Dear Vice President Biden:
We must fight for a 21st Century New Deal

An Open Letter to Vice President Biden from the children and grandchildren of FDR and his New Dealers

21st Century New Deal
10 min readJun 23, 2020

Dear Vice President Biden:

We are descendants of the men and women who designed and implemented President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the worst economic decline of the 20th Century.

We are tremendously heartened to hear of your recognition that today’s crises — health, economic, and social — are so enormous as to “eclipse what FDR faced,” and that you believe your presidency “must be more ambitious than FDR’s.”

We agree, and urge you to champion a 21st Century New Deal that will restore belief in a government that works for all Americans. While the original New Deal remains the foundation of U.S. domestic policy, the COVID-19 crisis vividly demonstrates where our federal government has failed to live up to its responsibilities.

Just as the Great Depression laid bare the inherent cruelty of a passive, hands-off federal government, the last several months have made the failures of a “limited government” philosophy impossible to ignore. It is a moral outrage that millions of Americans are left to fend for themselves in these times of unprecedented personal, economic, and health crisis, while our federal government has the power — and the first-hand experience from the New Deal — to help.

This pandemic, which has impoverished millions and overwhelmed our healthcare system, has exposed the need for what FDR called “bold, persistent experimentation” in government. The idea that the government should sit idly by while the American people suffer must be soundly rejected, and replaced with a vision for government in which every individual is able to live his or her life prosperously and securely, safe from the fear of utter destitution. To that end, we strongly support your demand that the federal government enact bold and dramatic reforms that guarantee Americans the jobs, the income, the health care, and the sustainable environment they need to live productive and healthy lives.

FDR and his New Deal allies, including our forebears, responded to the crisis of their time with proactive governmental solutions to help everyday Americans — to serve the forgotten many rather than the wealthy few. We ask you to do the same.

Taking immediate action after his Inauguration in 1933, FDR and his team established a fundamental principle: that the federal government is on the side of the American people and must ensure their economic security. Over the next five years, they worked with Congress to create Unemployment Insurance for laid-off workers, and offered critical infrastructure jobs to millions of unemployed Americans via New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and Public Works Administration (PWA). Almost a full century later, our children and grandchildren still enjoy the results of the hard work and dedication put into these New Deal programs in the form of thousands of bridges, schools, hospitals, libraries, parks, and other public structures.

The New Deal set a national minimum wage, and empowered labor unions to bargain for better wages, hours, and working conditions. The administration’s credo was that jobs were the antidote to poverty. Its most famous success: The Social Security Act of 1935 — designed by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, with Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace and FDR advisor Harry Hopkins — guaranteed pensions for workers upon retirement. Without Social Security, 22 million American seniors would live in poverty today.

The New Deal also put in place new rules that restored the integrity and the health of the nation’s collapsed market economy. It ended most bank failures, secured the safety of Americans’ savings, reined in monopolies, and legislated integrity in the stock market. In short, the New Deal saved free market capitalism from its own worst impulses.

The original New Deal was expanded during and after World War II in dozens of ways — including disability insurance, the G.I. Bill, and Medicare, which greatly contributed to propelling the United States into sustained post-war prosperity. Poverty fell; incomes rose; more Americans gained health insurance; union membership was at an all-time high; and retirement became more comfortable. On the whole, Americans were better off. Still, we recognize that the prosperity of the past was not uniform, and that we cannot call ourselves a free and fair nation until the freedoms and opportunities afforded to some are extended to all.

While groundbreaking in its scope and ambition, the New Deal still left huge problems unsolved — such as structural racism. Though New Dealers like Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins, Henry Wallace, and Harold Ickes were outspoken critics of racial discrimination, important parts of the New Deal and subsequent national legislation were passed in Congresses that firmly upheld Jim Crow laws. Some racial injustices were addressed in future legislation, while others still remain and serve as a solemn reminder that we must reckon with our country’s ugly past for the good of our future. We believe our government must acknowledge the harm it has enabled, and work far harder to undo the harm and empower shared progress.

