkins: The Force Behind Social Security

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on August 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

[Reposted with permission from New Deal 2.0.]

by Bryce Covert

We may not have our social safety net if it weren’t for her tireless work.

Social Security is, rightly, thought of as one of the major accomplishments of FDR’s presidency. But he wasn’t alone in the fight, and the whole project may have failed if not for the passion of Frances Perkins, his Secretary of Labor. Indeed, Perkins sometimes had to fight against FDR’s whims to secure a package that would ensure a better future for American citizens.

Perkins was born to working-class parents who were very supportive of her education, sending her to Mount Holyoke College for undergraduate studies. Later in her life, what was likely bipolar disorder left her husband, economist Paul C. Wilson, unable to continue his career and act as breadwinner. This may have propelled Perkins into pursuing her own career, to which she devoted all of her energy.

Perkins witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 first-hand, and it galvanized her crusade to protect American workers. After studying economics and sociology at Columbia and Wharton, she worked at settlement houses and then as a factory inspector for New York State. She later became Commissioner of Labor for the State of New York under Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would go on to invite her to be his Secretary of Labor as president. Before taking the position, she brought a laundry list of ideas to FDR as collateral for her acceptance. He accepted them, and she went on to hold the position for 12 years. FDR would eventually name her to 18 separate committees. She worked for reforms in favor of workers and to combat the Great Depression. But her crowning achievement may very well have been the Social Security Act.

During the Great Depression, 6.5 million people were sixty-five or over and few had money set aside for old age — and those who had set money aside saw it disappear in the economic crash. Only about 300,000 had public pensions, 150,000 had pensions from private employers or unions, and 700,000 had federal relief. The rest were on their own.

FDR had drawn up ideas to tackle these issues when he got into office, but officials were too busy to deal with them. A year into his presidency, Perkins decided the time was right, notes biographer Kirstin Downey in “The Woman Behind the New Deal.” “She nagged the president to get it started. ‘It is probably our only chance in twenty-five years to get a bill like this,’ she told Roosevelt.” She knew that the dire conditions of the Great Depression were the only hope for passing something so radical: “Nothing else would have bumped the American people into social security except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression,” Perkins later said.

With rampant joblessness, Perkins went after unemployment first. But as unemployment insurance seemed ready to sail through passage, FDR decided instead to focus on a bundle of programs under the label ‘economic security.’ The whole thing would have to wait. Downey gives us the subsequent scene: Perkins “hit the roof. ‘That man, that man!’ she muttered. She ripped over to the White House. The next day, FDR told the press conference that he was ‘tremendously’ for the bill.” The two worked together for an “expansive version of an ‘economic security’ package that would cover people from cradle to grave,” Downey writes:

The concept included not only unemployment insurance, which would tide over the jobless workers who were the primary source of support to children and old people, but also old-age pensions, which Frances was eager to promote; health insurance, so people would have medical care, even when they had no money; and financial assistance for the handicapped and for widowed women with children. Many women earned so little money that losing their husbands meant that they must put their youngsters to work or place them in orphanages.

The package would provide “security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” in FDR’s words.

FDR named Perkins chair of the committee on economic security, set to craft the legislation. And she wanted to hold people firmly to the mission of the program. “In a meeting with Roosevelt present, she went around the table and extracted from each of the major members of her committee a pledge to support the program being prepared by the committee. Publicly obligated, they could not back down later,” Downey describes. But she couldn’t always keep the fickle Roosevelt to it, and after making his initial announcement to create the committee he neglected to allot money to it. That didn’t stop Perkins, though. “Frances went hat in hand to raise money and borrow staff from other departments,” reports Downey.

The process was rough going, with worries over court challenges to the final legislation, internal struggles within the committee, and even FDR himself publicly doubting whether it was the right time to deal with old age security. Details were hard to resolve and they were close to bumping up against the arbitrary Christmas deadline FDR had set. On December 22 or 23, Frances called committee leaders to her home, “led them into the dining room, placed a large bottle of Scotch on the table, and told them no one would leave until the work was done,” Downey writes. They met the deadline.

Troubles for the bill continued. Treasury Department conservatives raised fears that it risked “alarming business,” while liberals worried the provisions were so weak as to have “little value.” (Sound familiar?) Opposition to the bill became so heavy that a New York Times March 30, 1935 headline declared “Hopes Are Fading for Security Bill.” But Perkins toiled on, determined. She secured 50 signatures from prominent people to a letter urging passage, and “the tide began to turn,” notes Downey. The House passed the bill, and then it passed the Senate, but not before a caveat was inserted that made the Social Security Board entirely independent of Perkins’ department. She would not run the Board, but no matter what her personal disappointment may have been, she helped push the bill through.

