Brother Don Spare A Dime Essay
When the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929, a date now known as "Black Tuesday," the world did not yet know that the failure of the market would ultimately lead to the worst economic crisis to date. The stock market crash served as the inception point for the Great Depression; at the time of the 1932 Presidential election, 20% of the country was unemployed, and poverty ran rampant throughout the United States.
President Herbert Hoover was in office when the Great Depression began, and many people blamed him for the market crash and for the ensuing economic devastation. The Great Depression seriously threw into question his earlier electoral promises to bring about an age of prosperity. People who had lost their homes set up tent cities, nicknamed "Hoovervilles," after President Hoover. Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew Hoover was being blamed for the country’s suffering, and used that to his advantage when he challenged Hoover for the Presidency in 1932.
In his famed "Forgotten Man" speech, delivered seven months before the election on April 7, 1932, President Roosevelt laid out the beginnings of a plan for getting the economy back on track. His focus was on the "forgotten man" – the basis of the "economic pyramid," the working class of the country.
Throughout his speech, Roosevelt wove a metaphor comparing the terrible economic situation to war, and insisted the Depression presented just as grave a situation; this sentiment hit home for a country that had recently come out of the First World War. At the outset of his speech, he compared Hoover’s actions to those of Napoleon: "It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry--he staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry." Roosevelt said that the "present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army." Roosevelt suggested that, as Napoleon did, Hoover had put too much emphasis on the "spectacular" people in the U.S., and not enough on the people who truly served as the crux of the American economy.
Roosevelt believed the key was to focus on farming, and, as opposed to Hoover’s efforts that helped big banks, to provide assistance to the banks that served the "little fellow." He accused Hoover of seeking "temporary relief from the top down rather than permanent relief from the bottom up," and suggested Hoover’s actions were reactive, rather than proactive. President Hoover was not a supporter of "big government," and thus resisted government intervention. He believed such assistance would not help, but instead weaken, the moral stature of Americans.
On November 8, 1932, almost exactly three years after Black Tuesday, the country elected a new President. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Republican Herbert Hoover in a landslide. After he took office, President Roosevelt instituted many policies and plans, together called the New Deal, to help spur economic growth and get the country on a path to recovery. President Roosevelt’s New Deal stood in stark contrast to President Hoover’s "small government" approach. However, it wasn’t until the early 1940s, after the start of the Second World War (which created many jobs to support the war efforts), that the Depression truly ended.
Doomsday, Depression, and a Dime to SpareIn 1929, the average unemployment rate in the U.S. hovered around 3.2%. In 1930, after an unprecedented stock market crash devastated the U.S. economy, the average unemployment was 8.9%. By 1932, when Bing Crosby's version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was released, the unemployment had soared well past double digits to 24.1%.
The height of the Great Depression had arrived, and unfortunately, it was still just the beginning.
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" was composed for a 1931 Broadway musical called New Americana, and originally performed by a man playing the part of a sort of American "everyman." According to lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg (who later penned "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"), the song was meant to capture the confused feeling of the times. "He's bewildered. Here is a man who had built his faith and hope in this country," he says of the character. "Then came the crash. Now he can't accept the fact that the bubble has burst. He still believes. He still has faith. He just doesn't understand what could have happened to make everything go so wrong." (Source)
While it certainly doesn't represent all the diverse experiences of Americans during the Great Depression, it makes sense that the character in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" hit home for a lot of people. The economy of 1932 was in the midst of a downward spiral, and the costs came not just in numbers, but in real human suffering: joblessness, homelessness, starvation, and a loss of morale nationwide. People like the song's narrator who had put their whole lives into building a nation they truly believed in were left out in the cold, standing in bread lines or begging for relief. Those who had been well off before the economy fell apart felt shock, disillusionment, confusion, and sometimes anger.
The U.S. tended toward extremes during this period: fringe political movements like communism and socialism as well as fascism were viewed more sympathetically by a lot of Americans. Still, according to a Pew Center report released in 2010, the general public still had a relatively positive outlook during the Depression. In a 1936–1937 poll, "about half [of Americans] (50%) expected general business conditions to improve over the next six months, while only 29% expected a worsening. And fully 60% thought that opportunities for getting ahead were better (45%) or at least as good (15%) as in their father's day." (Source)
We've Seen Greater DepressionsThe American outlook seems to have changed quite drastically since then.
