A CARING SOCIETY: The New Deal Confronts the Great Society by Irving Bernstein

A CARING SOCIETY: The New Deal Confronts the Great Society

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The third and final volume of Bernstein's The History of the American Worker, 1920-1941, which includes The Lean Years (1960) and Turbulent Years (1970). His theme: the New Deal arose of necessity out of the Great Depression. The welfare state and its relief measures were society's urgent response to a level of general suffering and joblessness never before experienced in America. In the depth of the Depression, March 1933, estimates of the numbers of unemployed ranged from 15.3 to 14.3 million (the government had no reliable statistics). Such mass unemployment--30 percent of the work force --resulted, Bernstein says, from the over-rapid transformation of America from a rural to a highly industrialized economy. To deal with this disaster, relief could come only on the national level. From 1933 to 1941, Franklin Roosevelt and his administration completed the foundations of the emerging welfare state. It provided for a minimum income for all in such relief programs as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps and in the minimum wage and hour provisions of the National Recovery Administration. The Social Security Act brought people a minimum of insurance against unemployment and old age. Third, there was mandated an equality of treatment for all citizens in these relief programs. Bernstein says the New Deal's welfare policies represented a radical break with the past, yet served a conservative purpose--to safeguard democracy and preserve capitalism. But he overemphasizes Roosevelt at creator of this changed America and dismisses much relevant American history, especially the Progressive era, which other historians (James Weinstein, Gabriel Kolko) see as the seedbed of the later liberal state. Yet his history has an unusual, warmly human perspective, helped by his use of personal accounts of ordinary people and New Dealers dealing with a great calamity. His incongrous chapter, ""Images of the Worker,"" is a brilliant historical synthesis of the portrayal of labor in 1930s art; it could be the basis for a separate book.

Pub Date: June 21st, 1985
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin