A Depression-era perspective on public welfare

the farmerThose trying to understand the current economic crisis would do well to revisit the history of the Great Depression. Popular mainstream interpretations focus on the actions of the Roosevelt administration, but give short shrift to the significant grassroots pressure for government action.

In December 1933, Successful Farming published an analysis of Roosevelt’s New Deal by F.D. Farrell, then president of Kansas State College. Readers of the Des Moines, Iowa-based magazine were farmers, a group likely to look with suspicion on anything smacking of Big Government. Here, Farrell makes the case for “socialization,” arguing that it’s essentially an American imperative:

“In the recent difficult years the fact has come to be widely understood that the welfare of each unit of our society depends somewhat upon the welfare of all the other units. Particularly the public has come to understand that industrial and commercial prosperity requires agricultural well-being. Wall Street has become aware of the importance of Main Street [ . . . ]

“Socialization itself is not new in the United States. Not so very long ago our elementary education was on an individualistic basis. Parents who were willing and able to do so employed teachers for their children. Generally speaking, children whose parents were unwilling or unable to employ teachers received no schooling. About a century ago the American people decided — against powerful minority opposition — that the public interest required that all children of certain ages, rich and poor alike, be sent to school. Elementary education then ceased to be on an individualistic basis and became socialized. The cost of maintaining the socialized activity is borne by the general public. The childless man pays as much, per unit of his assessed property valuation, to support the schools as does the father of a large family of boys and girls. This illustrates one of the fundamental principles involved in the socialization of certain farm enterprises: the burden of support for such socialization is shared by the general public.

“On essentially the same principles as those underlying the public school system we have socialized highways, city water supplies, fire protection, disease control, and various other activities in which the general public is vitally interested. As our civilization becomes more complex, and so involves increased interdependence among the various units of the population, it should not be astonishing if we should decided that it is in the public interest to socialize to some extent the use of land. [. . .]”

Farrell’s article then outlines the essentials and benefits of socialization of agricultural resources.

It’s a remarkable piece — a college president writing for a conservative farming publication aimed at an audience of proud individualists. But those were remarkable times.

In the 1930s, workers responded to plant closings by occupying factories and unionizing. Farmers banded together in cooperatives and dumped commodities; they fought waves of foreclosures by intimidating potential bidders, buying property for a pittance, and returning it to their neighbors. While many newspapers and radio glossed over the human misery of the time, new publications popped up to redefine the American compact.

Roosevelt, in a sense, was pushed by the people to adopt progressive policies. His legacy was a system of social safety nets that built a foundation for prosperity, but the achievement belongs to the millions who demanded change. — Roland Klose (rwklose@gmail.com)