Descendants of FDR and his cabinet urge Biden to embrace 'New Deal-scale' public jobs program

With the pandemic-induced economic emergency far from over as weekly jobless claims and long-term unemployment remain sky-high, descendants of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and key members of his Cabinet published an open letter Tuesday morning urging President Joe Biden to embrace a "New Deal-scale" public jobs program to help end the crisis and set the stage for an equitable recovery.

"What President Franklin Roosevelt said, when taking office in the depths of the Great Depression, remains true today: 'A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.… Our greatest primary task is to put people to work," the new letter reads. "Today's crisis of unemployment requires a federal response at least as bold as they designed to pull America out of the Great Depression and usher in the New Deal."

"Sustained government investment in our infrastructure and our people lifted us out of the Great Depression and I believe President Biden is thinking along those very same lines."
—Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, grandson of Frances Perkins

Released as Biden is set to unveil the details of his nascent infrastructure and green jobs package, the letter was signed by James Roosevelt, Jr., the grandson of FDR; Harry Hopkins, the grandson of former Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace; June Hopkins, the granddaughter of former Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins; Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall, the grandson of former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins; and Harold M. Ickes, the son of former Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes.

The descendants of key architects of the New Deal—the ambitious series of programs that helped end the Great Depression of the 1930s and provide permanent economic assistance for millions—argued that a similarly ambitious approach will be necessary to reverse the damage inflicted by the most unequal economic crisis in modern U.S. history.

Specifically, the letter presses Biden to support legislation led by Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that aims to establish a new jobs program through the Social Security Act, one of the most important and enduring New Deal programs.

"The 'Jobs for Economic Recovery Act'... is boldly New Deal-ish in its potential to quickly get Americans back to work," the letter reads. "The legislation would enable unemployed Americans to work in wage-paying jobs, carrying out useful projects, until they can be absorbed in the recovering labor market."

"If they were alive today," the letter continues, "we believe our New Deal forebears... would agree that the 'Jobs for Economic Recovery Act' should be included in the recovery plan you send to Congress."

The group also applauds Biden's January executive order directing the Interior Department to begin work establishing a "Civilian Climate Corps," an initiative modeled on a major New Deal public works program.

"We hope your modern-day version will add urban projects, such as building retrofits for energy efficiency, urban gardens and bike paths, and brownfield remediation, in addition to tackling the 21st Century climate challenges identified in your order, like carbon sequestration in soils and plants, and strengthening coastal and marine ecosystems," the letter reads.

The fresh calls for Biden to emulate the New Deal in his response to the coronavirus crisis comes weeks after the president reportedly hosted historians in the White House to discuss "how big is too big—and how fast is too fast—to jam through once-in-a-lifetime historic changes to America."

"President Biden took notes in a black book as they discussed some of his most admired predecessors," according to Axios. "Then he said to Doris Kearns Goodwin: 'I'm no FDR, but...' He'd like to be. The March 2 session, which the White House kept under wraps, reflects Biden's determination to be one of the most consequential presidents."

While some analysts have pumped the breaks on commentary likening the temporary relief programs established by the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the lasting, transformational accomplishments of the New Deal and Great Society, others have argued that Biden "doesn't need to be FDR or LBJ to change America," as New York magazine's Eric Levitz recently put it.

Amid progressive demands for as much as $10 trillion in new infrastructure spending over the next decade, Biden is expected to begin releasing a recovery package that—according to the Washington Post—could call for $4 trillion in spending on a variety of initiatives, including "proposals to repair the nation's physical infrastructure, such as its bridges, railways, ports, water systems and more, as well as revive domestic manufacturing; invest in research and development; expand clean energy investments, and create a nationwide infrastructure for electric vehicles."

Coggeshall, the founder of the Frances Perkins Center and one of the new letter's signatories, said in a statement Tuesday that his "grandmother, an architect of the New Deal and Social Security, would be very pleased with President Biden's leadership in this time of grave economic hardship and inequality."

"Sustained government investment in our infrastructure and our people lifted us out of the Great Depression," Coggeshall added, "and I believe President Biden is thinking along those very same lines."