Perkins’ tireless, selfless work paid off in the end, and FDR signed the bill into law on August 14, 1935. On the day of the signing, Perkins said it was “one of the most forward-looking pieces of legislation in the interest of wage earners.” By 1936, 1 million people were receiving benefits, made up of nearly 750,000 elderly, 184,000 dependent children, and 18,000 blind.

We owe much to FDR’s vision as a progressive president, but we also owe a great deal to the passion and perseverance of Frances Perkins. Without her, it is very likely that the social programs included in the Social Security Act would never have come to be. Charles Wyzanski later said that she “virtually forced the President to have a Social Security program.” Indeed, Maurine Mulliner, an assistant to Senator Robert Wagner, said, “The one person, in my opinion, above all others who was responsible for there being a Social Security program in the early 30s was Frances Perkins.” The program lives on, her gift to the American people.

Bryce Covert is Assistant Editor at New Deal 2.0.

Time to think big like a Roosevelt

In Biography, New Deal Legislation on June 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Photo of an illustrated pillow from Michigan.

Robert Reich, who is a member of the Frances Perkins Center’s advisory committee, suggested on Sunday on his blog that something good could potentially come out of the awful catastrophe of the oil spill in the Gulf — jobs. Here’s a quote:

Friday’s job report was awful. For most new high school and college grads finding a job is harder than ever. Meanwhile, states are cutting summer jobs for disadvantaged young people. What to do with this army of young unemployed? Send them to the Gulf to clean up beaches and wetlands, and send the bill to BP.

…we’ve got hundreds of thousands of young people sitting on their hands right now because they can’t find jobs. Many are from affected coastal areas, where the tourist and fishing industries have been decimated by the spill.

The President should order BP to establish a $5 billion clean-up fund, and immediately put America’s army of unemployed young people to work saving the Gulf coast. Call it the new Civilian Conservation Corps.

Today, Laura Flanders, in her blog The Notion on The Nation’s website, takes it one step further. In her diary, Learning from Roosevelt(s), she says:

Obama could don the mantle of two Roosevelts at once. … Channel Teddy Roosevelt and stick it to the polluters and channel FDR and put people back to work — and create programs that create goodwill for generations.

President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps and  asked Frances Perkins to administer it, eventually putting three million young men and women to work from 1933 to 1942 building enduring landmarks that are cherished today. I hope President Obama will be inspired to think BIG like a Roosevelt. It’s the only way to tackle these two HUGE problems–the oil spill and pernicious unemployment.

Imperfect healthcare bill compared to 1935 Social Security Act

In Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation on February 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm

In a blog post today at the New Yorker, Henrik Hertzberg pointed to a Politico article by Bruce Schulman, “House should grit teeth, pass Senate bill” in which Schulman describes how far short of its original goals the 1935 Social Security Act fell, yet how influential its impact since then has been.

Of course, the final product scaled down all FDR’s original ambitions. It excluded agriculture, domestics and small shops with fewer than 10 workers — a decision ensuring that African-Americans, large numbers of whom toiled as farm workers and domestics, would be without protection. It took three decades of gradual expansion before Social Security covered every worker — a long, hard slog.

[…]

By the time the last compromise was made, Perkins expressed the disillusionment of many reformers. The thing,” she lamented, had been “chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”

[…]
Even with the compromises present at its creation, FDR, Perkins remembered, considered Social Security “the cornerstone” of his legacy. President Barack Obama and the Congress might well remember that model.
Thanks to Bruce Schulman for putting political compromise–particularly as it relates to major reform efforts–into perspective, and thanks to Henrik Hertzberg for bringing Schulman’s article to our attention.

‘Emphatically and truly, a government of the people’

In Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation, Political world on August 15, 2009 at 7:41 am

There was a fine opinion piece in the LA Times yesterday noting the anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act. The title was “President Barack Obama could learn from Franklin D. Roosevelt” and the author is Nancy J. Altman, who wrote the recently published history, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble.

Altman compares the current health care debate with the fight over the Social Security Act and finds many similarities:

Then as now, opponents played the socialism card. In hearings before the Senate Finance Committee, a senator from Oklahoma accusingly asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, “Isn’t this socialism?” When Perkins emphatically answered no, the senator leaned forward and, with a conspiratorial whisper, pressed, “Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?”

