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Permanent Depression

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America’s Permanent Depression – III

Roosevelt Smiles on the Unemployed When Elections Roll Around;
But WPA Scales Are Lower Than Ever

(August 1938)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 33, 13 August 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Someone has said that man is the only animal who can convince himself that things are not what they are, but he would like them to be.

The history of the federal relief program from 1935 to the present demonstrates this fact. Much of the cheering for Roosevelt is based on the completely false idea that there has been a substantial improvement in the conditions of the unemployed during the past three years. Actual facts and figures prove there has been a gradual and subtle decline in the living standards of the unemployed as a whole during the period of the W.P.A.

A story is related of the scientist who experimented with frogs. He placed them alive in a pan of water over a very low flame. The pan was sufficiently shallow to permit the frogs to hop out. But so low was the flame that it took days for the water to heat. The rise in temperature was so gradual that the frogs failed to notice it. Eventually, they boiled alive. If the pan had been near a radio with the assuring tones of F.D.R. gushing forth, the frogs might have boiled to death with a smile.

This story demonstrates the distinction between the Hoover and Roosevelt methods of treating the unemployed. Hoover threw the unemployed into a red-hot pan of outright starvation. Roosevelt supplies just enough relief jobs to keep the unemployed from “jumping out of the pan”, that is, pacified by a gradual process of becoming accustomed to lower standards and by a form of stabilized poverty.

Starvation in F.D.R. Program

Not that Roosevelt has scrupled to discontinue relief and jobs altogether when it suited his purposes. Five and a half million relief families, 22 million men, women and children, faced outright starvation “between June and November 1935, when the Roosevelt administration discontinued direct relief. Of these five and a half million unemployed breadwinners, over 1,750,000 never received employment on the W.P.A. They subsisted at best on meager allotments of state and local governments.

These millions, together with the additional five million more unemployed families estimated to have required relief in the past year of depression, today face a relief crisis unparalleled in the past six years. The breakdown of relief in Cleveland, Chicago and other centers has revealed conditions as rotten almost as anything known under Hoover. These crises flow from Roosevelt’s direct relief policies.

Slashing Relief Appropriations

The federal government is gradually liquidating its obligations to the unemployed. First, it slipped from under the responsibility for direct relief. Since then, it has slowly decreased the appropriations for work relief in relation to the total number of unemployed. The original appropriation for W.P.A. was four billion. dollars. Unemployment in the fall of 1935 was about 11 million. At its peak in February 1936, W.P.A. employed 3,853,000 workers. From that date until July 937, although unemployment had declined less than 25 per cent according to the government’s own census, the W.P.A. was reduced, through systematic and ruthless wholesale dismissals, by more than 50 per cent, to 1,800,000 workers.

Contrast the present one and a quarter billion dollars W.P.A. appropriation with the original four billion, and the maximum of 2,800,000 jobs provided under the present fund with the almost four million jobs at the 1936 peak. There are, variously estimated, two to five million more unemployed now than in February 1936, but a million less W.P.A. jobs, and an appropriation that will last no further than January, 1939.

For anyone not blinded by personal or political considerations, the above figures, cited from government sources, reveal a startling fact. The total benefits for the unemployed as a group have been reduced in the past three years, particularly when contrasted with the actual number of unemployed at any given period.

Wages Gradually Reduced

A further startling fact is that real work relief wages, on the average throughout the country, have suffered a gradual reduction from the C.W.A. program to the present W.P.A. set-up. C.W.A. paid an average weekly wage of $15 for unskilled laborers, about $65 monthly. The F.E.R.A. originally paid an average weekly wage to laborers of $12, or $50 monthly. The administration then reduced wages on F.E.R.A. to the equivalent of each worker’s direct relief budget, the worst form of forced-labor for emergency relief orders. The discontinuance of this forced-labor policy was not effected by the administration without considerable mass persuasion from the unemployed. Hundreds of strikes ripped the F.E.R.A. work program wide open.

When the W.P.A. began, Roosevelt did not make the mistake attempted under the F.E.R.A. He quickly covered that one revealing glimpse of his actual ruthless purpose with a great ballyhoo of “security” wages and “prevailing” hourly rates of pay under the W.P.A. The actual amount earned by most W.P.A. workers was more than could be secured on direct relief. But, as always, what the administration gave with one hand, it withdrew with the other.

By discontinuing direct relief, the federal government was able, with little additional cost, to give slightly higher benefits to a smaller group of workers.

Further, the W.P.A. established wide wage differentials for areas of varying populations within these regions. Thus, the $55–$60 per month paid unskilled workers in large industrial centers in the north-eastern states, where unionism, and unemployed organizations and mass actions were most extensive, were offset by the incredible coolie wages paid in the South and the rural areas.

At its peak, W.P.A. wages, including the wages of the skilled and professional workers, averaged only $45.91 per month. This is less than the highest averages for unskilled laborers alone during the C.W.A. and F.E.R.A. For three years, the W.P.A. paid workers in certain southern areas as little as $19 per month. The “security” wage is a ghastly joke, unless it implies merely security from immediate starvation. It certainly cannot mean “freedom from anxiety, want or poverty” in the dictionary sense.

Recently, minimum wages on W.P.A. were raised to $40 per month. This act has been pointed out as a great humanitarian deed by Roosevelt. Few have asked why this noble deed was not done three years ago, at a time when Roosevelt had the national legislature eating out of his hand, and why this concession was so comparatively easy for him to secure now from an increasingly hostile legislature.

Roosevelt’s ‘Noble’ Sentiments

Just how much Roosevelt has been moved by political considerations as contrasted with nobler sentiments in his unemployed policies we can observe accurately. Both in the fall of 1934 and that of 1936, just prior to the general elections, a sharp increase was noted in federal work relief employment. This was particularly apparent in September and October 1936, when Roosevelt reversed his policy of mass W.P.A. lay-offs while unemployment was declining, and packed the W.P.A. projects. Few new projects were started, but old ones were double and triple shifted.

Immediately following Roosevelt’s re-election, 400,000 W.P.A. workers, most of them still displaying Roosevelt campaign buttons, were fired en masse. Within six months of the elections, almost three-quarters of a million W.P.A. workers had received the reward of blind political faith in the form of pink dismissal slips.

We are approaching another election. Again W.P.A. jobs are on the increase. A couple of hundred thousand workers will be advantageously placed on W.P.A. rolls for a few weeks prior to the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November. Then we can confidently predict that the W.P.A. will follow its time-hallowed custom of firing hundreds of thousands – after the votes have been safely recorded.

(The next article of this series will be a discussion of the New Deal unemployment policies in relation to the entire Roosevelt program of saving the capitalist system and preparing for imperialist war.)

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