In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began his second term. At his inauguration, the first held in January rather than March, Roosevelt described how he saw the nation emerging from the economic difficulties of the Great Depression. Although China and Japan were on the brink of war in Asia, and Hitler had just remilitarized the Rhineland, the President focused almost entirely on domestic economic issues.
Roosevelt felt emboldened to pursue an aggressive economic agenda. He succinctly stated the animating principle underlying the policies of his administration’s second term: that “[t]he lowest standard of living can be raised far above the level of mere subsistence.” Without question, the most remembered portion of the speech is “one-third of a nation”.
“I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.
I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.
I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”
He went on to predict – correctly – that from that day on the federal government would play a much larger role in the lives of individuals.
“We are determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country’s interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding group within our borders as superfluous.”
Roosevelt promised that “in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people.” These words continue to resonate with the political left. At the time, however, they had a much broader appeal. Advocates for housing reform made constant reference to the concept that “one-third of a nation” remained trapped in poverty by an exploitative system. The phrase itself became part of the rhetorical justification for the housing initiatives about to transform the nation. According to this worldview, all social ills related back to substandard housing. Within eight months, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1937 (a.k.a the Wagner-Steagall Act). Although substantially amended in 1949 and 1954, the 1937 Act is still in effect.