Tribute to Frances Perkins: Messiah to the poor & the powerless of society

Frances Perkins



*    [thank you, C Span genesis Brian Lamb]



The current economic crisis has often been cited as the worst the country has seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took his oath of office in March 1933, over 10,000 banks had collapsed, following the stock market crash of 1929. One-quarter of American workers were unemployed, and people were fighting over scraps of food. We speak with Adam Cohen, author of Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America. [includes transcript]


Adam Cohen, assistant editorial page editor of the New York Times. His latest book is Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.


ADAM COHEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Well, you say in this book it’s not just FDR himself.

ADAM COHEN: That’s right. The story of the Hundred Days is often told as an FDR story. And he did do amazing things. That speech we saw was beautiful, mobilized the nation. He did fireside chats. He was very effective in working with Congress. But there was a second level of people underneath him, his inner circle, that really developed the policies that came out of the Hundred Days, and these are critical policies: the first federal welfare program we ever had, the first major public works program, things like that. And it’s other people — Frances Perkins, who we saw perched in the background behind FDR in the photo there, when he was signing the Social Security Act; Henry Wallace, his Agriculture secretary; Harry Hopkins, the first federal relief administrator — these were crucial people who have been lost a little bit to history.  [Harry Hopkins was FDR’s most trusted WWII confidante  — Harry was dearest friend of Nikkei/Japanese Shokan “Jesse” Shima[bukuro] of Hilo — Jesse had highest access to the White House in the history of Japanese Americans, way more than Dan Inouye/Mike Masaoka/Norman Mineta  ]


Harry Hopkins with FDR  —

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in terms of how — their particular individual contributions, how did that work out, given the power of the presidency? Obviously, he had to give them the free rein to act, but how specifically did they leave their imprint on the various aspects of legislation?

ADAM COHEN: Sure. The thing about FDR is he was a great leader, but he didn’t come into office with very definite views about these problems. He actually was a very pragmatic person. He said he believed if something worked, you should do it; if it doesn’t work, try something new. So he was always on the lookout for good ideas, wherever they came from, including from the Hoover administration. It was holdovers from the Hoover administration that developed the Banking Act that they passed in the first week. So he was looking everywhere.

And that left the opening for people like Frances Perkins, who had very strong views. She came into office saying, “We need public works. There are millions of people unemployed. They don’t have a way to feed themselves. We need that.” Harry Hopkins came down to Washington, D.C. with a plan for a federal welfare program and said, you know, “We need to do this.” And —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the scene.


AMY GOODMAN: When Harry Hopkins came to Washington, it was under a stairwell that he met Frances Perkins?

ADAM COHEN: Yeah. We think now of these things as being so well planned out, but they weren’t at all. Harry Hopkins, who had run the New York state welfare program, comes down to Washington eager to meet with FDR in the White House, cannot get an appointment. He calls Frances Perkins, who he knew from New York, and she says, “I can meet with you, but I’ve got a dinner. Come by my club where I’m living.” And they meet under a stairwell, because they can’t get a table. All the tables are taken. He hands her this program, and she says, “This is great. I’m going to take it to the President and get him to adopt it.” It was a very bold welfare program -— a lot of federal money, a lot of federal rules, centralization. She does take it to FDR, and he does adopt it. It becomes the law. But it was literally under the stairwell that our first welfare program was developed.


AMY GOODMAN: ’35, two years after he came into office. Frances Perkins is standing behind him. She chaired the committee that pushed through Social Security. She’s the first female cabinet member ever. Talk about her influence, how she came into the inner circle of FDR.

ADAM COHEN: She was a completely remarkable person and a woman far ahead of her time. She came to New York after starting as a social worker, personally witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, saw the 146 girls jumping to their death, and became the leading factory reformer. She ends up joining Al Smith’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: She’s the reason we have fire escapes today?

ADAM COHEN: Fire escapes and fire drills and all that, those were her suggestions, very, very critical stuff. So she joins Al Smith’s administration. When FDR becomes governor, he keeps her on as industrial commissioner. And during his time as governor, she is a voice in his ear constantly. “We need things like Social Security,” you know, at that point at a state level. “We need welfare programs. We need public works.” She’s this liberal voice constantly in his ear.

And then she comes down to Washington with him, becomes Labor secretary. And she really was the conscience of the New Deal in many ways. And yes, she chaired the Social Security committee. And she wanted it to go further. She actually wanted it to include national health insurance, but the AMA, even back then, was very strong and opposed it. And she and a couple other progressives on the committee said, you know, “We better just settle for what we can get.” They didn’t want to lose the whole Social Security program. But to the end of her life, when she died in 1965 as a professor at Cornell, she was still hoping that health insurance could be part of the welfare state.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you about the lessons of all of this now, as we’re facing — as a new president about to take office and a similar, though not as profound, crisis as the Depression, but there’s another side to this, which is that increasingly in the United States — American capitalism, as well as in Europe — more and more power is being centralized in the state. And already, obviously, as a result of the Roosevelt reforms, you’ve had enormous, greater centralization of power in the state. Right now, President Obama has enormous powers already. What would he have to do to be able to deal with this new crisis of, again, a laissez-faire rampant era in American capitalism?

