Letter Regarding Assistance to the Poor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Writing in response to a letter sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to more than 120,000 members of the American clergy, the Reverend Fenimore E. Cooper asked the president to take a more careful look at assistance programs for the country's poor. In a letter dated September 26, 1935, he suggested that Roosevelt continue such programs, particularly those that kept senior citizens and disabled Americans out of poverty. However, he also asked the president to keep in mind that some Americans might prefer to receive government funds indefinitely instead of finding work. Finally, Cooper advised the president not to create too much national debt or increase the federal government's power through his New Deal proposals.

Summary Overview

Writing in response to a letter sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to more than 120,000 members of the American clergy, the Reverend Fenimore E. Cooper asked the president to take a more careful look at assistance programs for the country's poor. In a letter dated September 26, 1935, he suggested that Roosevelt continue such programs, particularly those that kept senior citizens and disabled Americans out of poverty. However, he also asked the president to keep in mind that some Americans might prefer to receive government funds indefinitely instead of finding work. Finally, Cooper advised the president not to create too much national debt or increase the federal government's power through his New Deal proposals.

Defining Moment

In 1929, the fantastic economic boom the United States enjoyed throughout the 1920s came to an equally fantastic collapse. Stock markets crashed, banks folded, industries faltered, and countless jobs disappeared, sending the United States into what would come to be called the Great Depression. In the decades after the stock market crashed in 1929, economists, social scientists, and other scholars have attempted to understand the specific causes that ushered in this tumultuous period. Generally, experts point to the inability of citizens to repay loans, a lack of business and market regulation by government, and a lack of sustainability in the country's leading industries as some of the major causes of this event. Many scholars also indicate the sharp divide between the nation's wealthy and poor as a contributing factor, as the latter group represented a majority of the population and was adversely impacted by any fluctuations in the economy.

Although the debate over the exact formula of causes that set off this financial meltdown continues, two important facts about the Depression cannot be refuted. The first is that the collapse sent millions of Americans into unemployment and poverty, shut down hundreds of banks and businesses, and caused a financial malaise that persisted for a decade. The second is that, although many political leaders and economic experts espoused theories on how to halt this trend, initial efforts to turn the economy around proved fruitless.

In 1932, the Democratic Party, buoyed by the inability of Republican president Herbert Hoover to end the crisis, nominated Roosevelt, the governor of New York, as its candidate for president. In his acceptance speech for the nomination, Roosevelt pledged to give Americans a “new deal,” in which the economic and social conditions that languished during the Depression would be remedied. When Roosevelt won in a landslide victory in November, he immediately set about his agenda. Chief among his goals were generating jobs, restoring the markets, and rejuvenating the American economy over the long term. A defining element of Roosevelt's New Deal was its departure from the laissez-faire approach to the economy employed by his predecessors; Roosevelt's platform called for a much larger role for the federal government, which would address the crisis through regulatory reform, major financial investments, and the creation of new federal agencies to service the public's needs.

As part of Roosevelt's efforts to halt the Depression, the president looked to the public for input. In September of 1935, Roosevelt sent a letter to more than 120,000 members of the clergy, requesting their suggestions and comments on how to ensure the New Deal's success. The Reverend Fenimore E. Cooper, rector of the All Saints' Church in Syracuse, New York, and a self-professed supporter of President Roosevelt, responded with a series of suggestions that focused mainly on the government's financial aid programs.

Document Analysis

Cooper's response to Roosevelt's letter encourages the president to be mindful of the financial investments the government was making in aiding those most affected by the Depression. He advises the president to avoid inadvertently creating a population that is overly reliant on financial aid and urges him to spend money with care, as too much spending would only add to the government's mounting debt. Finally, Cooper calls upon Roosevelt to provide financial support to the country's most needy at a rate that keeps them out of poverty, but does not impede their desire to pursue employment and become active participants in American society.

Cooper, by his own admission, believed strongly that Americans should not become dependent on the government. Likewise, he writes in his letter, the government should not become too involved in Americans' lives. His message to the president, therefore, calls for a measured approach to aiding the country's most needy citizens. For example, Cooper encourages the president to continue to provide the needy with financial support until they could take advantage of employment opportunities once the economy recovered. Disabled and elderly citizens should be adequately cared for, Cooper argues, but Americans should nonetheless be encouraged to save in preparation for old age rather than be allowed to rely completely on government aid. Cooper is particularly concerned that some Americans could grow dependent on the government. Many individuals, he argues, might move away from their own individual pursuits of financial stability and instead embrace a lifestyle based on receiving and depositing unemployment benefits. He cautions that many of these individuals would likely pass this government-dependent perspective on to their children, creating long-term populations that knew only government aid instead of what Cooper calls a “zeal for work.”

Cooper further cautions Roosevelt to be mindful of the government's limited financial resources. The Depression had taken its toll on virtually every sector of the American economy, and the government was not immune. Cooper advocates targeting expenditures of aid programs in order to protect the most vulnerable. However, he advises Roosevelt not to spend more than revenues permitted. Debt, he argues, was already a problem, and implementing new government spending programs threatened to add significantly to it. This attitude coincided with Cooper's belief that the government should be careful not to intervene in every issue facing US citizens. If the federal government did so, Cooper writes, it would run the risk of resembling a dictatorship rather than the democracy Cooper preferred.

Cooper concludes with an optimistic note, mentioning that the economy was showing signs of improving. He, therefore, suggests that the pressure to move along a more interventionist governmental path was lessening. Still, he writes, the “moral fibre” of the United States was not, in his estimation, showing a concurrent trend toward improvement. On this front, at least, the country still had a great deal of work to do as it toiled to recover from the Depression.

Essential Themes

Responding to President Roosevelt's letter asking members of the clergy to share their thoughts on his New Deal programs, Cooper took the opportunity to express his opinion, focusing on several main areas of concern. First, he expressed his support for financial aid for the needy, a perhaps predictable stance considering his profession. Cooper told Roosevelt that aid was critical during the Depression, especially for the country's vulnerable citizens. However, he warned that aid programs ran the risk of creating a class of people who simply took the government's money instead of pursuing employment. Despite this risk, Cooper noted that Roosevelt's aid programs would be most beneficial to disabled and elderly Americans, whom he suggested would otherwise be employed or pursuing work if physical limitations had not impeded them from doing so.

Cooper was also particularly concerned about the effects that Roosevelt's aid programs might have on the nation's financial position. Although there were signs that the economy was improving, Cooper argued that the government was not in a position to overspend its resources. If the country continued to spend beyond its means, the United States' debt would continue to worsen, and the nation's recovery from the Depression would be slowed. Furthermore, he believed that while limited and targeted aid for the neediest citizens was important, the government should respect the private pursuits of Americans and avoid involving itself greatly in their lives. Finally, Cooper expressed his concern about the moral character of the American people, noting that while economic conditions were improving, morals were not. As a member of the clergy, Cooper was particularly disturbed by this trend. He warned Roosevelt that the United States would not truly recover unless steps were taken to end the “moral degeneration” of American society.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Edsforth, Ronald. The New Deal: America's Response to the Great Depression. Malden: Blackwell, 2000. Print.
  • “The Great Depression.” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. George Washington University, n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.
  • McElvaine, Robert S. The Great Depression: America, 1929–1941. 25th anniv. ed. New York: Three Rivers, 2009. Print.
  • “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1933–1945.” American Memory Timeline: Great Depression/WWII, 1929–1945. Lib. of Congress, n.d. Web. 13 June 2014.
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