HOOVER'S RESPONSE

In the eyes of many Americans, President Hoover’s response to the Depression seemed inadequate and uncaring. Leading advisers, including Andrew Mellon, the wealthy secretary of the treasury, told Hoover that economic downturns were a normal part of capitalism, which weeded out unproductive firms and encouraged moral virtue among the less fortunate. Businessmen strongly opposed federal aid to the unemployed, and many publications called for individual “belt-tightening” as the road to recovery. Some initially saw a silver lining in the Depression. Wages had fallen so sharply, reported Fortune magazine, that “you can have your garden taken care of in Los Angeles for $1 a week” or hire an “affable Negro to fry your chicken and do your washing for $8 a month in Virginia.”

The federal government had never faced an economic crisis as severe as the Great Depression. Few political leaders understood how important consumer spending had become in the American economy. Most held to the conventional view that government intervention to aid those who had lost their jobs would do little to spur economic recovery and would encourage Americans to rely on government charity to address misfortune. In 1931, Hoover quoted former president Grover Cleveland from four decades earlier:

“The Government should not support the people.... Federal aid... weakens the sturdiness of our national character.”

Strongly opposed on principle to direct federal intervention in the economy, Hoover remained committed to “associational action.” He put his faith in voluntary steps by business to maintain investment and employment—something few found it possible to do—and efforts by local charity organizations to assist needy neighbors. He called numerous conferences of business and labor leaders and established commissions to encourage firms to cooperate in maintaining prices and wages without governmental dictation. Hoover attempted to restore public confidence, making frequent public statements that “the tide had turned.” But these made him increasingly seem out of touch with reality. About the unemployed men who appeared on city streets offering apples at five cents apiece, Hoover would later write, “Many persons left their jobs for the more profitable one of selling apples.”

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