As we celebrate this Thanksgiving, we should remember that 100 million of our fellow citizens are struggling to get by.
[H]ere is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens — a substantial part of its whole population — who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.
I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
-Franklin D. Roosevelt, January 20, 1937
Nearly three quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt rededicated himself and his administration to the creation of an America where the government and the people alike would strive to eliminate the destructive and unjust disparities of wealth that had wrought such great economic hardship that they threatened to undermine the very essence of our democracy. Thanks to this commitment, generations of Americans embraced the idea that, as President Obama once said, “in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play.”
But in a disturbing article published earlier this week, the New York Times took note of the growing number of Americans whose hard work and responsibility have not brought them the measure of economic security they deserve. Struggling with incomes that stand just above the poverty line, they are labeled the “near poor.” This diverse group of individuals and families lives paycheck to paycheck under the constant threat of economic ruin, often working multiple jobs at low wages that have remained stagnant for decades. According to data that has yet to be published by the Census Bureau, the number of “near poor” in the United States has risen to 51 million individuals, which, as the Times reports, places approximately 100 million people, or one in three Americans, “either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”
The fact that one in three Americans now lives in poverty or just above the poverty line provides us with another distressing link between the Great Recession and the Great Depression. It harkens back to Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Inaugural Address, when, after noting the nation’s economic progress since the beginning of his first term, he challenged the American people to do better and join him in an effort to “paint out” from our national canvas the sight of “one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
It was true, Roosevelt said, that since the day of his fist inauguration, the country had made great strides in reversing the downward economic spiral that had gripped the nation in paralyzing fear. Faced with an unprecedented economic catastrophe, the people of the republic had dedicated themselves “to the fulfillment of a vision — to speed the time when there would be for all the people that security and peace essential to the pursuit of happiness.” But, he went on, “our covenant with ourselves did not stop there. Instinctively we recognized a deeper need — the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization.”
In that purpose, he continued:
…we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit… We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.
This new understanding undermines the old admiration of worldly success as such. We are beginning to abandon our tolerance of the abuse of power by those who betray for profit the elementary decencies of life.
It is odd that in this time of Thanksgiving, one hears little about the millions of Americans trapped in or threatened by poverty or the need to fashion a society where the “elementary decencies of life” — a job with a decent wage, access to health care and higher education — are within the reach of all. It is even more perplexing that in a time of serious economic depravity, the focal point of our all-but-dysfunctional Congress is not how “to find through government the instrument of our united purpose” but how to obstruct the very sort of structural reforms needed to help average Americans secure better lives for themselves and their children.
Part of this stems from the blind faith that free market fundamentalists have falsely promoted as the solution to all of our problems and from the inordinate amount of money that now flows from Wall Street to Washington, creating a new Gilded Age where the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States possess more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined. But another part of it stems from our own misguided perception of what constitutes wealth and progress. In this second Gilded Age, wealth and progress have come to mean one and the same thing — the acquisition of an inordinate amount of capital or other assets by an individual, often obtained through mere financial transactions.
For Roosevelt, however — and for much of his generation — the definition of wealth and progress was much more in keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving. “Happiness,” as FDR famously said in his First Inaugural Address, “lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” Four years later, he added that the “test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
For the 100 million citizens of our nation now struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, these words sadly offer little comfort, for it appears we have abandoned the noble effort of the Depression generation to paint the specter of poverty out of our national canvas.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book on U.S.-UK economic relations in the 1930s, entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.
The Roosevelt Institute is a non-profit organization devoted to carrying forward the legacy and values of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.