Government-Run Health Care and the Great Depression

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.

38 thoughts on “Government-Run Health Care and the Great Depression

  1. I’m 52, and I clearly remember my grandparents’ house in a holler in the mountains of West Virginia. They had an outhouse until I was about eight years old. They could only afford meat once a week and to this day my mother won’t eat rice because it reminds her of the maggots they often found on the meat when they did get it.

    Nothing too rosy about that.

  2. donnah,
    Beck would tell you that those weren’t maggots, they were hers Mom’s special tiny protein nuggets.

    I’ll tell you what there, Glenn Ol’ Boy, when I see you milking your own cow and not your gullible fans, and churning your own butter, then by all means, let me know, I might join in. Until then STFU.
    Maha’s right, that wasn’t the face of poverty in that photo, that was a table in a small working class families kitchen at a table smaller than the end table by Glenn’s bed, in a house smaller than his bedroom.

    And they have to romantasize the poverty of the past because it’s where they all want to go back to, apparently. You know, when the whole family slept in one room to stay warm, and you didn’t have to worry about childhood obesity, because you only got a sliver of meat a week! And a bath was a once-a-month luxury. Ah, good times… But only if you didn’t even have enough for any of the above.

    I need a break from all of the supidity I see from the people on the right. I was hoping that maybe some sort of holiday spirit might mitigate the tsunami’s of stupid pounding this country relentlessly, wave after wave after wave.
    But, I forgot that Christmas for Republicans is represented by the “Spirit of Taking,” and the thought that it’s ‘not the gift that counts, it’s the, well, Hell, YES, it’s THE GIFT THAT COUNTS!’

  3. Rush Limbaugh often talks about how conservatives believe in “rugged individualism”. This makes me laugh because fat, lazy turds like Limbaugh wouldn’t last a week if we went back to the days when people had to pump their own water, grow their own crops, raise livestock and generally work the land from dawn until dusk. Limbaugh is from a wealthy family who owned a radio station and his grandparents were lawyers. Rush hasn’t ever done an honest day’s manual labor and would probably drop dead from a heart attack if he tried. Same for Beck. These assholes have no idea what they are talking about and wish for things that would likely kill them.

  4. My parents lived through the Great depression, and it was obvious in their attitudes toward the use of money. Although we were mostly better off than than the majority, we still had some hard times post WWII.

  5. Watch the Russell Crowe movie, “Cinderella Man” for the best visual depiction of urban poverty during the 1930s. I am old enough to have lived thru it but young enough to have no memory of it.

    I do not romanticize the 1930s at all.

  6. I should’ve mentioned that my parents left with me indelible memories, such as “third-floor-cold-water-walk-up,” digging a huge garden, my Mom darning socks and so forth.

  7. 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.

  8. “Ignorance is bliss. But, evidently stupidity can make you very happy too.”


    My father had the king of all “How I Spent My Summer” stories. In 1928, when he was almost 15, he was sent to a relatives house to work in a coal mine. Some Russian miners taught him how to make moonshine and he got to spend some time in a hot bed of Bolshevism. Not bad for on the job training. (I am sure he embellished the tale a bit, but it still makes me smile and remember the old man.)

    I thnk the story would make Mr. Beck all teary eyed about the evil socialist child labor laws.

    “If Ignorance is Bliss, and you should follow your bliss therefore, you should follow your ignorance”

    — Glen Beck

  9. I ve never have listen to any of becks T.V prodrams or any of his radio shows, if he ever had any,I don’t know. Does he? Any way from what Ive read I don”t think I want to meet him.

  10. Richard Ketring.. I was going to post a link to shorpy. It’s an excellent photo site and the pictures of Shorpy as an oiler and the links detailing his life are chilling.

    Here’s another picture that is unrelated, but I’m sure would be appreciated by Mahablog readers. It’s a dramatic picture that comes at you to inform of the sacrifices made in the name of progress.

  11. Beck has got to be the biggest asswipe out there! I can understand how history can be distorted in the telling,different people draw different lessons from the same event, but Beck is off the charts with his totally asinine interpretations. He’s not grounded in reality…Remember his uncovering of a communist plot by deciphering the art work at NBC studios? How can anybody give him an ear when understanding history is supposed to be meaningful. Are people that stupid/ignorant of history that they can’t see right off the bat that Beck is talking trash?

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  13. Russell Lee was a photographer for the FSA

    Teabaggers: Get the government out of my photography!
    No soshulist images!