As we all know, in 2008 the U.S. was swept into an economic downturn that is widely viewed as the worst such crisis since the Great Depression. In late 2008, the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and subsequent bankruptcy of several of the country's biggest banks caused huge problems. Money stopped funneling into businesses and new projects as investors pulled out or froze their assets; people and businesses stopped borrowing money.
As a result, jobs disappeared overnight, sometimes in massive numbers. Naturally, the jobless stopped or slowed spending, causing the economy to choke up further. And hundreds of thousands of people lost homes as banks—who had given out faulty loans in the first place, due at least in part to the government encouraging lending to lower income people—foreclosed on them, sometimes doing so in violation of laws protecting homeowners.
In 2010, the Pew Center reported an overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the federal government and of the future from the majority of Americans. Pew found that "only 35% expected better economic conditions by October 2011, while 16% expected a still weaker economy." The U.S. in the new recession became a nation of pessimists. (Source)
Comparing the optimism of the 1930s with the pessimism of 2010 is somewhat shocking, given that even at the height of the more recent recession, unemployment never surpassed ten percent. In 1933, it was one in four, and at the time of the survey cited, it was still hovering around 17%. A full recovery didn't occur until after World War II, going on fifteen years after "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" came out.
The people who were pessimistic in 1932 or even 1936 were not exactly wrong in looking at it that way. But it appears that "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is not so much a work of pessimism as an expression of disillusionment. The basic format is This is what I gave, and now this is what I get? ButI deserve better!Help me out, man? A lot of people also seemed to think that, if they weren't doing so well, it was their own fault, not that of the system.
What made people feel so—relatively—fine about the future in the 1930s when the future was, in fact, so bleak for so many? The Pew Center report seems to offer one simple answer: faith in the federal government.
In 2010 midterm exit poll data, Pew said, "74% said they were either angry or dissatisfied with the federal government, and 73% disapproved of the job Congress is doing." (Source)
Contrast that with the mid-1930s, when despite the fact that FDR's New Deal did not actually end the Depression, 54% of Americans "expressed the opinion that if there were another depression (and fears of one were mounting), the government should follow the same spending pattern as FDR's administration had followed before." (Source)
The depression wasn't even over and the majority of people thought FDR had done a pretty good job ending it. That sort of support for a president is difficult to imagine these days. To be fair, though, the man was popular enough to be elected four times.
The point is, whether or not they should have had faith, they did. Like the narrator in "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", it seems a majority of Americans felt confident that they could appeal to the federal government for assistance of some kind. In a way, this makes sense, because a vast majority of Americans polled also favored federal assistance for working people.
Surveys in 1936 and 1937 found broad support for programs like free medical care for the poor (76%), covering the costs of medical care for mothers at childbirth (74%), and giving out long-term, low-interest loans to poor farmers (73%). People also wanted the feds to be in charge of things: "a 46%-plurality favored concentration of power in the federal, rather than state government (34% favored the latter)." (Source)
New Deal programs in general, which included unprecedented increases in federal regulation and unprecedented spending for social welfare programs, enjoyed very broad support.
So, America was made up of a bunch of socialist liberals in the 1930s, right? Not exactly.
History's on Our SideSurvey results do show that Americans supported increased government regulation in many areas, and more than half thought that "wages paid to workers in industry are too low" and "big business profits are too high." A large minority (42%) supported the idea of government caps on private fortunes, a sort of "share the wealth" outlook that would be very unlikely to garner so much support today. On the other hand, though, a full 60% thought that sit-down strikes by unions should be illegal, and 52% thought that the militia should be called in on unruly strikers. There was also majority support for causes like deporting immigrants on relief, fingerprinting all Americans, limiting prisoner paroles, and the death penalty. (Source)
This was not an America full of socialists or of libertarians, but an America of contradictory political views and sometimes-extreme polarization.
Well, when you look at it that way, it sounds a whole lot like today's America.
The real difference between then and now? Well, Shmoopers, it seems like there are many, and we're still learning ourselves. The beauty of historical study is that we can keep on analyzing the data, and as history unfolds, the data keeps changing. One day we'll be able to look back at the recession of the late 2000s with a much clearer analytical lens and the results of exit polls and surveys like the ones the Pew Center looked at from the mid-1930s. We don't yet have the advantage of hindsight when we try to understand the more recent economic crisis.
For the moment, though, one theory we came up with is that today's unemployed and dispossessed don't have a Bing Crosby to sing their woes with mild-mannered optimism. What a hunk.