Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Monday, December 6th, 2010.

Government-Run Health Care and the Great Depression

Obama Administration

As many of you were, I was horrified to learn of this Glenn Beck segment that romanticized poverty during the Great Depression. Looking at a photograph of a Depression-era family eating dinner, Beck said,

BECK: Look at this family. This is — this looks like a sawed off log. This looks like a log cabin. I don’t know what this is. Plywood? Look at the conditions here. Look at this man’s shirt. I don’t think that was — I don’t think that was government health care. Well, actually, that might actually be government health care.

Look at the food. And I can guarantee you, she canned the food. They milked the cow. She made the food. He grew the food. They probably helped. That’s poverty.

Full transcript:…

Well, no that’s not poverty. That’s what “prosperity” was for most people a century ago. Poverty was not having a milk cow or any vegetables of fruit to can.

I would love to know more about that photograph, and if it might have been taken by a photographer paid by the WPA Federal Art Project, or if it was distributed by the federal Farm Security Administration to show that the New Deal was working.

But the truth is, poor people during the Great Depression did receive “government run health care” of a sort. In fact, thanks to federal relief programs, many people had better access to medical care during the Depression than they had had during the boom times of the “Roaring Twenties.” It was so much better that life expectancy increased and infant mortality rates decreased during the Great Depression.

For the data, see a study partly funded by the National Science Foundation called “Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief During the Great Depression.” This wades into statistical analysis of data that goes over my head, but what it says, in brief, is that before 1933 the federal government played almost no role in poverty relief other than veterans’ benefits. After 1933, of course, the federal government became far more pro-active in fighting poverty. The authors of this paper found a correlation between federal “relief” spending and health outcomes.

Another academic paper I found on the web that studied the impact of federal relief programs on infant mortality rates said “Relief spending directly lowered infant mortality rates to the degree that changes in relief spending can explain nearly one-third of the decline in infant mortality during the 1930s.”

Remember what I said a few days ago about “conservatives” wanting to wipe out wipe out the last couple of centuries of history and human development? Beck wants us to go back to the days when even people who weren’t farmers kept a milk cow, some chickens, and grew their own vegetables.

(That wasn’t all that long ago. There’s a story still told in my family of the time my mother’s parents moved about a hundred miles so my grandfather — a miner in those days — could take a new job. This was probably sometime in the 1920s. Since they couldn’t get the family Guernsey on the truck, my grandfather walked the cow to the new home, which took several days. And then, a few months later, he quit that job, they moved back to the old neighborhood, and the cow had to be walked again. He found this task especially onerous because the cow refused to carry him across rivers, so he had to wade.)

You have to be several generations removed from living like that to romanticize it; I’m not, and I don’t.

Update: Reader Richard Ketring adds to the comments —

The picture in question on the Glenn Beck site is from a site called Shorpy and the pic is called pie town sit down. This is from a series of color pics. The Faro Caudill family eating dinner in their dugout, Pie Town, New Mexico. October 1940. 35mm Kodachrome transparency by Russell Lee.

Thank you, and yes! Russell Lee was a photographer for the FSA (Farm Security Administration), according to the Library of Congress prints and photographs division. The LoC online catalog has tons of photographs of the Pie Town homesteaders.

According to the Smithsonian magazine, the Pie Town homesteaders were refugees from the Dust Bowl. The Smithsonian also says —

Never mind that I now also knew—in the so-called more rational and objective part of my brain—that the Thoreauvian ideal of self-reliance had foundered badly in this family. For Doris and Faro Caudill (and their daughter, Josie, who was about 8 when Lee took his pictures), the PieTown dream became closer to a nightmare. Faro got sick, got lung trouble, the family moved away (just two years after the pictures were taken). Faro sought work in the city, Faro ran around. An acrimonious divorce ensued. Doris ended up married to another man for 39 years. She even went to Alaska to try the American homesteading dream all over again. There is a beautiful book published several years ago about the Caudills and their saga, but especially about Doris: Pie Town Woman, by Joan Myers, a New Mexico author.

In 1942, when Faro Caudill hitched the gate at his PieTown homestead for the last time, he scrawled on the wood: “Farewell, old homestead. I bid you adieu. I may go to hell but I’ll never come back to you.”

And yet what you also get from Myers’ book about Doris in her very old age, not long from her death, is a deep longing to be there again, to have that life again. She told the author she’d like to have hot and cold running water, though. “As old as I am, I like to take a bath now and then. We would take a bath on Saturday night. We had a number three bathtub. I’d get the water all hot and then I’d bathe Josie and then I’d take a bath and then Faro would take a bath. . . . You kind of wore the water out.”

Yes, Glenn, good times.

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