The Great Recession vs. The Great Depression

Americans are in a foul mood. They're unhappy with their economic prospects, convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction, upset with the federal government, and equally annoyed at Congress.

Their attitudes are understandable. After the worst economic downturn since the Depression, who wouldn't be this gloomy?

Folks from the Great Depression, apparently. According to a trove of early Gallup surveys compiled by the Roper Center, Americans in the 1930s were not nearly as down on government as we are today. They wanted more, not less, from Washington in the way of services and protection from the private market. Incredibly, despite their much deeper recession, Americans were more optimistic than we are today.

Optimistic 'Socialists' ...

Between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the United States underwent dramatic technological changes.  In the 1930s there was the TVA--but no TV, and, of course, no Internet.  More than half of the predominately-male, overwhelmingly-white sample surveyed in a series of polls in 1936-37 by the then-new Gallup organization had average incomes or better. But 46% had no telephone, 43% lacked a car, and 38% still preferred the old black-and-white movie variety to color.

Depression-era Americans shared many of our values, but they were notably more optimistic and open to government spending

Perhaps more relevant are some striking differences in economic outlook and preference.  While unemployment had receded somewhat from its 1933 peak, it lingered at an estimated 17% in 1936 and 14% in 1937, not counting work relief programs. Still, Depression-era Americans remained hopeful. Half expected general business conditions to improve over the next six months. Only 29% expected a worsening. Six in ten thought opportunities for getting ahead were better or at least as good as in their father's day.

Today's public is far gloomier: Only 35% in an October Pew Research survey expected better economic conditions in a year, while 16% expected a still weaker economy.

The relative optimism of 1930s Americans was undergirded by what today would be regarded as "socialistic" tendencies. Even if only a tiny fraction were ready to describe themselves politically as "socialist," those surveyed after the 1936 election said they supported Roosevelt, architect of the New Deal's expansive programs, over his GOP opponent, Alfred Landon, by more than two-to-one. They also felt, by a lopsided margin, that if there were another depression (and fears of one were mounting), the government should repeat the spending pattern FDR had followed before.

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Not only did two-in-three favor the new Social Security program, but also even larger majorities favored the feds providing free medical care for the poor, spending to control venereal diseases, and new loans on easy terms so tenant farmers could  buy the farms they rented. 

Of course, the New Deal had many critics. The WPA, employer of some eight million workers over its lifetime, was a favorite target. Although its workers built La Guardia and Reagan National airports, Grand Coulee Dam, San Francisco's Bay Bridge and New York's Triborough, plus parks, schools, playgrounds, overpasses and airfields, they were featured in many cartoons leaning on their shovels. (The WPA Theatre project produced a play satirizing that common criticism.) In a radio broadcast, the president of the New York Economic Council denounced the New Deal as "nothing but the same old European and Asiatic tyranny from which our ancestors fled Europe in order to establish real freedom." But this was not the majority view. 

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