Gender inequality was another issue where the New Deal fell short. While Frances Perkins made history as America’s first female cabinet secretary and Eleanor Roosevelt forever redefined the role of first lady, women still held a second-class status to men when it came to employment and wages. As women in today’s workforce struggle to earn equal pay for equal work and continue to face instances of sexual harassment and assault, we ask that special focus be given to righting these wrongs.

The sad truth of our nation’s recent history is this: the rich have gotten richer, a majority of Americans have fallen behind, and corporations have been let loose to despoil our planet and endanger our children’s and grandchildren’s future — all compounded now by unprecedented economic, health, and social turmoil.

With the worst inequality we’ve seen in nearly a century, it is once again time to pull our nation back from the jaws of unchecked capitalism and hands-off government. Now, more than ever, the federal government must be on the side of ordinary people. Americans are ready for a 21st Century New Deal. Without one, we fear we will lose forever America’s promise of equal opportunity and prosperity.

What form might this 21st Century New Deal take, as you campaign to become our next President? Some recommendations for you to consider include:

Transitional Jobs: A Transitional Jobs program is needed to ensure that all Americans who want paid work can actually earn a living wage whenever there’s a job shortage. We urge you to endorse the creation of a permanent, federal Transitional Jobs program, drawing on the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that Harry Hopkins ran and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), in which Henry Wallace and Harold Ickes had key roles. The new program would offer temporary jobs and invaluable experience to unemployed and underemployed adults until they are able to move into the regular economy, in areas like public health (contact tracing), clean energy (like solar, wind, and building retrofits for energy efficiency), and infrastructure (from potholes to broadband to high-speed rail). Jobs bills like this have already been introduced in Congress and will benefit our entire society — not just the workers.

Unemployment Insurance: Too few Americans qualify for Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits. The program — designed in large part by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to deal with a labor market whose workers were primarily laid off from full-time jobs in manufacturing — needs to be expanded to cover today’s growing share of unemployed workers who are self-employed, contractors (often in the “gig” economy), or part-time. Recent COVID-19 emergency legislation has expanded UI coverage on a temporary basis. This expansion should become permanent.

Higher Minimum Wage and Stronger Union Protections: The New Deal set a federal minimum wage, established the 40-hour workweek, outlawed child labor, and gave workers greater power to form a union and collectively bargain. With a substantial portion of the American workforce one step away from economic ruin due to unforeseen circumstances (like a global pandemic), a much higher federal minimum wage permanently indexed for inflation is long overdue. Federal labor laws should make it easier and safer for workers to form a union and bargain collectively for a better life.

Earning Supplements: The way the federal government supplements earnings — the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit (CTC) — should be expanded to cover more workers and provide bigger tax credits to wage earners, those without children as well as working parents. The House of Representatives’ HEROES Act takes a big step in the right direction.

Paid Leave and Childcare: Congress has made a start with paid leave by requiring it for some workers affected by COVID-19. That’s good, but it’s only a start. Paid leave should be available — in good times or in bad — for all workers who need temporary time off to care for a newborn baby, newly adopted child, or ailing relative. Additionally, affordable — ideally free — childcare should become a federal guarantee. Childcare is essential in allowing people to work and to lifting working families out of poverty.

Health Insurance Reform: Health care is a necessity. The Affordable Care Act was a giant step forward. But we still have a system where health insurance is tied to employment and costs are intolerably high. We need a new model based on the principles of universal coverage, good benefits, choice of health care providers, fair financing, and cost control. With over 115,000 deaths and more than two million cases of COVID-19, and rising, the nation must finally acknowledge that the creation of a more robust, equitable health care system is in our national interest.

Environmental Stewardship: The New Deal was also about protecting natural resources, people, and businesses from damage caused by greed or neglect within the marketplace. A 21st Century New Deal should address climate change and other environmental assaults on the sustainability of our planet, and focus on an immediate transition to a renewable energy economy. Bold legislative and regulatory action could bring tens of millions of new jobs, and safeguard workers, consumers, and investors. Most importantly, it is a matter of basic survival for the generations that come after us. We cannot afford to lose this fight.