ADAM COHEN: I think that’s exactly right. FDR has given him the power, by making the state as strong as it is. He now needs to use it for the right purposes. And that may not be bank bailouts. It may be things like putting millions of people to work in good jobs restoring our infrastructure.

One thing that’s really encouraging is it took FDR a while during the Hundred Days to come around to that answer. It was the National Industrial Recovery Act, the last bill of the Hundred Days that had that public works funding. And FDR, at the beginning of the Hundred Days, wasn’t sure he supported public works. What’s very encouraging is that Obama, even before he takes office, is talking about public works. He’s talking about stimulus. He’s talking about creating millions of jobs. So I think he gets it. And I think a lot of the reason is, he is a student of history. He’s been reading not only his Abraham Lincoln, but his FDR. And I think he’s learning from the past and understanding we shouldn’t wait ’til the end of the Hundred Days, let’s start talking about these things right now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But you’re already getting some people who are saying that his economic stimulus plan is actually not sufficient for the task. I think Paul Krugman today in the Times says it’s way below what is actually needed to jumpstart an economy this big.

ADAM COHEN: Right. And that’s going to be the debate. It was the debate during FDR’s time, too. The progressives wanted billions more, and the conservatives said there’s no money at all. We’re going to get that again. The Senate, McConnell, people like that are going to say there’s not enough money. I agree with Krugman, FDR — Obama really needs to push for high levels of funding. The more that we can inject into the economy, the more jobs, the better we’ll be right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just speaking with someone who was at a Montclair fundraising party for Barack Obama a year and a half ago. And he quoted this famous quote from A. Philip Randolph, when he went to FDR to demand something, and FDR turned to him and said, “Make me do it.” Let’s talk beyond the circle that you emphasize that surrounded FDR, really pushing him for some of these changes, te greater circle around them, people in this country. Talk about the role of activism in the changes we saw seventy-five years ago and where you see parallels today.

ADAM COHEN: Sure. I mean, one of the other things FDR created, in addition to the welfare state, was the New Deal coalition. And the New Deal coalition incorporated lots of different groups that all voted Democratic, got the Republicans out, and FDR felt they were his constituency and he needed to keep them happy. So, that included union leaders who were very important, and that’s why we got the right to organize. It was in the National Industrial Recovery Act, because the union leaders demanded that. Farmers were very important and had been fairly Republican. To keep them voting Democratic, FDR gives them, you know, a big relief program. Urban workers, the heart of the Democratic electorate, FDR gives them things like the first welfare program. So he’s constantly managing all these groups. And yes, when the union people spoke out, they got more things, they pushed back. So he was very responsive to pressure of this kind, and he wanted to keep everyone in the coalition happy. So it’s definitely an argument today that people who elected Obama need to tell him now what they want. You know, if they want stronger union rights, they need to tell him that and remind him how he got in office.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, of course, that New Deal coalition also included the Southern Democrats, and as a result, for many years Roosevelt sort of delayed any action on civil rights and attempting to deal with Jim Crow. It wasn’t until the 1940s, right, with the threat of the march on Washington by African Americans that he finally agreed to an executive order to attempt to begin desegregation in the US government.

ADAM COHEN: That’s right. FDR did so much, but there were definitely some blind spots. One was race. Eleanor Roosevelt was out there all the time pushing for these people. Franklin was not. Another group was the sharecroppers. People criticized the Agricultural Adjustment Act for giving a lot of money to the big farmers, but the poor sharecroppers who were being thrown off the land were ignored for several years, and Wallace eventually began to try to take care of them. But yes, not everyone, you know, was taken care of right away.

AMY GOODMAN: If we see change happening because of power blocs, you look at the Obama circle, the inner circle, the cabinet he has proposed, and the organized body that has the most effect on Obama today is clearly labor, because the most progressive position within the department — within his proposed cabinet is Hilda Solis, Department of Labor, same position that Frances Perkins occupied seventy-five years ago.

ADAM COHEN: Absolutely true. And, you know, a lot of people were waiting for that appointment. It was the last one that Obama made. And even in Frances Perkins’s time, labor was a backwater. It was the last department created. She was the last person sworn in, because it was the lowliest department. But she turned it into something very powerful. And she was a huge voice at these cabinet meetings for public works and for caring for poor people.




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