    “Most propaganda is not designed to fool the critical thinker, but only to give moral cowards an excuse not to think at all” — Michael Rivero

  14. “Are people that stupid/ignorant of history that they can’t see right off the bat that Beck is talking trash?”

    I don’t think it matters if it is true they like the smell of his garbage! He’s paid a heavy price for what he does, he has to have 24hr security and his family lives in an armed compound, I hope it was worth it Mr. BecKKK?

  15. Swami, I have a friend who LOVES Beck, says Beck backs up his show with facts!
    I hear crickets……

  16. Miles and miles of scared stupid people, many with guns. Brought to you by FOX disinformation.

  17. The 1930s was long ago, before Beck was born. He ought to show us some modern day photos of poverty so we can see how charming it is. How about Somalia or Zimbabwe? A nice African family uncontaminated by socialist Obamacare, sitting down to a wholesome meal of grasshoppers and tree bark inside their hovel made of mud, sticks and scrap metal. That’s the future that conservatives would wish for America. And they might get it.

  18. “Since they couldn’t get the family Guernsey on the truck, my grandfather walked the cow to the new home, which took several days.”

    It was worth it. We had a dairy farm when I was a sprout. Like a lot of farmers we kept a Gurnsey for home supply. Holsteins have better production, but Gurnseys and Jerseys have “sweeter” milk. Our goat herd has evolved into a bunch of grades, but, we went for a strong Nubian mix for the same reason, Saanens have the best milk production, but Nubians have the richest milk. I made cheese that I probably could have sold for $3 an ounce in NYC, if I could negotiate the “black market” in raw milk cheese. There is a lot to be said for keeping a few critters around but it’s not what you would call an easy life and it’s definitely not in the “free food” category. If everything goes just right and you stay on top of things it seems you might break even. You think you’re doing well and one veterinary event will wipe the smirk off your face. Chickens however, are a big bang for the buck.

    I was probably happier because my parents’ farm went bust. My elementary school class was filled with kids who worked a couple of hours milking before they went to school and the more fortunate among us looked down on them because they had cow manure on their clothes and boots. I bucked hay for money at the harvest and like the guy in the Phillip Larkin poem, I swore I’d never do it for a living. “And Damn, I guess that’s just what I did.” But, tenant farmers looked old before their time. I knew that by the time I was seven. It’s like the romantization of the “cottage life” in 19th century England. It’s a concept untempered by reality that allows us to avoid staring the “unpleasantness” of reality in the face. (I like to call this the “Shield of Perseus” effect for those of you with a classical inclination.) There are experiences that I have had farming, that I would not trade for a tour of the Nile. But, farming for a living is not for the faint of heart.

    Sorry, I cut this short, i hope it is comprehensible. My wife just got home form shift and I have a gigantic pot of collard greens at the ready. The country life is not all bad.

    • goatherd — Yes, I hear you about the Guernseys. When I was growing up there was a big Guernsey dairy farm in the county that supplied almost all the milk to the local groceries. That was before supermarket chains took over, of course. I don’t know if that dairy farm is still in operation, even. But that milk sure was good.

  19. erinyes …Beck is the type of guy that if I would have run into him when I was in my high school days…I would have punched him in the face just for being a candy ass. Try and picture him on a construction job site doing a hard days labor…You see what I mean?, you can’t.. He’s just not one of the guys…He’s missing an essential element necessary for male bonding.

  20. But the truth is, poor people during the Great Depression did receive “government run health care” of a sort.

    Would that be the Tuskegee syphilis experiment?

  21. Hmmm, I got the impression Beck was trying to say that life WAS hard if you were poor. In fact, much more difficult than poverty is now. This has been a Republican/Tea Party talking point for decades – that we coddle our poor and they have it easy. He was trying to say that instead of providing government relief, we should leave it to the poor to grow their own vegetables and milk their own cows. Because you can totally do that in you run down, one-room apartment.

    And, as usual, he gets it all wrong and shows a picture depicting a family that had what it has because of the government.

