We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
It was a short quote, only because I couldn’t very well quote the entire speech. I wanted to, because so much in it speaks directly to where we stand today, the kind of country we want to be, and the choices that will lead us closer to that goal — or farther from it.
Delivered in January 1937, the speech came after Roosevelt’s landslide victory in the 1936 election, and two years after he stared down businessmen and bankers who sought to halt an economic recovery that had not yet trickled down to — as Roosevelt said — one-third of the population.
He was elected President in November 1932, to the first of four terms. By March there were 13,000,000 unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first “hundred days,” he proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt’s New Deal program. They feared his experiments, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
In 1936 he was re-elected by a top-heavy margin. Feeling he was armed with a popular mandate, he sought legislation to enlarge the Supreme Court, which had been invalidating key New Deal measures. Roosevelt lost the Supreme Court battle, but a revolution in constitutional law took place. Thereafter the Government could legally regulate the economy.
The words of Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural address are particularly relevant, as America and the rest of the world still reels from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression — a downturn made possible by a 30-year project of rolling back many of the reforms Roosevelt put into place.
Roosevelt’s words are relevant today, as bankers and economists declare “Recovery!” — and advise that a second stimulus unnecessary — before lacing up their wingtips for a victory lap. Meanwhile, for many Americans it’s a jobless recovery that hasn’t held much benefit for them.
Jumbo shrimp. Buy and save. Jobless recovery. Americans are on full oxymoron alert these days, as we read and hear about this “jobless recovery.” Recovery for whom?
The unemployment rate is high and growing higher, nearing an official 10 percent – an estimate which is always lower than the reality of impoverished, underemployed and “discouraged workers” who have stopped bothering to officially register. Since this recession began, 7 million Americans have lost their jobs.
Why aren’t 7 million of us “too big enough to fail”?
If stimulus packages for corporate sinkholes are good enough for the American taxpayer, why can’t we find $5.4 billion to create minimum wage jobs with full health care benefits for the 216,000 Americans who lost their jobs in August?
It is, at best a weak recovery, due to the lack of what economist Joseph Stiglitz called “a recovery of sustained consumption” — which basically means American consumers can’t spend the economy back into recovery, because they haven’t experienced a recovery yet.
They are reeling from double-digit unemployment, and some 15 million are “locked into a nightmare of unemployment.” Thousands of them are living in hotels, as more families are joining the ranks of the homeless and mortgage defaults soar to record heights. One in five of their children are sinking into poverty, with them. Seventeen percent of their children under five face hunger, with them.
Roosevelt’s words have undeniable resonance when the poverty rate hits an 11-year high, and the the suffering of American families increases in kind.
The government’s first broad look at the recession’s effect on the nation’s households in 2008 showed the poverty rate jumped to an 11-year high, incomes sank across the board and the number of people without health insurance rose to 46.3 million.
As bleak as these statistics were from the Census Bureau on Thursday, they captured only part of the devastating effects of the economic downturn that worsened last fall and into this year.
Experts said they expected the official poverty rate, which rose to 13.2% of the nation from 12.5% in 2007, to keep climbing this year and next, reversing the progress made in the 1990s.
With the U.S. unemployment rate averaging 8.9% this year and increasing almost every month, compared with 5.8% in 2008, incomes are likely to deteriorate further as well.
In 1937, with the country only partially out of the woods, Roosevelt rejected those who said recovery had gone far enough.
Shall we pause now and turn our back upon the road that lies ahead? Shall we call this the promised land? Or, shall we continue on our way? For “each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.” 16
Many voices are heard as we face a great decision. Comfort says, “Tarry a while.” Opportunism says, “This is a good spot.” Timidity asks, “How difficult is the road ahead?”
True, we have come far from the days of stagnation and despair. Vitality has been preserved. Courage and confidence have been restored. Mental and moral horizons have been extended.
But our present gains were won under the pressure of more than ordinary circumstances. Advance became imperative under the goad of fear and suffering. The times were on the side of progress.
To hold to progress today, however, is more difficult. Dulled conscience, irresponsibility, and ruthless self-interest already reappear. Such symptoms of prosperity may become portents of disaster! Prosperity already tests the persistence of our progressive purpose.
Let us ask again: Have we reached the goal of our vision of that fourth day of March 1933? Have we found our happy valley?
And he challenged the country to live up to its promise for all Americans.
I see a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources. Its hundred and thirty million people are at peace among themselves; they are making their country a good neighbor among the nations. I see a United States which can demonstrate that, under democratic methods of government, national wealth can be translated into a spreading volume of human comforts hitherto unknown, and the lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence.
But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.
I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.
It is not in despair that I paint you that picture. I paint it for you in hope—because the Nation, seeing and understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
Last year saw a record decline in American families’ wealth, as households saw a 9% drop in wealth. Meanwhile the wealthiest one percent saw an increase in their incomes, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans now have a larger-than-ever share of total income, and American has one of the highest rates of income inequality, surpassed only by Mexico and Turkey.
Much of what was true for those Americans Roosevelt mentioned in his speech is true for far, far too many American families today, as the result of decades spent “adding to the abundance of those who have much.” Now, we face the same text of our progress — of our commitment to progress— that Roosevelt recognized in 1937.
Will Americans rise to the challenge? It remains to be seen. In the absence an FRD-like leadership, we will make our leaders rise to the challenge? Will we pass this test of our progress? It remains to be seen.