The New Deal in North Dakota Overview
There were no federal government programs to help needy people. The philosophy of laissez faire, government “hands off” economic and social problems, prevailed. Care for the poor had been the responsibility of local governments since the 16th century when the Elizabethan Poor Laws came into existence in England. For almost three hundred years, that remained the guiding principle in caring for those who needed some kind of help.
In North Dakota, as in other states, towns and counties were charged with the care of the poor. Most counties maintained “poor farms” where people with no means of support could be sent. Counties maintained funds which would allow it to buy groceries, pay rent, or provide medical care for the poor, called welfare recipients. Prior to the onset of Depression, counties rarely needed more than a few hundred dollars for assistance purposes.
That changed dramatically after 1929. The numbers of unemployed workers and distressed farmers swelled to unmanageable proportions. Neither towns nor counties could handle the flood of requests for assistance. The numbers of people with no income mushroomed. Local governments were broke, or nearly so.
In this national catastrophe only the federal government could provide the help that the people needed. In 1932, the nation’s and North Dakota’s worst year, Roosevelt, if elected, promised the American people a New Deal. He won in a landslide and organized federal government action to fight the depression. The North Star Dakotan’s special report, “The New Deal in North Dakota,” chronicles the work of federal programs in the state. Because of the drought, North Dakota was the hardest hit of all the states. The New Deal programs ended laissez faire government and meant survival for North Dakota’s people.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.