Dec. 27, 2017 – Robert Cohen, a professor of History and Social Studies at NYU, is the editor of Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression.
It’s Christmas eve and reports are that President Donald Trump just told his rich friends at the country club he owns in Florida “you all just a got a lot richer.” Trump was boasting here about the regressive tax cuts he and his fellow Republicans in Washington just gifted to themselves and their donors in the 1% class via the tax bill they rammed through Congress. The spectacle of a billionaire president glorying in enriching the rich is especially jarring at Christmas, when compassion for the poor is supposed to top our moral agenda. Both the reality and the optics of such greed and insensitivity suggest that Trump needs a history lesson from the New Deal era of the 1930s on compassion, altruism, and poverty in the American Christmas season.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration did such an effective job of expanding aid and job programs for the unemployed that the President and Mrs. Roosevelt became symbols of compassion and magnets for letters asking for help from the poor at Christmas time in Depression America. In 1934 alone, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt received more than 7,000 such letters. Many of these came from poor children, including one from St. Paul Minnesota in 1937, a world far removed from the balmy breezes of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida . This letter was from an 11 year old boy who wrote Mrs. Roosevelt informing her that his mother “ant got no winter coat and it is alful cold here. She works so hard to get us cloths and eats that there is nothing left for her.” So he asked the First Lady not for a toy or anything for himself, but a winter coat, even “old ones” for his mother.
The same altruistic spirit infused many of the letters from Depression youth, including a 16 year old boy from Keegan, Maine who had written Mrs. Roosevelt because he’d read in the paper that she “looks [out] for the poor.” He asked the First Lady two days before Christmas in 1933 to provide dresses for his sisters because “We’re in need so much that three of my sisters would go to school, but they’re not dressed to go. It makes three years that we didn’t see Christmas and my little sisters don’t know what’s Christmas. Your the first president’s wife that looks for the poor. It’s nearly insulting for a poor little boy like me to [write] a person like you. We didn’t write other president’s wife because they only try to owns money, but not you.”
If these youthful letter writers could teach Trump lessons about altruism in the face of poverty and hard times, the Christmas message Harry L. Hopkins, head of the New Deal’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration, issued in 1934 could teach Trump what compassionate leaders are supposed to say about poverty on Christmas day. Rather than cavorting with millionaires, Hopkins on Christmas eve was crafting a message expressing regret that so many of the poor were homeless and that they would be denied many of the joys of the holiday, including giving and receiving gifts, so in that sense saying “Merry Christmas” would “for millions of people” seem like invoking “barren words.” But using Christian imagery, Hopkins turned his Christmas message into a call for a war on poverty. So that while the exchanging of gifts and other of the holiday’s traditions were unattainable for them, the deeper significance of Christmas meant the most to the poor since “it is the birthday of one who disliked poverty and who taught us we are our brother’s keeper.” Hopkins concluded by pledging that he and the New Deal would work to banish poverty so that all the joys of “Christmas will come for the first time into the lives” of those who had been too poor to celebrate it.
Echoing such compassionate messages, would not, however, be enough to make the current administration and its allies on Capitol Hill worthy of the support and even love the Roosevelt administration attracted from the poor and oppressed, especially the young. Trump and his allies would also need to begin to show that they actually care about youth experiencing hard times, which would mean renewing federal health insurance for children, aiding the DACA students, and ending the Republican threats to Medicaid and Social Security. As for optics, there are currently some 15.4 million American children (21%) living in poverty. Perhaps Trump should consider depriving his rich friends of his presence for a day and spending Christmas with some of those poor children and their families.
Republished from the History News Network: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/167800