How the New Deal Improved the Lives of American Citizens

By 1900 the American nation had established itself as a world power being the largest steel producer in the world, turning out 10,000,000 tons a year. A boom in urban construction meant that cities were growing. Telephones were in wide use and homes were being electrified. Skyscrapers were the newest frontier in design. By 1920 more than 500 had been built in New York alone. After the First World War the Republican Party won a landslide victory and as a result Warren Harding (The Republican Candidate) was voted into office in 1920. This was because his policies appealed to the majority of the American people.
Throughout the 1920’s, numerous Republican presidents were in power. President Harding believed in what he called ‘Normalcy’- letting the USA get back to normal life before the war. His key Policies were: Isolationism which meant that the USA was not to get involved in foreign wars or disputes. (This meant the rejection of Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations) He also proposed that Higher Tariffs should be placed on foreign goods to make them expensive in the USA so that people would buy American goods instead, allowing US industry to grow.
Furthermore, He promised to lower taxes. This would help businesses to grow and gave workers more money to spend. This would encourage people buy American goods and Invest in American Industries, helping them grow even more. These policies appeared to reflect exactly the mood of the American people at the time; therefore it is no surprise that the result of the 1920 election entirely vindicated Harding. Harding secured 60. 3 per cent of the vote compared to 39. 7 per cent for the Democrat candidate James Cox. (1)Harding clearly appealed to the American Electorate.

Undoubtedly, his campaign slogan, “Let us return to normalcy”, was exceedingly popular to a nation still recovering from the effects of war. To them,’ normalcy’ implied the removal of wartime restrictions and a refusal of Wilson’s policy for continued involvement in foreign affairs. Because of this the Republicans were in a strong position to reverse the ‘Progressivism’ of the Democrat years and instead return to ‘laissez-faire’ politics and a reduction in Government intervention. These policies helped to create the economic prosperity in the 1920’s.
In the 1920’s, the profits of many American companies rose enormously. Goods were produced quickly and cheaply because of new mass production techniques. The biggest economic boom came in the industries making consumer goods. Sales of household goods, such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines, boosted the electrical industry. This was made possible by the republican government cutting taxes and protecting industry form foreign imports, giving people money to spend and invest. These investments would help industry expend and even more.
The ‘Fordney-McCumber Tariff Act’ of 1922 raised tariffs higher than ever before. Advertising credit and hire purchase made it is easy to spend. (As shown in source 2) American society was full of contrasts in the 1920 and there were some real advances for many Americans. Jobs were had easier to find and were better paid than before. The amount of Billionaires in America had increased by 400% . People could also enjoy themselves like never before. Millions of Americans went to the cinema each week to watch new stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino.
Hollywood became the centre of a multi-million dollar industry. (Source 3) Due to social change, women gained greater freedom. A symbol of this independence was the flappers. (Source 4) Because times were good there was a feeling of confidence in America. The single most important industry was the motor industry. By 1929 there were 26 million cars on the roads. (As shown in source 5) A large car industry helped create further jobs in related areas, such as car parts and road construction. It also helped the growth of suburbs and as a result the urban population increased exponentially.
The figures in source 6 seem to support the image of economic boom in the USA during the 1920’s. Perhaps the biggest impact on people’s lives was Harding’s policy of prohibition. Alcohol became almost unavailable, legally, and as a result drunkenness and deaths due to cirrhosis decreased. In source 7 President Hoover summed up the feelings of many Americans in a speech in 1928; “We in America are nearer to the final victory over poverty than ever before in the history of any land” However despite the economic boom, there were serious weaknesses in the US economy during the 20’s.
Likewise many ordinary Americans did not share in the boom. African Americans, in particular, suffered from discrimination and often had the worst jobs. Because the Government adopted ‘Non Interventionism’ the country had not undergone social reform. As a result the Republicans failed to pass any laws preventing the segregation and lynching of African Americans. As a consequence many African Americans left the ‘Deep South’ for the cities to escape persecution and find work. In New York, by 1925 the population of African Americans had tripled. Native Americans also did not share in the prosperity of the1920’s.
