When a national economy is shattered, as was the case in the Great Depression in the United States, it is inevitable that those lower on the socio-economic scale bear a greater brunt of the impact. The Depression vastly influenced all working people in the nation, of course, and its effects have been well-documented. More than half of all American families in the 1930s lived on annual incomes of between $500 and $1,500, and the lowest amount considered necessary for an average standard of living was $2,500 (Cravens 46). This was a devastating and widespread crisis affecting virtually all. Nonetheless, as such a crisis demands from a society a paring down of opportunities, those on the lower ends of employment and status were the hardest hit. African Americans had not enjoyed anything like equal employment status during the prosperous 1920s, and the same bias became more pronounced when the Depression struck. Black workers were dismissed immediately and in vast numbers, as the severe conditions enabled discrimination to become overt. If, in good times, it was acceptable to hire blacks, it was seen as necessary to sacrifice them in order to promote better chances of white survival. The numbers are striking; in Detroit, for example, blacks made up four percent of the population but accounted for over 25 percent of relief cases (Cravens 106).
For Mexicans and Latin American, it was worse. Only a decade earlier, the U.S. had actively encouraged Hispanic immigration, chiefly to meet the labor needs of the new industries. With the Depression, new laws were enacted and there began a widespread deportation process, and hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were sent back to their native country (Cafferty, Engstrom 38). The circumstances were different for women. For most, the Depression translated into something of an elevation in status; the homemaker, wife, and mother was now critically important in keeping the family together through economizing (Cravens 47). The government greatly reinforced the role of women in domestic life as crucial to seeing the nation through. At the same time, women fared as badly as blacks and Hispanics in terms of securing work outside the home. They were, like the blacks, immediately dismissed from jobs because it was felt that the few available rightly belonged to men. There was as well another backlash; as jobs were scarce, it was believed that women should be legally banned from working in cases where the husband had a job (Craven 46). Not unexpectedly, minority women were less able to find work, as those few jobs offered to women were given to whites.
The New Deal would radically change a variety of all these circumstances, and perhaps the most notable was in regard to Native Americans. Like other minorities, they were generally discarded when the Depression struck. However, and largely due to the efforts of Secretary of the Interior John Collier, Native Americans were addressed constructively by the New Deal. Collier promoted the culture and worked to destroy the reservation system, and give to the population sovereignty taken from them. His aims were defeated by Congress, however, and the result was that, while greater attention was given to tribal life, conditions for Native Americans worsened with the New Deal (Miller, Cherny, & Gormly 646). Essentially, segregation would continue to deny Native Americans opportunities.
For others, however, there were great improvements. The Roosevelt government, and particularly through the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt, made great efforts to create jobs for women, even as the administration of the New Deal agencies supplied women with clerical work. There was bias and women still received less pay, but they were now accepted as a significant part of the workforce (Miller, Cherny, & Gormly 643). In his 1936 address to the nation, Roosevelt made it clear that his administration would be devoted to providing opportunity equally as the New Deal continued to unfold (Ourdocuments.gov). As women were increasingly acknowledged and provided with work, government agencies carefully ensured that blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities would not be overlooked. Most significantly, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), funded by the federal government, created jobs for minorities, and the numbers of blacks who switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party attests to the support perceived (Miller, Cherny, & Gormly 646). Certainly, life remained hard as the Depression went on, but the New Deal appears to have “leveled” the opportunity bases and promoted the interests of women and minorities.
This as the legacy of the New Deal is, however, disputed. Historians have been widely divided as to the lasting good of it, or even its efficacy at the time, in all the decades since. Even those who defend the New Deal’s policies point out important failings of it, as in its lack of concern for rural poverty and issues. Industrialization and modernization were central to WPA efforts, and large areas of the nation were, it is felt, ignored. Rural poverty increased, in fact, as agricultural business grew (Cravens 116). It has also been observed that the tensions between the Roosevelt administration and the business community exacerbated issues; government-funded operations succeeded, but resistance from the private sector illustrates how the government failed to bring business in line with its own agendas (Cravens 151). There is, in a word, no shortage of criticism as to the effects and legacy of the New Deal. At the same time, it must be remembered that this was a drastic era in American life, and only drastic measures could begin to address the conditions created by the Great Depression. It is likely that no government initiative at this time could have addressed so many, enormous problems. Then, and states of discrimination in place then and lingering afterward, the New Deal and the Roosevelt administration did make important strides in promoting equality. To assert that these strides were not wholly effective is to ignore the times and conditions in which they were made. It is regrettable that there were significant failures, as in the intentions to create independent Native American communities. What is equally important, however, is that the New Deal broke new ground, and made overt and consistent efforts to supply opportunity to all Americans in a time when another government might well have ignored women and minority populations.
Cafferty, P. S. J., & Engstrom, D. W. Hispanics in the United States: An Agenda for the Twenty- First Century. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002. Print.
Cravens, H. Great Depression: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009. Print.
Miller, C. L., Cherny, R. W., & Gormly, J. L. Making America: A History of the United States: Since 1865, Volume 2. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.
Ourdocuments.gov. Transcript of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Radio Address Unveiling the Second Half of the New Deal (1936). N/D. Web. <http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=69&page=transcript>