The Shame of FDR
While the basic argument of Daniel Foster’s “For Shame” (January 23) — that the stigma associated with receiving public assistance has eroded, to our detriment — is true and well proved by the examples he provides, the quotation he chose to illustrate FDR’s desire for ending government assistance correlates with neither the president’s true intentions nor the public words of his cabinet members.
Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor, who was charged with developing Social Security and selling it to the general population, did not sugar-coat her message. Instead, she stated in a radio address that Social Security sought to replicate the socialist welfare programs of Europe. “The task of recovery is inseparable from the fundamental task of social reconstruction,” Perkins further stated. She even paraphrased FDR as praising the “social insurances with which European countries have had a long and favorable experience.”
Furthermore, Secretary Perkins claimed that the United States was establishing more than just an insurance program: “The American program for economic security now before our Congress follows no single pattern. It is broader than social insurance, and does not attempt merely to copy a European model.”
Perhaps Foster should have excluded FDR and Social Security from his illustration of a more respectable time period in the American experience.
Wesley Hills, N.Y.
Daniel Foster Replies: Ms. Reifer is quite right that Frances Perkins — one of only two cabinet members to serve through FDR’s entire tenure, the other being Harold Ickes — was a major architect of the contemporary American welfare state, which, if it does not (yet) encompass all the excesses of its European antecedents, nevertheless shares their basic assumptions.
The point of using the 1935 FDR quote (“The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief”) was not to suggest that the legacy of the New Deal was somehow accidental to its animating principles, but to illustrate that in 1935, at the height of the Depression, even FDR felt it necessary to present a rhetoric that recognized the average American’s belief that direct relief to the able-bodied was shameful. Remember, from roughly 1933 to 1936, the fate of the New Deal was in great doubt. Anti-Roosevelt conservative Democrats and Republicans had allied with groups such as the Liberty League (think the Tea Party 1.0) to challenge the Europeanization of America in the press, in the courts, and at the ballot box. Alas, they lost more often than they won.