Record unemployment, stock market gyrations, economic anxiety: For my generation, these grim tidings have a familiar ring. So does the voice of a new president offering hope in the first 100 days of his administration. Then as now, there were people who were for him and people against him — but whatever your politics are, the parallels are undeniable.
I was 9 years old when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933. The country was deeply mired in the Depression, but my family was luckier than many: My father was a coal miner. Depression or no Depression, people needed coal to heat their homes and to cook (we had a coal stove), and in northeastern Pennsylvania, the mines stayed open.
I also had a grandmother and three bachelor uncles who were all helping keep food on the table. But I can remember other men not so fortunate coming to our door, looking for something to eat. My grandmother always sent them around to the back door, and she always gave them food — but never money.
Potato and alphabet soups
Today the stock market’s fortunes affect just about everyone, but back then Wall Street seemed far away, even though it was physically just a few hours’ drive from us. Still, we knew about breadlines and soup kitchens, and we also felt the effects of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
For instance, after FDR declared the bank holiday in ’33, I could no longer go home from school at lunchtime to eat. The government started providing soup, and you were supposed to stay in school and eat it, leaving more food for your family at home. I hated it, the potato soup particularly. (Today, oddly, I love potato soup.)
But I shouldn’t complain; like millions of other Americans, we did reap benefits from New Deal programs. My older sister Renie, for example, taught kids softball after school under the aegis of the NYA — the National Youth Administration, which provided part-time work to millions of high school and college students starting in 1935. She got $25 a month, which was significant money in those days.
I was still too young to qualify for the NYA, but old enough to tag along with Renie to the ball field behind our local church and chase down balls. Another of my sisters, Mary, got $7 a month from the NYA to work in the school library.
There were other “alphabet soup” programs such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), which was for men only; they would do six-month stints working on projects in the countryside like reforestation, living in camps and sending the money home. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) used skilled workers for public projects (many of the walls built by the WPA in my hometown of Archbald are still standing today), while for people without skills there was the PWA (Public Works Administration).
Fireside Chats vs. YouTube
Not everyone was happy with all this alphabet soup. Some accused Roosevelt of bringing in socialism, just as some are saying the same about Obama today.
But whether you agree with the New Deal or not, it had an undeniable effect. A 92-year-old neighbor in the Tampa area, where I live today, calls Roosevelt her “hero” for getting rid of the soup kitchens and breadlines. And crime — which today in Florida is rising, along with the numbers of foreclosed homes and shuttered businesses — went down.
Still, there were plenty of people who hated Roosevelt — including my father, according to my sister Mary (although she can’t remember why). But just as a lot of people were glad to see President Bush’s helicopter depart Washington after the Obama inauguration, I can tell you there was no love lost in our house for Herbert Hoover either.
And even if my father did hate FDR, let me assure you that when one of his Fireside Chats came on the radio, Roosevelt’s was the only voice you heard in our house. Those of us who were old enough to be in school were told to “be quiet and learn something,” and we would gather silently around the one radio in the house, usually on Sunday nights, as I recall. I am certain that we listened to Roosevelt’s inaugural address live on the radio too, and though I was only 9, I swear I can remember him saying “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
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Of course, we were just a few among tens of millions of people who listened to Roosevelt on the radio. And while many may have disagreed with him (including my father), they still came away with a feeling of hope that he was going to rescue people from the dire straits so many Americans were in.
And I get the same feeling about Obama today. Even before the inauguration that so many of us watched, I had a sense that he understood the struggles of everyday Americans in these trying times and was determined to restore our confidence. Roosevelt had radio, while Obama has TV and YouTube. But they are both communicators, trying to take their case directly to the American people to help us overcome not only fearful challenges, but fear itself.
The media may differ, but the message is the same: Hope.
Kitty Schindler, 85, grew up one of 10 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner during the Depression. Now she shares her perspectives on staying afloat during challenging times with TODAYshow.com readers. If you have a question for Kitty or a tip of your own to share, send her an e-mail! To Ask Kitty, click here .
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