Excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security"
Reprinted from the Social Security Administration Web site, available at http://www.ssa.gov/history/perkins5.html
"The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. Everybody felt it … In less than a year it was a terror."
On October 23, 1962, eighty-two-year-old Frances Perkins (1880–1965) went to the Social Security Administration headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, and delivered a riveting, lengthy speech on how the Social Security Act of 1935 came into being. Early in the speech she described the situation and conditions facing Americans in the earliest, worst years of the Great Depression, 1929 to 1933. According to Perkins, as quoted in "The Roots of Social Security," the whole U.S. economy "had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash.… In less than a year it was a terror." Pay close attention to Perkins's words as she describes hunger, loss of homes, apple sellers, wandering boys, and unemployment.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security":
- Typical middle-class Americans in 1931 and 1932 were shocked and discouraged and fearful of what the future would bring.
- In late 1932 and early 1933, business failures, bank closures, and unemployment rates peaked, and many Americans struggled just to feed their families.
- Frances Perkins watched the first years of the Great Depression unfold in New York. There she was serving as the industrial commissioner of the Department of Labor under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was governor of the state at that time. From her New York vantage point Perkins saw up close the desperation of the unemployed.
Excerpt from "The Roots of Social Security"
When we came to the problem of doing something for the "poorer kind of people" (as John Garner [1868–1967; the vice president of the United States during Roosevelt's first two terms in office] called them) in 1933 after the Roosevelt administration took office, we, of course had had a very recent experience with poverty. Since 1929 we had experienced the short, sudden drop of everything. The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. A banking crisis followed it. A manufacturing crisis followed it. Everybody felt it. In less than a year it was a terror.
People were so alarmed that all through the rest of 1929, 1930, and 1931, the specter of unemployment—of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes, of the families separated while somebody went out to look for work—stalked everywhere. The unpaid rent, the eviction notices, the furniture and bedding on the sidewalk, the old lady weeping over it, the children crying, the father out looking for a truck to move their belongings himself to his sister's flat or some relative's already overcrowded tenement, or just sitting there bewilderedly waiting for some charity officer to come and move him somewhere. I saw goods stay on the sidewalk in front of the same house with the same children weeping on top of the blankets for three days before anybody came to relieve the situation!
These were the years in which developed, you remember, in New York City—and later in other cities—the pattern of the applesellers. Some kindhearted man who had a surplus of apples—because the farmers were in this depression, too—thought of getting rid of his apples (which he couldn't sell) by giving them to the unemployed to sell. So they got them every morning somewhere down in the market. Nobody asked them to prove they were unemployed. I'm sure they were because no man in his right mind would have taken a big basket of apples to try and sell at five cents apiece in a poverty-stricken community—out of which he would make just a little bit of pocket money—unless he had been out of work, out of wages, out of money, out of everything.…
The wandering boys were a source of terror. But it was the most natural thing in the world for a great big grownup boy 14 to 17 years old to go wandering. Consider the case of a boy who found himself in a family where the breadwinner was unemployed, where there were other children around, where his mother was distracted by the lack of anything to buy food with, and to feel himself, not unwanted, but one more mouth to feed, and a great big mouth at that.
"I ate so much," one boy said to me, "I couldn't stand it. The kids, the little children were hungry. So I went out to find a job, and I went out of town."
This is what the boys did—not a few of them—thousands of them. They wandered around the country and were a problem to every charity and relief organization, to every State aid or Federal-and-State relief station, and the railroads were terrified of them. These boys, following the road, would steal a ride under the bumpers, and the railroads were frightened all the time that there would be accidents; that somebody would be killed; and I believe some were. It's a dangerous business to ride the rods. I remember I went out to see some of the boys. They finally gathered them in—the railroaders did. They sort of herded many of them into the St. Louis yards, and let them pitch a camp. Well, there they lived in the camp—in the St. Louis railroad yards—a hazard to the community—picking up whatever they could. I'm sure some of them learned to steal. Some of them learned to be panhandlers. All kinds of things happened. These were really alarming situations. They were alarming because of the demoralization and because of the general hazards to the community and to the total economy.
But everything was down. Nobody could get a job. The grocer didn't employ the young boys to deliver goods any more. He couldn't afford to. The grocer himself finally went bankrupt and closed up. He had given too much credit. I mean the people who were out of work had credit at the grocery store at first and they could eat; but they couldn't pay their bills, and finally, the grocer couldn't pay his bills; and eventually somebody came and sold him out. It went on like that all the time. One thing led to another, and we began to realize how cruel, how very deep, how almost irreversible this situation had come to be. This was the situation which faced people who began to be aware of the problem early as 1930.…
Unemployment was mentioned as a great and outstanding problem of the United States in the year 1932, and the Democratic Party platform included a clause which said it was a problem. They promised to study the causes of unemployment—as though anybody hadn't studied them in years.
They promised to have a committee to study the causes of unemployment, and to study and look into the whole matter.… Most of the committee members seemed to be determined that there should be nothing said about unemployment that would frighten people away from the Democratic Party.
But, you may remember, it didn't frighten the people at all. Actually, nothing frightened them. They would have voted for anybody who was running, and for any platform because they wanted change. Everybody was depressed; every industry was depressed; so every individual had some sort of stake in the situation. Thus, we got the first public mention and the first public commitment to do something or other about unemployment—at least to study it.…
At any rate, that was the situation when Roosevelt was elected and we went to Washington. [Perkins, pp. 3–5, 10]
What happened next…
Before Frances Perkins "went to Washington," she met with president-elect Roosevelt. Roosevelt had inquired whether she would consider taking the position of secretary of labor within his cabinet, but before accepting the appointment Perkins had some questions to ask. She informed Roosevelt that she would pursue an extensive agenda, including unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, minimum wages and maximum hours, and passage of legislation preventing child labor. Roosevelt assured her he would not stand in her way. If she thought she could do it, he promised he would authorize her to push forward. With that, Perkins accepted the position.
By the time Perkins went to Washington, D.C., in the early 1930s, she had accumulated roughly thirty years of experience as an advocate for working people, children, women, and the poor. She had worked in the male-dominated world of labor negotiations, and she had a talent for getting things done in politically challenging situations. After Roosevelt's inauguration on March 4, 1933, Perkins and the rest of the Roosevelt administration set about creating new pieces of legislation to bring economic relief, recovery, and reform to the country.
Did you know…
- Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet.
- Perkins served as secretary of labor for twelve years and three months.
- Throughout Roosevelt's presidential years, Perkins remained his closest adviser on social legislation. Her two proudest achievements were passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Consider the following…
- Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet member in U.S. history. What do you suppose her first few days in the Department of Labor were like? What qualities must she have possessed to be successful in that post?
- When Perkins speaks of "the wandering boys," for what reason does she seem to believe many of the boys left home?
- Perkins quotes Roosevelt's vice president, John Garner, when she refers to America's "poorer kind of people." Who do you think was included in this group in 1933?
For More Information
Pasachoff, Naomi E. Frances Perkins: Champion of the New Deal. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. New York, NY: Viking Press, 1946.
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. The Coming of the New Deal: The Age of Roosevelt. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.
Perkins, Frances. "The Roots of Social Security." Social Security Administration. http://www.ssa.gov/history/perkins5.html (accessed on August 26, 2002).