A government census in 1920 revealed that most lived in extreme poverty. They suffered extreme discrimination and were quickly losing their land to Rapid City expansion. They population of Native Americans declined from 1. 5 million to 250,000. There were called ‘Vanishing Americans’. Although women had gained some liberty from the boom they were still a long way from being equal to men. For example, women were still paid less than men, even when they did the same job. Women may have also received the vote but it didn’t give them political power.
Political parties wanted women’s votes but they didn’t particularly want them as political candidates as they considered them ‘unelectable’ only a handful of women had high public standing by 1929. Some industries did not grow in the 1920’s such as coal and textiles because they couldn’t compete with modern synthetic resources. Source 8 shows the discontent in the coal industry in the 1920’s. Many other Industries could not export goods because of tariffs in other countries; these were often simply retaliation to the American tariffs (A failure on the Republicans part) Crime and corruption also became a serious problem for the Republicans.
Many areas became renowned for illegal bootleggers and gangs, such as Chicago which was run by the notorious AL Capone. To make matters worse Prohibition damaged a large part of the government’s income. It seemed that Prohibition had failed. Therefore it is no surprise it was immediately withdrawn when Roosevelt came to power. Perhaps the biggest limitation of the 20’s was that wealth was concentrated in a small number of hands. And not shared equally. Around 32% of the country’s wealth was owned by 5% of the population while 42% of the population lived below the poverty line. Source 9 shows some differences in earnings.
The major companies worked to keep wages down and prices high to ensure large profits, however this combination actually stopped a lot of people from buying goods. Farmers suffered from over production and prices were very low (as shown in source 10) the industry started to decline shrinking half in size by 1928. All these limitations of the boom seem to suggest that perhaps in source 7 when Hoover delivered his speech in 1928 he was in fact ignorant and failed to realise the seriousness of the situation.
Indeed he was later criticised for not doing anything to help the people and as a result the slums and anything associated with poverty was nicknamed after Hoover. For example ‘Hooerville’s’ On October the 29th 1929 the American Stock Market collapsed. Known as the ‘Wall Street Crash’ this economic disaster caused America to enter the Great Depression, the largest in American History to this day. The effects of the crash were disastrous for many ordinary Americans; many had only experienced economic prosperity and ‘Boom’ during their life time. Many individuals were bankrupt- they could not pay back the loans they used to buy their (now worthless) shares.
This meant that homeowners lost their homes because they could not pay their mortgages. Even some who had savings lost their money because the banks collapsed. Many farmers suffered a similar fate as banks tried to get back their loans. Many farmers were forced to sell their land. To make matters worse over farming and drought turned millions of acres of land into a Dustbowl forcing farmers to leave their land. Source 11 shows that many increasing amounts of Americans faced unemployment. The confidence of individuals was shattered. Those that managed to stay in work faced reduced hours and wages.
Countless unemployed Americans were reduced to picking over rubbish dumps or begging and many more were forces to use the provided soup kitchens and charity hand-outs, hence the term ‘on the breadline’. In the land of opportunity this was seen as a terrible failure, and 23,000 people committed suicide in 1932 alone. Most Americans came to blame Hoover for the Depression. This is not entirely fair since there were much larger forces at work than Hoover’s policies. However people blamed him because of his government’s inaction in tackling people’s problems.
Hoover believed that the situation was not too serious and that ‘prosperity is just around the corner’. This upset many Americans. (As shown in source 12)In some ways, Hoover was unfairly criticised. Although his government did not know how to stop the Depression, it did take action between 1929 and 1932. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was set up and it lent money to banks, industries and agriculture to help solve the problem of bankruptcy. In 1930 the Smoot-Hawley Act raised tariffs, and in 1932 the government raised taxes. But these simply made the Depression much worse.
Overall, however Hoover still believed in ‘rugged individualism’, sticking to the idea that it was not the government’s job to interfere with business. He showed little sympathy for the poor and starving American people. It was no surprise then, that Hoover was decisively beaten by Franklin. D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential elections. Hoover won a majority in only two states, which were both deeply criticised by the press. (As source 13 shows) During the election campaign, Roosevelt’s key phrase was his offer of a ‘New Deal’ for Americans. There could be no greater contrasts to Hoover than his opponent Roosevelt.
