Navigating the Jobs Crisis: What Workers Know about Recovery
In the wake of the highest unemployment rate in 25 years, the Roosevelt Institute asked historians, economists and other public thinkers to reflect on the lessons of the New Deal and explore new, big ideas for how to get America back to work. On this Thanksgiving Day, Alice O’Connor reminds us that a job is not just the means to economic security, but to psychological and social security as well.
In 1940 Yale Professor of Economics and Director of Unemployment Studies E. Wight Bakke published a pair of volumes titled The Unemployed Worker and Citizens Without Work, reporting the results of a remarkable eight-year study of unemployed workers and their families in Depression era New Haven. Seventy years later, the study’s analysis still resonates, and never more so than in light of this month’s unemployment figures showing jobless rates in the double digits, where they are expected to stay for the next couple of years.
Bakke’s study was based on a premise that would be greeted as anathema in most economics departments today: that understanding unemployment would require looking beyond what could be revealed in statistics and household survey data. It would require an exploration of the social and psychological as well as the economic meaning of work. It would also require spending real time in the working-class communities most affected by job loss. And it would require asking workers and their families what they thought, how they felt, and how they were coping, emotionally and materially, with what Bakke memorably called “the task of making a living without a job.” Accordingly, Bakke and his field researchers joined the ranks of New Haven’s unemployed workers from 1932-39, acting as interviewers and observers and social surveyors while the realities of mass and long-term unemployment hit home. New Haven’s unemployed, Bakke learned, felt robbed of their livelihoods but also of their self-respect, their place in the community, their sense of having a future, and, for the men in particular, their authority as breadwinners in the family. Not all of these losses were entirely bad — Bakke wrote about the subtle democratization of family life as husbands “adjusted” to the autonomy of their income-earning wives — but his study left no doubt that putting people back to work was key to psychological as well as economic recovery.
Ultimately, the most striking of Bakke’s insights were political. Like others studying the impact of mass unemployment at the time, he was well aware of the dangers it presented to democracy. But he had the more immediate politics of relief in mind. Taking aim at the still-favored mythology that aiding workers would make them dependent on the dole, he documented the extraordinary lengths they would go to first to avoid and then to minimize their reliance on public relief. He also wrote about a subtle shift in working-class attitudes and consciousness, from an individualistic to a more “collective” understanding of self reliance, and of the role of government in providing work and economic security for its citizenry. And here, in a way he could hardly have anticipated when he started the study in 1932, Bakke was picking up on what had become a keynote in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: employment-centered economic recovery and reform.
From the start of his administration, FDR made putting people back to work a high and visible priority for economic recovery. In 1933, Congress established the Public Works Administration, a massive jobs-generating investment in the nation’s public infrastructure that would come to employ millions in construction, engineering, and related industries. This came at the very time the administration was acting to restore confidence in the financial sector through measures such as the Glass-Steagall Banking Act and the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission — all in 1933-34.
Pressured to do more amid 25%-plus unemployment rates, the administration soon instituted a series of more direct federal jobs programs, which by 1943 had created jobs for more than 8.5 million people and extended public employment to the nation’s social and cultural as well as its civic infrastructure. Employment was also the centerpiece of major economic reforms launched in the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 - which among them instituted old-age retirement, unemployment insurance, child welfare, wage and hours standards, and rights to collective bargaining that would come to anchor the promise of economic security. These and other New Deal measures were deeply flawed by the racial and gender exclusions they perpetuated. But their lasting legacy can be found in the thousands of schools, parks, bridges, roads, airports, and post offices constructed by public workers; in the extraordinary art, music, theatre, and literary creations federally-employed workers contributed to our cultural heritage; and, as Bakke no doubt appreciated, in the recognition that having citizens with meaningful, well-paid work was a sign of a fully functioning political economy.
This, then, is why Bakke and the workers he wrote about still speak to us, all these decades after The Unemployed Worker and Citizens Without Work first appeared and amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Their thoughts and feelings about the meaning of work are echoed by millions of individuals, families, and communities facing the prospect of a future without it, and by the scores of others taking wage and hours cuts instead. Their resourcefulness in coping with economic hardship was admirable but had its limits, as do the resources of those caught up in the spiraling effects of today’s Great Recession.
Their experience, like that of their contemporary counterparts, told them what no dry and detached compilation of economic indicators could: that recovery without jobs is no recovery at all. And their plea, soon crystallized into an organized political demand, was for an economy that would support rather than undermine the needs and aspirations of the people who make it work.
Alice O’Connor is a Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.