Altman says that the difference is that FDR controlled the debate:

In a series of fireside chats and other broadcasts, the president anticipated arguments and responded before public opposition got out of control. “A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing,” he said in one talk. “Sometimes they will call it ‘fascism,’ sometimes ‘communism,’ sometimes ‘regimentation,’ sometimes ‘socialism.’ But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical. … I believe that what we are doing today is a necessary fulfillment of what Americans have always been doing — a fulfillment of old and tested American ideals. … We remain, as John Marshall said a century ago, ’emphatically and truly, a government of the people.’ “

You can read the entire piece here: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-altman14-2009aug14,0,6660527.story.

Frances would say, “Seize the moment — before it passes”

In Biography, Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation on May 6, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Much has been made of economist Paul Romer’s statement, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Yes, Congress passed the Economic Recovery Act, and yes, it was huge. But unfortunately, much of that money is now going to shore up states’ income-starved budgets — instead of stimulating the economy in new ways. And another huge amount has gone to shore up financial institutions, without a penny of that trickling down to regular people.

We’re not done, yet. I hope no one thinks that we are. We have decades of painful diminution to make up if we expect the middle class to return to its previous robustness, and that’s going to take massive investment. Of tax dollars.

If we don’t do it now, it may never happen. There may never be another chance, and the United States will continue its downward slide.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his Labor secretary, Frances Perkins, had a vision of the kind of place we could be living in today, the sort of standard of living we could be enjoying. It’s embodied in their “Economic Bill of Rights.” Their initial work — including social security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage — was passed in 1935. But the rest of the list and most notably, national health care, was interrupted by the onslaught of World War II.

Yet, they never lost sight of those social justice goals.

January 11, 1944, FDR said this in an address:

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

As World War II came to a close, FDR and Perkins knew it was time to again turn to their social justice agenda. Unfortunately, illness and death intervened. FDR died on April 12, 1945, before these goals could be enacted.

Frances Perkins, upon hearing of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. (Image: NARA photo, SSA website

Frances Perkins, upon hearing of FDR's death on April 12, 1945. (Image: NARA photo, SSA website

Imagine what America would be like if these rights were recognized and supported. Sixty-five years after the “Economic Bill of Rights” was announced, we have the opportunity to make them real. But only if we move fast. Who knows what fate lies in store for us?

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 http://www.aflcio.org/mediacenter/speakout/kirstin_downey.cfm.


“1934: A New Deal for Artists” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

In Legislation, Legislation Today, New Deal Legislation on March 6, 2009 at 9:24 am

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently (through January 3, 2010) showing a wonderful exhibit of examples from the Public Works of Art Program. Here’s information excerpted from the web site:

Image for 1934: A New Deal for Artists

In 1934, Americans grappled with an economic situation that feels all too familiar today. Against the backdrop of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration created the Public Works of Art Program—the first federal government program to support the arts nationally. Federal officials in the 1930s understood how essential art was to sustaining America’s spirit. Artists from across the United States who participated in the program, which lasted only six months from mid-December 1933 to June 1934, were encouraged to depict “the American Scene.” The Public Works of Art Program not only paid artists to embellish public buildings, but also provided them with a sense of pride in serving their country. They painted regional, recognizable subjects—ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life—that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism.

1934: A New Deal for Artists celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Program by drawing on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s unparalleled collection of vibrant paintings created for the program. The 56 paintings in the exhibition are a lasting visual record of America at a specific moment in time. George Gurney, deputy chief curator, organized the exhibition with Ann Prentice Wagner, curatorial associate.

Publication
A catalogue, fully illustrated in color and co-published by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and D Giles Ltd. in London, is forthcoming in July 2009. It will feature an essay by Roger Kennedy, historian and director emeritus of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History; individual entries for each artwork by Ann Prentice Wagner; and an introduction by the museum’s director Elizabeth Broun. The book will be available online and in the museum store for $49.95 (softcover $35).

Flickr Group
The museum is sharing nearly 400 artworks and related objects dated 1934 from its collection with the public by creating an image group on Flickr. Join the group and add your images from 1934!

On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, reporter Elizabeth Blair did a story called ‘1934’: Reflecting On America’s First Big Art Buy. You can listen to the story on the web site, and see examples from the exhibit.

What did “socialism” (the WPA) do for us?

In New Deal Legislation on February 6, 2009 at 7:51 am

Salon.com has a slideshow illustrating some of the achievements of the New Deal. (Click the photo below to be taken to the slideshow.)

One of the slides showing WPA projects.

One of the slides showing WPA projects.