Unlike Hoover, Roosevelt believed in ‘active government’ to improve the lives of ordinary people. He had plans to spend public money on getting people back to work. As Governor of New York, he had already started doing this in his own state. Most importantly he was not afraid to ask for advice on important issues from a wide range of experts, such as factory owners, union leaders and economists. Roosevelt’s policy of ‘interventionism’ openly contradicted Hoover’s ‘laissez faire’ approach to tackling the depression. Roosevelt’s ideas helped improve people’s lives during the Great Depression and gave them hope for bright future.
Once in office Roosevelt was determined to act quickly. In the ‘Hundred Days’ He managed to get the US congress to pass many new laws. This first New Deal legislation is summarised in source 14. In his later years in office, Roosevelt updated and changed some laws as well as creating further legislation where it was needed. The first New Deal was about economic recovery. The second New Deal Roosevelt introduced was about making the USA a fairer society for all. In 1935 the ‘Works progress Administration’ replaced the’ Public works Administration’ (PWA) It extended the range of work provided for the unemployed.
The ‘National Relations Act’ or ‘Wagner’ act, also in 1935 forced employers to recognise trade unions after the ‘National Recovery Act’ (NRA) was declared illegal by American courts. This law meant that workers kept the protection that the NRA had given them. Furthermore the ‘Social Security Act’ in 1935 provided aid for the elderly and set up an unemployment insurance scheme. The welfare state had been created. However, the provisions were still far less comprehensive than in Germany or Britain. The New Deal help to improve the lives of American people and make society a faire place for all.
Thanks to the’ National Recovery act’ and the ‘Wagner act’ Worker’s achieved greater freedom in the workplace, receiving higher wages, lower hours and the freedom to strike and complain legally. However there were still many problems for the ordinary workers. Big business still remained immensely powerful and many strikes were broken up with brutal violence (such as the case of Richard Fankensteen) Numerous African Americans benefited from New Deal slum clearance and housing projects as well from the other agencies such as CCC.
Source 15 shows what may African American had to go through each day. By 1935 around 30% of all African American families were dependant on the New Deal emergency relief. However Roosevelt failed to pass any laws against the lynching of African Americans. He feared that Democrat senators in the southern states would not support him, as they were determined that no concessions should be made to improve the status of African Americans. As a result many New Deal agencies discriminated against African Americans. They either got no work or received worse treatment or lower wages.
For women the New Deal was a gateway to greater freedom. The New Deal saw some women achieve prominent positions, such as Eleanor Roosevelt who became an important campaigner on social issues and Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labour in Roosevelt’s government. However most of the New Deal programmes were aimed at male workers rather than females. By 1936 only about 8,000 women were employed by the ‘CCC’. To make matters worse the local governments tried to avoid paying out social security payments to women by introducing special qualifications and conditions.
Native Americans had also not really benefited from Roosevelt’s work. Although the ‘Indian Reorganisation Act’ and the ‘Indian reservation Act’ in 1934 helped Native Americans to buy and improve land and to preserve and practice their traditions, laws and cultures, Native Americans remained a poor and excluded section of society. An agenda such as the New Deal was unheard of in American history. It was bound to attract opposition and it did. Powerful Business men opposed Roosevelt because he interfered with their business and gave their workers’ rights.
This meant that they lost profit as workers now had to be paid more and could legally strike. Not to mention the cost of making the workplace conditions adequate. To no surprise the Republicans dislike Roosevelt’s programme. Source 16 expresses the mood of the Republican politicians. After 1938, Republicans had the majority in the senate, and Roosevelt was unable to get any more New Deal legislation through. These opponents found it easy to criticize Roosevelt for ’steering’ the USA down the road to Socialism. Roosevelt likewise faced enormous opposition from the State governments and the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled the ‘NRA’ and the ‘AAA’ illegal and unconstitutional because they undermined the States power. (The court was dominated by Republicans who opposed the New Deal) After he was re-elected in 1936, Roosevelt sought to reform the Supreme Court so that it could no longer block his plans. (As source 17 illustrates)This meant appointing judges who were sympathetic to his political views. This was one of Roosevelt’s biggest mistakes. Roosevelt’s plan produced a storm of criticism from ordinary Americans and made him look like a dictator. This criticism is seen in source 18.
