With U.S. unemployment at 8.5 percent in March, the highest rate in 25 years, more than 6 million Americans are making ends meet because of the idea and determination of the nation’s first female Cabinet member, Frances Perkins, a “canny but little-known social worker” who became President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary during the Depression.
In a Point of View guest column at the AFL-CIO website, Kirstin Downey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post, says the vital need for many New Deal programs is especially clear now as we struggle through our current economic crisis.
Downey, author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience, says Perkins and Roosevelt “propelled into existence” the unemployment insurance system, part of the package of social safety proposals born in the New Deal, including Social Security. Perkins brought her drive and commitment to the effort, and Roosevelt won the political support that allowed the package to pass, Downey says.
(If you are unemployed, check out the Unemployment Lifeline, developed by Working America and the AFL-CIO. It can guide you to resources and services in your area to help working families cope and survive unemployment.)
Just as in the 1930s, some 21st century extremists are attacking unemployment insurance. In fact, six Republican governors, including two possible presidential contenders, are refusing to accept parts of President Obama’s economic recovery plan that provide $25 more per week and extend benefits for those who are jobless and struggling to feed their families. Seems they don’t want to extend unemployment insurance to part-time workers and others unemployed in their states who don’t now receive support while job hunting.
But, as in the 1930s, working people refuse to be steamrolled by political grandstanders. In Texas, the state Senate voted last week to require Gov. Rick Perry to accept the funds, while in South Carolina, a high school student has asked the courts to decide whether the state legislature or governor makes the final determination on accepting or rejecting federal funds.
Perkins would be proud of their efforts. Yet, as Downey adds, “Frances Perkins has been forgotten.”
Today, many people don’t know who she was. But more than 6 million households will pay their bills and eat their dinner because of her handiwork. And regardless of their political ideology, many people will have reason to offer her their thanks.
Click here to read Downey’s guest column, “Frances Perkins Rides to the Rescue—Again.”