Learning From FDR: The Coronavirus Pandemic Requires Long-Term Solutions
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As our nation struggles to address the coronavirus pandemic, policymakers — and all of us — should learn from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression. That too was a crisis that upended the nation, caused fear and panic and laid bare long simmering problems.
Roosevelt recognized that he had to respond quickly, compassionately and effectively to the immediate crisis. He also knew that when the crisis had passed, the nation could not and should not simply return to what came before. More was required, if we were to be better prepared the next time.
FDR’s first 100 days in office are famous for being perhaps the most productive legislative period of any presidency. During those first days, Roosevelt established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which gave $500 million — the equivalent of $9.5 billion today — worth of food and other necessities to impoverished families. He also established the Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration, which created many millions of jobs.
These programs were an important first step, but Roosevelt and his team were far from done. One of his closest advisers, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, explained the thinking in a nationwide radio address:
As another adviser, Mary Dewson, explained, “The widespread anguish following the economic collapse of 1929 blew away the rosy fog which we had permitted to obscure these unpalatable realities.” The Roosevelt administration knew that they needed to address those “unpalatable realities,” in order to prevent future Great Depressions.
One of those “unpalatable realities” was the financial insecurity of seniors and the burden they placed on their children and grandchildren. Prior to the enactment of Social Security, the only choice Americans had as they aged was to move in with their adult children or go, literally, to the poor house.
Their insecurity was hidden in the shadows prior to the Great Depression but came into stark view when their children, on whom they depended, found themselves unemployed. These unemployed families were unable to take care of their young children, much less their aged parents. Between 1929 and 1933, poor house residents jumped by 75% — and the overwhelming majority of those “inmates,” as those residents were generally called, were old.
In one of his famous fireside chats, Roosevelt explained his vision of Social Security: Together we would “use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life.”
His original goal was to enact universal guaranteed health insurance, but he settled on the legislation he could get, assuring himself and the nation that it would be “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.”
It was a strong and important cornerstone. As Roosevelt intended, Social Security provides basic economic security to working families in good and bad economic times. It is a stabilizing cushion, ensuring that recessions don’t become new Great Depressions.
Its importance was demonstrated just a decade ago. During the Great Depression, the hardest hit were the old. During the Great Recession, Social Security’s earned benefits were paid on time and in full, never missing a payment. Indeed, in a reversal of the Great Depression, those monthly benefits, though modest, allowed seniors to help their adult children and grandchildren get through the hard economic times.
Roosevelt backed additional landmark legislation to address other “unpalatable realities” laid bare by the Great Depression. He championed unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, maximum hours, the end to child labor and the right of workers to join together to bargain collectively with their much more powerful employers.
Just as the Great Depression exposed the dark underbelly of America in the 1930s, the coronavirus pandemic is shining a spotlight on today’s “unpalatable realities.” The pandemic is spotlighting families that are food insecure, families that are homeless. It is exposing what happens when there is no national right to paid sick leave, paid family leave or universal health insurance.
People can’t afford to take off work while sick, and they can’t afford to get the testing and treatment they need. That is deeply inhumane. It also endangers every single one of us, even those who are fortunate enough to have these protections. The virus does not discriminate.
As Congress works to respond to the coronavirus, they must follow FDR’s path-breaking vision. As a first step, testing and treatment for the coronavirus must be free and available for everyone in America. But that won’t do any good when the next pandemic comes. All of us should have what every other industrialized country has — universal, guaranteed health insurance from cradle to grave as a matter of right.
Similarly, passing a paid sick leave law that expires in a few months won’t help if the coronavirus recedes during the summer and then comes back with a vengeance during flu season.
The smart response is to build on Social Security’s framework. Just as Social Security replaces wages when they are lost in the event of old age, death of a breadwinner or disability, we also need short-term wage replacement when people are sick or need to care for a loved one.
It is also the time to expand Medicare. We should build on Medicare’s framework by ending all cost sharing and expanding the program to cover everyone in America. Right now, our health care system is designed to maximize corporate profit rather than provide care to those who need it. No one should ever have to worry about going bankrupt just because they get sick — regardless of if their illness is COVID-19 or anything else.
FDR was visionary, but also clear-eyed. In the same fireside chat describing his vision for Social Security, he warned his listeners about the resistance that would come. He astutely predicted that they would hear accusations of socialism. The resistance, he charged, would come from “[f]irst, those who seek special political privilege and, second, those who seek special financial privilege.”
And he was right. Just like today’s Republicans and their wealthy donors, those standing in the way did seek to scare with charges of socialism. His opposition insisted that the Roosevelt administration was piggybacking off a crisis and going beyond its mandate by implementing large scale reforms.
In words that could be spoken today, Roosevelt responded eloquently in his 1935 State of the Union address:
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