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In The Great Depression, Americans Worked For Government Checks. Now People Get Checks For Doing Nothing


To celebrate another $1,400 in stimulus checks, a quickly withdrawn video from Wisconsin Democrats showed people dancing to a catchy rap song with captions of “$$$ IN THE POCKET” and “THANK YOU POTU$.” As Joy Pullmann noted, its release on the same day abysmal job numbers came out was a testament to Democrats’ blindness to economic reality. It also attested to our culture’s devolving expectation of something for nothing.

America has definitely changed. Juxtapose that video with images from the sand-dusted, poverty-stricken Great Depression of the 1930s, and it begs the question: What would these hungry, hardscrabble folks say, the ones who got a check only by signing up to build parks, roads, bridges, dams and many other public works projects in exchange?

A generation ago, they made money the old-fashioned way: they earned it.

To address catastrophic unemployment that reached as high as 23 percent, the government constructed millions of jobs through programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). That’s not to say the New Deal was a socio-economic panacea (it wasn’t), but that in those days people were willing to work to survive. They were offered a hand up, not a hand-out—a concept Democrats still embraced at the time.

The work was arduous and sometimes dangerous, involving every extreme of weather and terrain. Between 1935 and 1943, eight million workers supported by the WPA built 620,000 miles of streets, 10,000 bridges, and 40,000 new buildings (also improving 85,000 others), as well as myriad other projects to benefit the public such as swimming pools, playgrounds, zoos, botanical gardens, and more. For their sweaty toil, they received compensation based on individual skill, averaging $52 a month, or roughly $1,000 in current inflation-adjusted dollars.

The National Youth Administration (NYA), which operated initially under the WPA, allowed those as young as 16 to work part-time on construction and repair projects for $10 to $25 a month, or approximately $200 to $500 in current dollars. At its peak in 1937, more than 400,000 youth were employed in occupational training under the NYA. Many of those who learned new skills later put them to use for our nation’s defense with the onset of World War II.

Through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) three million men aged 18-28 worked manual labor jobs to improve the nation’s natural resources through projects such as tree planting, fire prevention and fighting, insect control, fish stocking, erosion control, and landscaping. It was dirty, hands-on work. But those who signed on were glad for the opportunity to earn money to live. One camp’s newsletter, titled “Happy Days,” wrote that “this is a training station; we’re going to leave morally and physically fit to lick ‘Old Man Depression.”

The camps were organized and governed in a military style, with members of the Army reserve commanding those who volunteered for the minimum six-month enrollments. Tents were used for early units and later wood barracks were constructed. Compensation was $30 per month, roughly $600 in current dollars, of which more than 70 percent was required to be sent to a family dependent. Participation was a privilege, not a right, and the threat of “dishonorable discharge” was sufficient to maintain peace and order.

(Pictured Above: CCC camp in Michigan)

Hard work wasn’t a partisan issue at the time. A Gallup poll from 1936 found that 92 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans supported the CCC. Sociologist Robert Leighninger Jr. noted that “millions of people needed subsistence incomes. Work relief was preferred over public assistance (the dole) because it maintained self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and kept skills sharp.”

Before the government stepped in with these programs, families did anything they could to survive. As the Great Depression took hold in 1930, many hopeful laborers went to Las Vegas and camped in the desert for the chance to work on a new project that would harness the power of the Colorado River with a mammoth 60-story arch dam later known as Hoover Dam. The work involved continuous blasting and moving of rock debris, day after day. They labored in steep tunnels often contaminated with deadly gases and dust.

By the time it was finished, 96 workers had died during construction of the dam. Not included in this total were those whose deaths were recorded as due to pneumonia, which many claimed was a cover for carbon monoxide poisoning caused by vehicles used underground. Despite the danger, they continued.

There was no Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Centers for Disease Control at the time, and any work was preferable to starvation. Not to minimize the risk of COVID, especially for those particularly vulnerable, but the thought of germs on a door handle is now enough to keep young healthy folks huddling at home behind double masks.

For all that they endured, and all that they accomplished, it’s no surprise that the people of this era are now called the “Greatest Generation.”

Contrast that America with the one today. Annual personal income was $474 in 1935, or about $9,200 in current dollars, versus about $36,000 median income today. Only 11 percent of WPA workers had finished high school and less than 5 percent of the population held a college degree.

Today, more than 90 percent have a high school diploma and 33 percent have earned a college degree. Despite a population that is now more prosperous and more educated by several orders of magnitude, we have seemingly become—and let’s not sugar-coat it—more lazy.

Unfortunately, the New Deal programs of old were the ideological catalyst for the ever-growing welfare state that we see today—one without the work requirement. President Lyndon Johnson’s proclamation of a “war on poverty” in 1964 has since cost more than $28 trillion with no discernable impact on poverty rate.

It has, however, yielded an implosion of the traditional family, particularly affecting the African American community in which only 39 percent of children now live with both parents. And the largesse is inexorably contributing to the destruction of the American work ethic – evidenced by jubilation over anything free, from “Obama phones” to “stimmy checks.”

Source: Heritage Foundation – chart 1 and chart 2

Meanwhile, scores of businesses across America hang signs pleading for workers. Restaurants, hotels, landscaping companies, and many others cannot fill open jobs. Despite politicians’ stated intent to help with recovery from the pandemic, the truth is that some federal relief benefits are inducing the opposite effect.

The “Stimmy Shimmy” dancers and others celebrating the easy money flowing from D.C. aren’t stupid. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki may have missed it, but most people know “stimmy” checks and federal unemployment compensation dwarf current wage levels in some areas of the country. While the rationale isn’t illogical (“Shall I go to work today or earn more in my recliner?”), the attitude that arises from it will ultimately harm their personal growth.

Our politicians should be the adults in the room, but instead they choose to give out free candy, creating a generation of dependent children. Old values of hard work and self-sufficiency are succumbing to the thrill of free “$$$ IN THE POCKET” from “POTU$.” Tough times once produced the Greatest Generation, but we may now be witnessing the rise of the Gimme Generation—and that cannot bode well for our nation.