Tax Reform: Our tax code is distorted in favor of the rich, and requires a total overhaul. Tax cuts for the rich have never “trickled down.” In the original New Deal, the rich paid their fair share, and the middle class flourished as never before. As FDR rightfully stated in his third inaugural address, “The hopes of the Republic cannot forever tolerate either undeserved poverty or self-serving wealth.” Today, the ultra-rich pay less than the middle-class, and leave the least affluent to foot the bill for running our country. One simple measure — a financial-transaction tax — could curb the vast harm caused by runaway computerized high-speed trading, which caused so much devastation to the economy in recent months. But a few tweaks won’t cut it. Fundamental tax reform is required.

Education: The COVID-19 lockdown has disrupted education at every level across the nation. Yet even before the pandemic, education and employment programs geared towards young Americans were largely an afterthought in the halls of government. This wasn’t always the case. From 1935 to 1943, the National Youth Administration (NYA) — created under the WPA — provided funds to keep young people in school, taught them technical skills, and offered them part-time jobs. The country once again needs a federal program resembling the NYA today in order to effectively address the racial disparity prevalent in our educational system, relieve students of some of the crushing debt that follows them for years after graduation, and retool Americans for a rapidly evolving 21st century economy. Millions of young Americans are ready and willing to work, learn, and serve in rebuilding and strengthening our nation. At this critical moment in history, let us not squander the untapped potential and boundless optimism of young Americans with government inaction.

Voting Rights: An insidious form of political violence towards historically marginalized groups is still widespread: voter disenfranchisement. The right to vote is the most cherished of our rights as American citizens and should not be curtailed. The federal government has a responsibility to see that this fundamental right is readily available to all voting age citizens. Today, in the face of a deadly pandemic, that means funding for mail-in voting and early voting, and strong protections against discriminatory voter suppression tactics, including restoration of the Voting Rights Act. As Vice President Henry A. Wallace said, “The more potential voters who register and vote, the more democracy. And I am firm in the belief that the more voters we have, the greater hope for America and for the world.”

Our New Deal forebears —

• President Franklin D. Roosevelt;

• First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt;

• Harry Hopkins, WPA Administrator and Secretary of Commerce;

• Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor;

• Henry A. Wallace, Vice President, and Secretary of Agriculture and Commerce; and

• Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior and Administrator of the PWA

— understood the need to correct calamity with bold action. They understood that actions mattered far more than hollow words. They knew that the federal government is the servant of the American people in promoting and supporting what the Constitution calls the General Welfare. They recognized that the federal government had a special responsibility to protect the forgotten American from what FDR called “the hazards and vicissitudes of modern life.” They worked diligently together to shape the principles, policies, and programs they called the New Deal that continue to support our citizens today.

They met their moment of crisis with boldness, with “persistent experimentation,” and with conviction. Will you?

In the same spirit, we urge you — as a candidate, President, and fellow citizen — to embrace once more the New Deal’s core principles of promoting economic security, a healthy society, a sustainable environment, and a level playing field for businesses big and small. While the New Deal and the people who made it were not perfect, they provided millions of Americans the confidence to carry on during dark, uncertain times.

In our lifetimes, the future has rarely seemed so dark and uncertain as it looks at this moment. The American people today desperately are searching for the kind of steady, trusted leadership that our forebears provided in the depths of the Great Depression. They deserve a government that is unquestionably on their side. Not for the corporations and the elites, but for all of the American people. Your resolve to be even more ambitious than FDR is precisely what the times demand, and we urge you, from the very depths of our hearts, to live up to that promise.

Thank you for listening.

Sincerely yours,

James Roosevelt, Jr.

Henry Scott Wallace

June Hopkins

Harold M. Ickes

Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall

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