Ironically, Roosevelt was also criticised for not doing enough to help the poor. These critics claimed that the aim of the New Deal was not to change American society, but to enable capitalism to survive. A key figure in arguing on behalf of these people was Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana. He put forward a scheme called ‘Share our Wealth’ which involved limiting personal fortunes to a maximum of $3million and restricting income to a maximum of $1million a year. He was so popular that Roosevelt regarded him as one of the two most dangerous men in the USA.
If he had not been assassinated in 1935 he may have even challenged Roosevelt in the 1936 election. Overall, I partially agree with the statement; “The changes made by the American Government between 1919-1939 improved the lives of American citizens” Although some sections of society benefited from the New Deal and ‘The Boom’ life did not improve for everyone. During the prosperity of the 1920’s it was only those living in the urban areas that became better off. Many living in rural areas of America, instead of receiving increased wages and access to luxury items, faced the hard reality of unemployment and poverty.
During the 20’s farmers found it difficult to sell their crops and as a result overproduction ‘crippled’ many of them. Women living in the rural areas did not share the freedom of their counterparts in the cities. They still had traditional occupations and worse traditional styles of clothing. The attitude of society in the 1920’s also made live very difficult for anyone who wasn’t white. Native and African Americans were awfully discriminated and persecuted simply because they were different. They either had no work or had menial ones with long hours and low wages.
The rise of the Ku Klux Klan meant that many Black Americans were lynched and lived in fear of white supremacy. So, despite the boom and the undoubted benefits that it brought to many people, by the end of the 1920’s the USA was still a deeply divided society, with enormous difference between rich and poor, white and black. Indeed the only group that was better off was the ordinary workers and the rich business owners. They received larger wages and could begin to afford luxury goods such as the motor car. As source 19 The American economy grew exponentially.
However these two groups did not prosper because of Hoover’s government. Hoover did nothing during the 20’s to improve the lives of ordinary citizens because he believed in ‘Rugged Individualism’ therefore businesses prospered due to their own ingenuity. On the contrary, Roosevelt actively sought to improve his citizen’s lives. His New Deal, although not a complete economic success, (as unemployment did not end until the start of World War 2) did manage to turn around the situation for many Americans who were struggling in the depression.
Emergency relief prevented families from starving, jobs were provided for as many unemployed as possible and the ‘Social Security Act’ of 1935 began to set up a system of national insurance which gave many American much needed support. However Roosevelt was reluctant to deal with the ‘Race’ issue. This meant that the status of Black Americans did not improve and thus their lives did not improve very much in the Deep South. In spite of this Roosevelt did improve the lives of some African Americans. 200,000 were in the CCC and many benefited from slum clearance and housing projects.
Perhaps the most significant change that Roosevelt made was the NRA. It certainly improved the lives of ordinary workers by establishing worker’s rights to join unions and to bargain collectively for their wages. During the 1930’s, union membership rose steadily. But they still had little power compared to the large business owners. The New Deal did much to improve the lives of American farmers. Measures were taken to solve the problem of Overproduction such as encouraging soil conservation and providing loans for farm equipment.
These were all effective, but they only benefitted large scale farmers. Crop prices started to rise again in the 30’s but small farmers saw little of the benefit. There was still much poverty in rural America. So, the changes made by the American Government between 1919-1939 did improved the lives of American citizens because the changes implemented did make the USA a fairer and better place for all sections of society, such as the ‘Wagner Act’, the creation of the welfare state and National insurance.
These things helped improved people’s lives by giving them much needed financial support and rights in the workplace. However at the turn of the decade (1940) there was still much that needed to be done for some citizens in America. For example the end of lynching for African Americans and giving women equal rights to men. Although The New Deal had not fully achieved this, it was the ‘stepping stone’ to building a just society.

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