The New Deal represented a massive escalation of involvement in the lives of the American public by the federal government. In accepting his party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States, and with the Great Depression resulting in enormous levels of economic devastation and over 12 million unemployed, Franklin Roosevelt made the following campaign promise:
"I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people."
With his election to the presidency, Roosevelt immediately set about pushing for the institutionalization of a large series of programs intended to put Americans back to work while addressing the banking crisis at the depression’s core and the need to provide financial assistance to those too old or infirm to earn to support themselves. By the time the New Deal was supplanted by a new world war and millions of American men were drafted for the war effort or enlisted to serve their country, these programs had become a part of the American system of governance and, in many instances, became permanent fixtures in American lives. Perhaps chief among these programs, with respect to increasing the federal government’s role in peoples’ lives, was the 1935 passage of the Social Security Act, which established the social welfare programs that provide minimal sources of income for retirees and the physically disabled. Whereas the jobs and economic development programs, like the Tennessee Valley Authority and establishment of the Public Works Administration, were oriented directly at putting people to work while developing infrastructure on projects like road and highway and dam construction, Social Security touched, and continues to touch, every American worker, from whose paycheck deductions are withheld for the purpose of funding the retirement needs of existing retirees.
While many, probably most, Americans are appreciative of the perceived need to provide “safety nets” like welfare programs and social security, many others object to what they consider excessive levels of government involvement in their lives represented by the withholding of income to fund retirement accounts that they believe should be the responsibility of the individual wage-earner. In other words, rather than taking “my” money to fund someone else’s retirement, while future generations have income withheld to fund “my” retirement, why not let “me” save or invest that money myself, especially given the costs of administering the existing system and the problem of declining numbers of taxpayers paying into the system at the same time the so-called “baby boomer” generation reaches retirement age. Concerns about the future solvency of the Social Security system – in effect, whether the money will be there twenty years from now when “I” retiree – are high among many Americans, but the survival of the system, rather than its abolition, remains important to most people.
The New Deal’s jobs programs also represented a major expansion of federal government involvement in the lives of Americans, but in a different way – a way more conducive to discussions about capitalism and socialism than about how individual Americans’ lives are effected day-in and day-out. In a free market capitalist system, the individual is expected to make his or her own way in life, including either starting and running his or her own business or attaining employment at those businesses established by others. Either way, the government’s role should be minimal. As problems that threatened entire regions or even the entire country arose within certain sectors of the economy, however, for example, within the banking industry, pressure from the public and politicians alike grew for an increased role in regulating various industries. In addition, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 provided protections for workers by ensuring their freedom to organize, while making explicit the government’s concerns that the economy it was trying to rebuild would be harmed by frivolous or insubstantial labor actions intended to impede the flow of commerce. [See the link to the National Labor Relations Board website provided below]
There has been throughout much of the country’s history a constant “tug-of-war” between those advocating an increased role for the government in the economy and those resistant to such government intrusions. The programs of the New Deal represented perhaps the single greatest increase in government involvement in the economy in the nation’s history. Opinions will continue to differ, however, on whether those programs were needed then or now.