The greatest surge of federal government growth, apart from wartime, came when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933. The crisis was real: Unemployment had risen from 1.6 million in 1929 to 12.8 million (25 percent of the labor force) early in 1933. Many more were semi-employed.
As fruitless job-hunting went on month after month, observers noted desperation among family heads now bowed and almost beaten: "fear driving them into a state of semi-collapse, cracking nerves; an overpowering fear of the future [as they watched] their children growing thinner and thinner." Roosevelt was the president who gave many of those individuals new hope ("nothing to fear except fear itself") amid depression, and the centerpiece of his relief effort, the Works Progress Administration, did some good.
The WPA, called by its critics "We Piddle Around," was the object of sarcastic stories about digging and filling up holes, but in principle it did emphasize work rather than welfare. And some WPA workers worked very hard; the WPA produced by 1940 over half a million miles of roads and over 100,000 bridges and public buildings, along with 18,000 miles of storm and sanitary sewers, 200 aviation landing fields, 200 million garments for poor individuals, and much else.
Most important, a typical recipient who had been unemployed could report, "Now I can look my children straight in the eyes.... [When] the kids in the house find that you contribute nothing toward their support, very soon they begin to lose respect for you. It's different now. I'm the bread-winner of the house and everybody respects me."
But spirit-reviving had its economic, constitutional, and political complications. In 1937 the U.S. economy collapsed again, with unemployment in 1938 soaring to the 1933 level, despite programs such as the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some programs may even have prolonged the Depression by soaking up money that otherwise would have been used by individuals to purchase goods and services from struggling businesses. Furthermore, a Supreme Court under pressure in 1937 began interpreting the Constitution in loose constructionist ways. We are still paying a price for that.
Politically, the New Deal gave new life to urban political bosses. In New York City during 1933, demands from constituents for jobs and other favors were up, but revenues were way down, and Tammany Hall (the Democratic political machine) had no choice but to lay off city employees and reduce services. The result: Voters chose Republican Fiorello La Guardia to be mayor. Democratic city bosses across the country panicked. They needed money, and fast, to stay in office. State governments were often unwilling and sometimes unable to send funds.
Enter FDR, and his program to pass out lots of money-and have Democratic Party workers do the passing. Bosses who had their photos taken with the president gained credit for new schools, hospitals, water and sewer systems, bridges, and roads. In Chicago, Roosevelt gave Mayor Edward J. Kelly control of 200,000 WPA jobs in Illinois. Between 1933 and 1940 federal funds enabled Kelly to build a subway, an airport, and many other projects. Since the federal government paid 88 percent of Chicago's relief and jobs costs, the state government 11 percent, and the city itself only one penny of every dollar, Kelly did not have to raise property taxes. He received new terms as mayor in 1935, 1939, and 1943, and delivered Illinois to Roosevelt in presidential elections the following years.
Similarly, Jersey City boss Frank Hague controlled over 75,000 WPA jobs, with applicants forced to get cards handed out only by Hague's cronies. Federal funds allowed Hague to expand the Jersey City Medical Center into a 2,000-bed operation, creating more patronage jobs and a humanitarian image. Some newspapers criticized Hague's crushing of political dissidents in his region, but Roosevelt in 1936 praised Hague for his "great service" to constituents. Roosevelt also prevented federal prosecution of Hague for mail tampering; Hague in turn delivered New Jersey.
The bottom line: In 58 of the 68 years since the New Deal began, Democrats have controlled the House of Representatives. They have controlled the White House in 40 of those years. That's an impressive testimony to the power of pork, especially since in the 68 years prior to the New Deal only two Democrats, Cleveland and Wilson, gained the presidency.
Bill Clinton told us only a few years ago that the era of big government is over. This campaign is showing why that's one more big lie. The New Deal left many legacies (some positive, some negative), but the political one is this: As long as FDR's successors can win votes by promising key groups of voters new goods and services that others will pay for, the electoral bribes will keep on coming.