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(This is a series of excerpts from The Progressive magazine in the 1930s that are especially relevant today. You can find other delectable items in the current issue of The Progressive, which commemorates the magazine’s 100th anniversary.)
Wagner Urges Unemployment Relief Action
By Sen. Robert Wagner
June 14, 1930
During the winter of every depression, I have heard the fair-weather prophets make the smug prediction that the spring would bring relief. Unfortunately, when the spring arrived the winter was never far behind and again the unemployed were treated to the cold comfort of the exasperating pronouncement from Washington that “spring would bring relief.” I wish the public could in some way express its unmitigated weariness of this sort of soothsaying.
Too long already has sham propaganda served to excuse the failure to take hold of the problem of unemployment rationally and effectively. It is time we become impatient with inaction,
Will not our grandchildren regard it as quite incomprehensible that in 1930 millions of Americans went hungry because we had produced too much food; that millions of men, women, and children were cold because we had produced too much clothing?
I am not speaking in parables. It is the literal truth that today we are suffering want in the midst of unprecedented plenty; our workers go without wages because they had learned to work too well.
It is this condition which justifies our impatience with statesmanship which regards unemployment as inevitable and poverty as incurable. I do no believe that unemployment is inevitable. We have never tried to do anything about it. We have never assembled the necessary information. We have never applied to the problem the organized intelligence of our people.
Standards of living cannot rise, cannot even remain at the level they have reached, as long as the worker’s position is as precarious as it is today. The worker must be given a greater measure of security—some protection against the haunting fear of enforced idleness, before he can lead the broad and full life which the rich endowment of national resources of this country intended he should enjoy.
To me it seems plain that the responsibility of the federal government must not be shirked, for the prevention of unemployment is a distinctly national obligation.
Unemployment today is not produced by local causes. The forces which make for the shutdown of factories, the curtailment of activity in the mines and on the railroads, are forces which operate on a national and worldwide scale. The individual workman, the individual business, the state are helpless when an economic storm breaks upon the country. Only the coordinated strength of the entire nation is competent to deal with such powerful economic forces.
The federal government is always engaged in constructing highways, developing rivers and harbors, erecting flood-control structures, and public buildings. It should plan these projects in advance and time them so as to make available opportunities for employment when private business slackens.
And the federal government should join with the states in the establishment of a nationwide system of public employment offices, so as to assist workers to find jobs and to assist employers to find workers with the least amount of delay and with the least amount of friction.
Of course, carrying out this program will cost money. The long-range plan bill authorizes an appropriation of $150 million; the employment exchange bill, $4 million. These are big sums of money even for a country as large as the United States. But when you stop to compare these figures with the costs of unemployment, then you become competent to judge which way lies true economy.
In one single month last winter, factory workers alone lost in wages $200 million. It the first three months of 1930, it has been estimated that wage earners alone lost no less than a billion in wages. If by a little expenditure or money and a big expenditure of thought, we can build a dam to shut off this Niagara of money losses arising out of unemployment, is it not sound economy to do so?
Consider what it would have meant to the farmer, to the manufacturer, and in turn to the worker if this vast amount of purchasing power had not been withdrawn from the market.
But there is an even greater national asset to be saved: the national character. No one can exaggerate the terrific blight on character which unemployment inflicts. Unemployment produces child labor, disrupts the family, destroys independence, and breeds discontent with government. Who is there who will talk of cost when these are at stake?
If there were political advantages to be secured by championing the cause of the unemployed, this problem would have been tackled long ago. The unemployed never make campaign contributions. They do not control any portion of the press through which to bring their plight home to the American people. They maintain no lobby in Washington to tell their depressing story to their representatives in Congress. Their only spokesmen are those who have responded to the common call of humanity; the only advocates of their cause are those who pursue the welfare of our country irrespective of party advantage.
Will Congress choose the way out of unemployment, the way of intelligent organization, the way of responsible action, the way of sensible prevention? Or I hesitate to suggest the alternative: Will America continue to walk the rutted road of want in this age of plenty?