New Deal & Roosevelts in Chicago PDF Print E-mail

1. Chicago, The Great Depression and the New Deal

Few Americans escaped the economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression. From 1929 to 1933 investment fell 87%, production levels were cut in half, and unemployment rose to 25%.1 The employment situation was far worse than the numbers suggest because the jobless rate did not count the millions of underemployed Americans, including those suffering severe wage cuts or employed in seasonal work. Estimates suggest that at the depth of the Depression, one-third of employed workers had only part-time work.2 As an industrial city boasting steel mills, meatpacking, and electrical manufacturing plants, Chicago felt the blunt force of the failing economy. In 1932, thousands of stockyard workers clogged streets in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in a demonstration calling for government relief.3 Chicago thus provides a rich laboratory for Depression and New Deal era studies.

Students wishing to investigate Chicago and the Great Depression or New Deal have an infinite number of topics and sources upon which to draw. Some may be interested in exploring the experience of a group of people during the Depression—African Americans, women, laborers, children, or immigrants, for example. Others may prefer to examine family life, or some aspect of politics. They may wish to evaluate the effect of a New Deal policy, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, National Labor Relations Act, or Social Security Act on the lives of ordinary Chicagoans. Among the many New Deal policies directly affecting ordinary individuals were those designed to provide work relief for the unemployed.

Like his predecessor, Republican President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) did not want to put Americans on the “dole,” a derogatory term used to describe direct cash relief. Roosevelt felt that unemployed Americans did not want a hand out, but a hand up. In order to preserve their dignity and offer them a psychological boost, Roosevelt advocated for New Deal programs that put Americans back to work. During the first 100 days of his administration from March to June 1933, Roosevelt supported the creation of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which employed young men in a wide variety of environmental projects. Also enacted in the first 100 days, his Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) dispensed funds to state-level administrators for local public works projects. In 1935, he signed into law the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which provided for the establishment of a Works Projects Administration (WPA; later renamed the Works Progress Administration). Over the course of its existence, the WPA employed 8.5 million people in vast public works projects. 4WPA workers not only built schools, bridges, hospitals, park lodges and furniture, but they also made art. Chicago area residents benefited directly from these programs.

1 Thomas K. McCraw “The New Deal and the Mixed Economy,” ed. Harvard Sitkoff, Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), pp. 38, 40; David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945(New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 163.
2 Kennedy, Freedom From Fear, p. 87.
3 Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 1.
4 Kennedy, Freedom from Fear, pp. 252-53.

2. Topics list for New Deal and Roosevelts in Chicago History

3. Public Housing & the New Deal

4. Art & the New Deal

5. Sources


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