  22. To be fair, environmentalists have suggested the urban raising of chickens as a method to promote efficiency.

  23. I attended 1st grade in Largo, Fl, and I remember a field trip to a local dairy featiring “Golden Guernsey” cows.It is now long gone, but I think it was out on Brian Dairy Road.
    I cooked up a bunch of collards this past weekend (from the garden), I grow them in 24 in diameter pots, they seem to like wher I have them in the garden.
    I also made some oyster mushroom / shiitake mushroom over malabar spinach served on a bed of jasmin rice, all grown in my back yard, save for the rice.
    I grow the ‘shrooms on logs and the spinach in a hydroponic set-up.Very easy culture.The oyster ‘shrooms have been very productive lately.
    I’d sure like to get into the cheese making and meat curing, hope to dabble in that this year, and crack Ted Peter’s code for smoked fish.
    The chickens will signal the neighbors that I’ve totally lost my mind, which might be fun also……………
    Last winter was fierce, and I got no fruit from my mangoes, lychee, bananas,starfruit, and pitaya, I git only a “handful” of nuts from my macadamias this spring & summer.
    We currently have more citrus than we can get to before the critters, but will have a juicing party this weekend. It hit 35 degrees this morn, which will sweeten up the citrus.

  24. My neighbors here are all “endtimers” and very well armed. I think they are expecting the collapse or the great unraveling to be like playing permanent hookie from work with hunting season all year around. For them, that’s paradise, especially if you get a chance to shoot a few liberal, Anti-Christ worshippers for entertainment. I wouldn’t last a week.

    Seriously, I have been in conversations where people were talking about “defending their gardens” with firearms. I am not ready to shoot someone for trying to steal a goat. It’s just the liberal in me I guess. Hunger could change that I suppose.

    We had a “Golden Gurnsey” brand when I a kid in rural NJ.

    Erinyes– I used to work in Largo, that brought back some memories. Chickens are easy to keep and fun to watch. We have “pastured chickens” which just means they are free to roam wherever they want until an owl or coyote gets in the way. They reduce the bug population but like to take their fair share of tomatoes, etc.

    You would like cheese making, I miss it now that we have taken a rest from breeding. (Too many goats!!) We have a goat that produced milk for nearly three years before drying up. So they can be efficient producers. They don’t have some of the health risks associated with cows, so the raw milk products are safer. Raw milk cheese is a whole different experience from what you get in the store. Some people are selling it marked “not for human consumption” at farmer’s markets.

    Brad Kessler wrote a book called “Goat Song” which captures a lot of the more satisfying attributes of goatfarming and cheesemaking. It willl get your wind up to make cheese.

    But, keeping animals is often a money losing proposition. A poor person, without the resources for proper feeding and veterinary care or the vigilance required to treat medical problems before they get serious would soon just have a very sick or dead animal. It’s not like the Garden of Eden.

    I think of farm life as “idyllic tedium” which has its merits. But, sometimes I have my ex-pat fantasies and want a break from the “rapture ready”.

  25. All of this farm talk sounds like fun to a kid who grew up in Queens, NYC. All we had was spiders, cockroaches, ants, squirrels, and pidgeons (which I think are either aliens, or immortal, since you never see a baby one, or a dead one. EVER!). Our neighbor’s kids found a snake in their yard and by the time all the rest of us ran to see it, it had long since slithered its way to Snake Heaven, the poor thing.

  26. I’m with Sam Simple, I’d like to challenge Glenn Beck to live like the family in that photo for one week.

    My grandma’s favorite Depression story: my grandpa, by trade a building contractor, ran an ice cream stand when his usual business dried up. Some nights the family ate nothing but unsold Eskimo Pies. I can’t say for sure that’s a true tale, but my grandma wasn’t given to flights of fancy.

  27. During the Depression, my Grandparents and their familes were too busy trying not to get shot by the NKVD in the USSR for the capitalist crimes of breathing and eating, so I don’t have any good American stories to tell.
    It’s like that great line from Annie Hall, where upon finding about what Grammy Hall did for something or other and when asked about what his own Grandmother did, Woody Allen replied, “My Grandmother was too busy being raped by Cossacks!”

