Were Franklin Roosevelt’s responses to the Great Depression effective?

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The Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon that lasted as long as two decades in some areas. Although its beginning in the United States is usually marked with the 1929 stock market crash, many regard that event as a symptom of an economic downturn that was already underway. Similarly, the economic reversal for the United States is often tied to entry into World War II in December 1941; US involvement in military-industrial buildup that preceded declaration of war had already played a decisive role in rebuilding the economy. From 1929 to early 1933, Herbert Hoover was president, and Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited a number of policies from him. By that time, many have argued, the economy had bottomed out, which meant the worst was over.

One of Roosevelt’s first and most effective moves was his April 1933 executive order, which made it illegal for individuals to own gold certificates; this change helped stabilize credit and end the banking crisis. In addition, the change in leadership alone had helped to improve people’s expectations that the country was turning a corner, and increasing confidence contributed to investment.

The New Deal contained literally hundreds of individual programs, so its overall success and the specific hand of President Roosevelt is difficult to evaluate. The New Deal is often seen as synonymous with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935. However, that was only one program within the larger Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Because the initial focus was on “emergency,” many of the first efforts were very successful in ameliorating the worst effects of the Great Depression. These included food and medical assistance for those who were most severely impacted. The WPA, which was concerned with job creation using the rationale that employment was preferable to welfare, provided employment to more than eight million Americans; it was finally disbanded in 1943.

The impact of the relief projects included many improvements to infrastructure. This includes the massive electrification of many US regions, including business and homes, through such initiatives as the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Hoover Dam. Providing power further enabled industrial expansion, such as California’s ship-building industry, that reinvigorated corporate America. In terms of the economic infrastructure intended to prevent future catastrophes of that magnitude, the National Labor Relations Board, the Federal Reserve system, and the Securities and Exchange Commission then established are still in operation.

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This is a matter of some controversy. Typically, people have said that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies were effective responses to the Great Depression.  However, there are those who argue that the New Deal policies did not do much and that only WWII actually ended the Depression.

Clearly, the Great Depression became less severe after the institution of the New Deal programs.  Unemployment fell.  GDP rose. Things were much better in 1938 than they were in 1932.  We can argue, then, that FDR’s policies were effective responses because they improved the US economy.

However, it is also possible to argue that FDR’s policies were not effective responses.  His New Deal policies did not return the economy to its pre-1929 state. Instead, the economy only got back to pre-Depression levels when the buildup to WWII began in 1939 and 1940. In this view, the New Deal was too interventionist to really fix the economy.

Thus, this is a matter of some controversy, but most historians typically say that the New Deal was an effective response to the Great Depression.

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