Now, the rise and fall of national income—since they tell the story of how much you and I and everybody else are making—are an index of the rise and fall of national prosperity. They are also an index of the prosperity of your Government. The money to run the Government comes from taxes; and the tax revenue in turn depends for its size on the size of the national income. When the incomes and the values and transactions of the country are on the down-grade, then tax receipts go on the down-grade too. If the national income continues to decline, then the Government cannot run without going into the red. The only way to keep the Government out of the red is to keep the people out of the red. And so we had to balance the budget of the American people before we could balance the budget of the national Government.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1936
The news that the nation added 165,000 jobs in April and that the unemployment rate has dipped to 7.5 percent—its lowest since December 2008—is of course welcome. It has eased the fears of many economists that recent cuts in federal spending might stall our somewhat anemic recovery, helped boost the stock market to record levels, and has been cited by Alan Krueger, the Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisors, as “further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression.”
But as many economists have also reported, the April rate of job growth is still far too low to bring about the level of re-employment needed to bring us back to full employment, and, worse still, the slight improvement in the overall unemployment rate masks a good many far more disturbing statistics. Many of the jobs acquired in April are low-skill and low-paying. Some of the drop in the unemployment rate can be attributed to the fact that millions of Americans have stopped looking for work and have dropped out of the work force all together—496,000 people in March 2013 alone. Then there are the under-employed, who also rank in the millions. If we add their ranks to those who are unemployed or have dropped out of the work force altogether, we arrive at an overall “underemployment rate” of 13.9 percent, up from the previous month’s rate of 13.8 percent. Taken together this means that roughly 22 million Americans are either unemployed or under-employed—a staggering figure, which after four years of so-called “recovery” has some economists predicting that long-term un-and under-employment may now be a permanent fixture of the American landscape.
What is even more shocking, however, is that in spite of all of these grim statistics, grim statistics that reflect the hardship and pain of millions, much of the political discourse in Washington—and in the media—remains fixated on the debt and deficit and the Republican demand for a balanced budget. It is almost as if Washington has all but given up on trying to take direct action to bring about a better employment picture. This realization is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that one of the more significant contributors to our persistently high unemployment rate in the past year has been public sector layoffs.
Calls for the federal government to balance its books are not new, of course. Thanks to the extremely effective public persuasion campaign of the conservative right, we have heard this refrain time and time again. It has now become de rigueur for most politicians— no matter what their party—to pay lip service to the need to get “our house in order” and cut the deficit no matter what the consequences for the average American.
It wasn’t always this way, however. In the mid-1930s, when faced with a similar economic crisis and similar calls for cuts in federal spending, Franklin Roosevelt took an entirely different tack. He insisted that in the midst of a crisis where—much like today—we faced both declining federal revenues and increasing unemployment, “a national choice had to be made” between those who argued that the government should do nothing and “let Nature take its course” and those who argued for federal intervention in the economy, even if it meant running a deficit. As FDR saw it, what stood between his administration and a balanced budget were “millions of needy Americans, denied the promise of a decent American life.” In light of this, he argued that “to balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people,” which would have required either “a capital levy that would have been confiscatory” or accepting “human suffering with callous indifference." "When Americans suffered,” he went on, “we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”
And so the Roosevelt Administration launched programs like the Works Progress Administration that built much of the infrastructure we still enjoy today and which gave millions of Americans, from common laborers to structural engineers, the joy and dignity of work. FDR admitted that “this cost money”—and the American people understood that this would continue to cost money “for several years to come.” But given the dire state of the economy and the lack of demand in the private sector, the American people understood that it was the right thing to do.
Unlike today’s politicians, however, FDR refused to pander to the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the conservative right on the disastrous consequences that would accrue to the country by running a deficit in the midst of an economic crisis. For them FDR had a simple answer. He flat out rejected “this foolish fear about the crushing load the debt will impose upon your children and mine.” On the contrary, he went on:
This debt is not going to be paid by oppressive taxation on future generations. It is not going to be paid by taking away the hard-won savings of the present generation. It is going to be paid out of an increased national income and increased individual incomes produced by increasing national prosperity.
In other words, FDR understood that the real crisis the country faced in the Great Depression was an employment crisis—not a deficit crisis—and that in the long run the “only way to keep the Government out of the red” was, as he said, “to keep the people out of the red.” And so he set his priority on the one thing he knew would help bolster the revenue of both the American people and their government: millions upon millions of jobs.
Unfortunately, much of our leadership in Washington today seems to have lost sight of this fact, and instead of taking meaningful action to help grow the economy and alleviate the suffering of the millions of unemployed, would prefer to cut spending and engage in another endless round of bickering about the debt and deficit. Such “callous indifference” to the plight of millions of Americans is no way to bring about an end to the current crisis or build a better future for our children.