  28. After yesterdays decision to extend the Bush tax cuts I am beginning to feel the same way toward Obama that I felt towards Bush the younger. Only worse, because at least Bush was somebody that rarely went back on his word. Remember how stubborn Bush was in a dunce kind of way? Does Obama not have any competent advisors that can save him from himself? This decision has increased the likelihood he will be a one term president. He has kicked this can down the road into the middle of the next presidential election campaign and as a result Palin is not looking like such a long shot after all. Remember, no one does disinformation and propaganda better than the right wing especially with all the help they can get from their pals on the supreme court and MSM. This decision strengthens those beltway insiders that advocate tackling the deficit by the wholesale slaughter of existing programs. Obama should have let the Bush tax cuts expire and then sponsored emergency legislation to extend unemployment benefits and tax cuts ONLY for those under 250K and DARED the Republicans TO STAND IN HIS WAY by keeping them in Washington over the holdiays. But, he didn’t do that and the United States is going to pay a heavy price as a result. FDR is spinning in his grave. Some say that Obama’s triangulating like Clinton. Well, it won’t work. Clinton had a stong economy on his back. Voters know that the Republicans screwed the world economy but they have short tempers and memories and the two party system isn’t going to save the day. Obama will get the blame for everything past, present and future. The long decline continues. The only thing left now is to get it over with and drown Amerika in the bathtub. Grover Norquist is laughing his fool head off. Starts to give meaning to that silly question we keep hearing from Palin. How’s that hopey changey stuff doing?

  29. Steve,
    The other one laughing is Osama Bin Laden. If he wrote this script, things couldn’t have gone as smoothly.
    My take on this it to call this “The Stealth Stimulus,” and piss of the conservatards.
    Explain how this is actually a $300 to 900 BILLION stimulus package, and watch their heads explode. I’m sure maha will post about this later, but it’s not anywhere near as bad as people are saying it is, or as bad as anyone feared. There’s some good stuff in their. A lot of bad. And though we might be disappointed, just look at some Teabagger you know, and say, “You know what your side just did? It caved and gace Obama a 2nd stimulus. Thanks!” Their reaction will make you feel better. Don’t get too close to their ‘kettle’ though – steam burns are very, very nasty.
    Of course, you don’t need to worry about that. You’re in Canada.
    Adopt me! I beg of you!!!

  30. Interesting reading, everyone, especially for this city-born-bred-raised woman. I don’t think anyone, however, tackled the question of why so many Americans like to hear what Beck dishes out – or they wouldn’t listen to him. Do his ideas support or justify or define their anger? Is his message a source of comfort? Does he make them feel good, or at least better?

    Snake-oil salesmen/flim-flammers/itinerant preachers have been around forever but they’re finally only as successful as the number of people willing to buy their crap. Seems like there are a helluvalot of crap buyers these days. Why?

  31. Beck’s whole act reminds me of the American old school traveling evangelists. TV preachers have picked up on that. They don’t preach the beauty of Heaven so much as the evils of Hell – the “Ol’ Fire and Brimstone” speaches. And Christ’s messages of peace and love get muddled in the whole Armegeddon stew of what to fear and whom to hate – the old ‘and them there that ain’t wid ya, are agin’ ya, an’s comin’ for you’n your’n fast!’
    He manipulates people through hate and fear which are much better motivators than love. Love may come and go, but hate and fear, ‘like diamonds,’ are forever…

  32. I know lots of fundie Christians who would buy into the romantic picture Beck is selling. Brings the family closer together, and closer to the Lord. Mormons too, big time. It helps that enough time has passed since the Great Depression, so that living memory of that period has almost disappeared. People actually think (and I was one of them until Maha and others corrected my misconception) that the photograph Beck is showing represents typical Depression poverty. It doesn’t, that photograph shows people living pretty high on the hog for that time.

    It’s interesting how the wingnuts try to revise history (“FDR Caused the Depression”) when the first person witnesses are no longer with us, or able to speak up.

    I’ve come to see Obama as a classic DINO. Despite his many steps toward alienating his base, my bet is that he’ll win in 2012, because the Rs will run somebody crazy and/or frightening. I suspect the real owners of this country kind of like Barack, after all he gives them pretty much anything they want.

  33. Now that this thread really is old, I have a comment.

    Romanticizing poverty – 1930’s or 2010 – isn’t fooling anyone who is IN poverty. Glenn Beck isn’t planning on fooling anyone who has been struggling on unemployment for over a year. There is an intended message for an intended audience – and that’s important to understand. Beck’s audience is working-class rednecks and retired rednecks.

    The message is “Being poor ain’t so bad – there’s dignity and nobility in the suffering.” But look at the audience. The Beck viewer is probably not unemployed – he hasn’t lost his house or car – and he’s not missing any meals. Beck has to convince this guy that those who can’t get work are doing fine – the good people like poverty and YOU SHOULD HAVE NO SYMPATHY for anyone who protests his condition or looks to the government for relief.

  34. Doug,
    I can hardly wait until Beck organizes a TV scavenger hunt looking for the nations most “fogotten man.” It’ll be like “My Man Godfrey,” without the class and humor, but with an overdose of ‘screwball!”

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