Read the full letter:

Dear Mr. President:
We write, as the descendants of the men and women who designed the New Deal, to commend your focus on the urgency of big, bold action to create jobs to help America build back better. Specifically, we commend your Civilian Climate Corps Initiative, and we heartily recommend including the "Jobs for Economic Recovery Act" in the upcoming economic recovery package.
What President Franklin Roosevelt said, when taking office in the depths of the Great Depression, remains true today: "A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return.… Our greatest primary task is to put people to work."
The concept of a Civilian Climate Corps, laid out in your January 27 executive order on climate, harkens back to one of the New Deal's most successful jobs programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC gave jobs to some three million unemployed young people on projects like dams, phone lines, and irrigation. CCC workers planted millions of trees, built hundreds of trails, and constructed dozens of visitor facilities in parks.
We hope your modern-day version will add urban projects, such as building retrofits for energy efficiency, urban gardens and bike paths, and brownfield remediation, in addition to tackling the 21st Century climate challenges identified in your order, like carbon sequestration in soils and plants, and strengthening coastal and marine ecosystems. We commend your improving on the original CCC to include women and people of color. We recommend a focus on veterans and homeless unemployed, and an element of education and skills training. Many federal agencies can usefully partner in the new CCC, including Agriculture, Interior, Labor, Commerce, HUD, the VA, EPA, and perhaps the Army—which, in the original CCC, played an indispensable role in the logistics of organizing and running the 2500 work camps sprinkled in grateful communities all across America. And of course, the new CCC should rely on the expertise and infrastructure built in more recent years by AmeriCorps and the nation's Corps Network of 130 service and conservation corps.
The "Jobs for Economic Recovery Act"—just reintroduced as S. 784 by Senators Ron Wyden, Tammy Baldwin, Chris Van Hollen, Michael Bennet, and Cory Booker, and whose prior House version has the support of Representatives Danny Davis and Gwen Moore—is boldly New Deal-ish in its potential to quickly get Americans back to work.
The legislation would enable unemployed Americans to work in wage-paying jobs, carrying out useful projects, until they can be absorbed in the recovering labor market. It gives the lead to states, tribes, and local governments in designing specific employment projects to meet the varied needs of a diverse country. Like the new CCC, it ensures that groups left behind by the New Deal's jobs programs—Blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Island Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, other minorities, women, and people with disabilities—will get their fair share of wage-paying jobs.
It also is careful not to infringe on the rights of workers and unions, or to displace current employees or spending. Rather, the "Jobs for Economic Recovery Act" will add hundreds of thousands of workers by creating new and useful jobs.
We believe that many of these jobs will advance your priorities on the environment, health, and infrastructure:
  • Your new CCC could be expanded with funds provided under the Act.
  • Public health initiatives, like contact tracing and removing the lead paint that primarily poisons Black, Hispanic, and low-income children, could be bolstered.
  • Major infrastructure projects, such as fixing decaying roads and expanding broadband in rural areas, could also be accelerated under the Act.
Americans want to support themselves and their families by doing useful work, but the COVID-19 pandemic has severely shrunk the labor market. The real unemployment rate, as Federal Reserve Chair Powell and Treasury Secretary Yellen have made clear, remains near 10 percent. The U.S. has shed a net of roughly 9 million jobs in just a year.
To reboot the economy, and to provide paid work in the future for many who will still remain left out and left behind—especially Blacks, Hispanics, other minorities, persons with disabilities, and residents of isolated rural areas and segregated urban neighborhoods—the "Jobs for Economic Recovery Act" is the right policy.
If they were alive today, we believe our New Deal forebears—
  • President Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Vice President, and Agriculture and Commerce Secretary, Henry Wallace
  • WPA Administrator, and Commerce Secretary, Harry Hopkins
  • Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and
  • Interior Secretary, and PWA Administrator, Harold Ickes
—would agree that the "Jobs for Economic Recovery Act" should be included in the recovery plan you send to Congress. We ask this in their names—above all, because today's crisis of unemployment requires a federal response at least as bold as they designed to pull America out of the Great Depression and usher in the New Deal.
Sincerely yours,
James Roosevelt, Jr.
Henry Scott Wallace
June Hopkins
Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall
Harold M. Ickes