Employment numbers belie Steve King's high-school research

Representative Steve King bragged about his 11th-grade research project in the Thursday edition of the Des Moines Register:

As a junior at Denison High School, I wrote a term paper on President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. I began working on the paper with the intention of confirming what I had been taught in school – that FDR’s government recovery programs brought America out of the Great Depression.

I started my research believing in the success of Roosevelt’s economic-recovery programs. To support this claim, I spent hours at the Carnegie Library in Denison reading past editions of the local, biweekly newspaper.

My reading began with the 1929 stock-market crash, and I examined every issue through the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Those stacks of old papers turned upside down everything I had been taught in history and government class about the New Deal. As I searched for information proving the New Deal stabilized the American economy, I instead found the exact opposite: high unemployment, a struggling stock market and continued hard times.

Later statistical findings confirm my 11th-grade research. Throughout the 1930s, the unemployment rate never dipped below 14 percent. FDR’s tinkering with the free market frustrated investors, and the 1929 high point for the Dow Jones industrial average was not reached again until 1954.

Roosevelt possessed tremendous leadership skills and inspired many Americans, including my hard-hit family. Charisma aside, historians often inflate the true economic record of the New Deal. Roosevelt tried one big government program after another, with poor results. Many of Roosevelt’s programs and initiatives led the government to compete directly with the private sector for capital and workers, with Washington making the rules.

Massive government spending did not lift the United States out of recession. Instead, FDR’s big-government programs prolonged the Great Depression. The best we can say about the New Deal is that it may have blunted the depths of the Depression, but the trade-off was it delayed economic recovery until World War II and our post-war industrial advantage brought America out of the Depression.

Ah yes, the “poor results” of big-government programs introduced by FDR. Programs like Social Security, which dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which “set maximum hours and minimum wages for most categories of workers.”

But never mind the safety net for seniors and regulations that improved the quality of life for workers. What about King’s central claim, that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression? This is now a key right-wing talking point against government spending in Barack Obama’s stimulus package.

It is wrong to say that no economic recovery occurred during the New Deal. On the contrary,

The economy had hit rock bottom in March 1933 and then started to expand. As historian Broadus Mitchell notes, “Most indexes worsened until the summer of 1932, which may be called the low point of the depression economically and psychologically.”[18] Economic indicators show the economy reached nadir in the first days of March, then began a steady, sharp upward recovery. Thus the Federal Reserve Index of Industrial Production hit its lowest point of 52.8 in July 1930 (with 1935-39 = 100) and was practically unchanged at 54.3 in March 1933; however by July 1933, it reached 85.5, a dramatic rebound of 57% in four months. Recovery was steady and strong until 1937. Except for unemployment, the economy by 1937 surpassed the levels of the late 1920s. The Recession of 1937 was a temporary downturn. Private sector employment, especially in manufacturing, recovered to the level of the 1920s but failed to advance further until the war.

Unemployment continued to be high by today’s standards throughout the 1930s, but King ignores the sharp reduction in unemployment following the introduction of New Deal policies.

The bottom line is this: the unemployment rate dropped by 9 percent during the pre-World War II FDR era, and the absolute number of unemployed people dropped by 36.7 percent (from 12.8 million unemployed in 1932 to 8.1 million unemployed in 1940).

World War II significantly reduced the number of unemployed Americans, but again, it is false to claim that the New Deal programs accomplished little on the employment front.

By way of comparison, under King’s hero Ronald Reagan, the unemployment rate only dropped by 2.1 percent, and the absolute number of unemployed people dropped by 19.0 percent (from 8.2 million in 1981 to 6.7 million in 1988).

The U.S. population was a lot bigger during Reagan’s presidency than it was in FDR’s day. If Reagan’s policies were so much better for putting people to work, why did we not see a larger decrease in the total number of unemployed Americans during the 1980s? Why did we see such marginal improvement in the unemployment rate during Reagan’s presidency?

If we look at employment figures under every president since FDR, King’s nemesis Bill Clinton comes out ahead. During his presidency, the unemployment rate declined by 2.9 percent, and the total number of unemployed dropped by 36.3 percent (from 8.9 million in 1993 to 5.6 million in 2000).

Note: Chase Martyn had a go at King at Iowa Independent, but he was too kind in my opinion. The facts do not support King’s assertion that the New Deal delayed economic recovery and failed to address high unemployment.

Someone please talk King into running for governor in 2010 so we can get a less odious Republican representing Iowa’s fifth district.

About the Author(s)


  • So 11th Grade Research is the Apex

    of King’s academic endeavours? I guess that, in and of itself, explains just about everything, now doesn’t it?