The New Deal: Which Westerners Benefited Most and Least?
When Roosevelt replaced Hoover as president, he did what Hoover would not – gave direct relief to people across the nation who were impoverished. Arguably more important than giving direct relief to those suffering in the shadow of the Great Depression, Roosevelt also created job opportunities for Americans that allowed them to earn a paycheck and benefitted the local, state, and nation as a whole. New Deal agencies such as the Public Works Administration (PWA), Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and others put the nation’s unemployed to work, kept the American economy alive, and improved many aspects of life by creating new roads, parks, schools, etc.
Corporate farmers, ranchers, miners, and industries in the West particularly benefitted from the New Deal and the agencies it created. Most of this relief came in the way of damming rivers to irrigate land. The PWA completed the dam now known as Hoover Dam in the Colorado River in 1935. The dam served many purposes. It provided water for irrigating the Imperial Valley, prevented flooding at the lower end of the river, generated electricity for Los Angeles as well as southern Arizona, and supplied household water for southern Californians. Corporate farmers benefitted greatly because of the irrigation opportunities given to the West. The dam provided a secure, dependable water source for farmers. Their crops no longer fell to the mercy of drought.
The government subsidized farming and ranching losses in the Dust Bowl region, another way the New Deal helped farmers in the West. The Drought Relief Service bought more than 8 million cattle to insure land was not over-grazed. By controlling the number of cattle in the region, they helped control how much of the land was used for grazing. In addition, they paid farmers not to work their lands, to better use their water, and to control their cattle herds better. To further protect the land, the government created local advisory boards through the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934.
The New Deal helped preserve the mining industry in the West, too. Just like the government bought cattle from ranchers, it bought silver from miners. The government paid a premium price for the silver which allowed the mining companies to keep people working. Silver usually occurs with other ores such as copper, zinc, and lead; so the prices paid by the government for silver allowed the mining companies the affordability to mine them all. White states on page 488 that “Without the profits from government purchases of silver, the mining industry would have largely closed down.”
Industries likewise benefitted from the dams. While there were few industries in the West, the dams created a favorable situation for them to locate there. Because of the dams, water was available for irrigation and for home use, both vital aspects in recruiting labor for industries. The dams also provided inexpensive electricity, a big factor considered by industries as they considered location options.
Native Americans benefitted least from the New Deal, possibly because the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the oldest of the western government agencies and because it had a history of mismanagement. White reformers were more concerned with assimilating Native Americans than helping them out of their government-induced poverty. In addition to the poverty that devastated the Native Americans, they had an infant mortality rate twice that of whites. John Collier tried to change policies that forced assimilation and suppression of Native American tribal governments. His legislation met with concern on all sides of the issue. Some government officials believed that his bill deviated from the goal of assimilation. Native Americans who had conformed thought it would reverse their achievements and cancel out their allotments. Native Americans who had not assimilated feared that Collier’s legislation would put their tribal power in the hands of people who were “mixed breeds” or only of partial Native American heritage. Needless to say, Collier’s Indian Reorganization Act did not succeed. It is, however, credited with reinforcing the nature of the tribes’ internal sovereignty.
Despite the relief offered by the New Deal, it did not do much in the way of erasing the caste system. The wealthiest still maintained the power and the lower class still worked for wages comparable to those they had earned before the Great Depression. The wealthiest farmers inevitably ended up serving on the local advisory boards that were supposed to safeguard the use of land and encourage land reclamation.
Aspects of the New Deal also had an everlasting impact on nature. The damming projects initiated by the New Deal had the greatest impact on nature. Rivers that had once been brimming with salmon were now depleted of them. The dams changed the courses of the rivers, too, changing them from flowing rivers to segments of water located between dams.