Periodic spikes in unemployment are as American as the Big Mac.
From the early years of the nineteenth century through World War II, the American economy tanked at least every decade or two. U.S. history textbooks are filled with boldfaced subheadings that begin “The Panic of…” followed by an assortment of years, whether 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893 or 1907.
As the twentieth century progressed, the U.S. economy continued to sour with remarkable regularity: in 1914, 1920, and, of course, during the Great Depression. A long stretch of prosperity and stability followed World War II.
But by the end of the 1960s, the U.S. economy’s historic case of the wobbles had returned. Hard times defined the ‘70s, the early ‘80s as well as the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s.
Now here we are again, dealing with the consequences of what is universally described as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In the fall of 2009, the national unemployment rate peaked at 10.1 percent and today remains at a distressingly high level, just over nine percent.
What is just as American as all this, however, is providing help to the jobless during moments of mass unemployment. At least from the 1850s forward, during all of the downturns listed above, Americans took a variety of steps to aid the unemployed.
Nearly all of these efforts—including those that took place long before the New Deal—involved some degree of government action. However, before the 1930s, local governments, rather than Washington, took the lead in offering assistance.
Rediscovering this history underscores an important fact. Leaving the unemployed to fend for themselves, as some pundits and political leaders have recently proposed, would be a radical departure from the American past.
...A very long but informative article.
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