Longing For The Good Old Days Of The Great Depression
Religion & Liberty Online

Longing For The Good Old Days Of The Great Depression

. Sure, times were tough, but at least people were more sensitive and caring. And our government was much better at taking care of people. Not like now when people are losing government hand-outs left and right. No, the days of the Great Depression were good.

There was a time in our history when the poor and unemployed experienced a more compassionate government. During the Great Depression the federal government not only provided safety nets in the form of relief, food aid, public housing, mortgage assistance, unemployment insurance, and farm aid, but more significantly, it undertook a series of job-creation programs that gave back to millions of unemployed workers and their families precisely what the Depression had taken from them—the opportunity to support themselves with dignity.

Now, it’s a harsh, cruel world. Collins calls our era one of “cruel indifference.”

What? Where? Huh?

Here is the world of “cruel indifference” I live in. Several churches in the rural area where I live provide a free dinner every Tuesday to all comers. No strings attached. Come in, sit down, be served. If you have other needs, let us know and we’ll see what we can do to help you out.

In the larger community, there are half a dozen places one can get support for an unplanned pregnancy: formula, diapers, medical care, etc. Just down the street from where I work are several shelters, soup kitchens, addiction and other services for the homeless, almost all of them privately-funded. There is a resource center for women to help them finish their educations, learn appropriate interviewing and job skills, help them build a work wardrobe, and professional mentoring in order to gain sustainable employment. If you have a mentally ill or cognitively-impaired child, there is a program at a local (private!) social service agency that will not only help you navigate the mental health service network, but also pair you with a parent who has more experience or is a few years down the road from where you’re at now.

Where is the “cruel indifference?” What is Collins so unhappy about?

What she is unhappy about is that she wants the government to take care of all this. Relieve the private citizen of the care of his fellow man, and let Congress take over. The New Deal, for Collins, is the icon of a moral, compassionate government:

The underlying logic of the New Deal was that society had an obligation to offer aid to persons denied the opportunity to be self-supporting. Hopkins [Harry Hopkins, head of Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration], in particular, favored jobs programs over relief or “welfare,” although relief was to be available to those who couldn’t work. For New Dealers, the goal was to close the economy’s job gap, not to correct the supposed moral failings of jobless individuals or to put pressure on them to seek and accept work when there wasn’t any.

It was just this type of thinking, Collins explains, that gave rise to the Social Gospel: “an ideology of individualism that government could alleviate problems beyond the scope of the private sector.” No pressure to work, no condemnation, no worries: the government is here to take care of everything.

We need two things, Collins says. First, more money to fund more government programs. Second, the government needs to hire more people. More money, more public programs, more government. Private programs, Collins points out, just aren’t up to such big tasks:

However well motivated, providing soup kitchens and homeless shelters can never meet all of the need; but more importantly, it doesn’t do anything to confront the psychological and moral devastation faced by those without the prospect of meaningful, self-supporting work.

Actually, soup kitchens and homeless shelters (and other private programs) are exactly where people can get help with the psychological and moral devastation of joblessness. Try showing up at the office of your local state representative and see how much moral and psychological support you get.

Yes, the government helped people in a time of great distress, but who in their right mind is nostalgic about the Great Depression? Are people really clamoring to stand in bread lines? Is the government the best entity to create jobs? Should we point those in need to the government, rather than taking the time to help them ourselves? The answer to all these is a resounding “no.”

Collins is right: society does have an obligation to offer aid. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that we are society; society is not government. Whether a person lives in a republic, a democracy, under a monarchy or even in a dictatorship, the individual obligation to do everything they can to help another remains in place. If I cannot do the task by myself, I find like-minded folks to help. Our churches, our neighborhoods, our charities, our own two hands: that is society.

A government is good at many things: building and maintaining infrastructures, policing our towns and cities, defending the nation against threats to life and liberty. A government is not good at holding someone’s hand when they’ve lost their house or job. A government isn’t good at helping a mom plan meals on a limited budget for the month. A government isn’t good at mentoring young men to help them stay in school. Society – you and me – is good at that. Collins is nostalgic for the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal? That’s depressing.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.