Fifty years of social welfare

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Fifty years ago I was working in the old National Press Building wondering if there would be enough money left to meet the mortgage. Franklin Roosevelt was just elected but hadn't been inaugurated yet. And what could he do anyway? It is hard to recall it now. Some wondered if the nation would survive.

Sure, we have a recession today - 10.4 percent unemployment; a tragic waste! But consider what had happened to us in 1929.

The Baltimore Sun headline of Oct. 30, 1929, was an 8-column streamer ''MARKET STAMPEDE CHECKED.'' (Always emphasize the positive!) The continuing bank of headlines told the story: ''$25,000,000,000 Lopped /Off Stocks' High Prices /Since This Crash Began.''

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Or the New York Times headline of the same day; their conservative make-up used only four of the front-page, right-hand columns and sounded the same reassuring note: ''Stocks Collapse in 16,410,030-share Day/But Rally at Close Cheers Brokers/Bankers Optimistic, to Continue Aid.''

Yes, we have had some spectacular jolts in 1982 on the stock market, but compare them with 1929. There was a drop one day last month of 36.33 points measured on the Dow Jones averages: something to remember! Some takers called it the second biggest drop in history. The drop on the famous day in October 1929 was 38 points which, at first sight, seems close to the present. But they were measured on vastly different scales. In 1982 the stock market average was close to 1,000 at the take-off point, so the hypothetical loss averaged around 3.5 percent. Back in October 1929, by contrast, the base was around 300, so that the one-day loss was a staggering 13 percent. In 1982 of course the volatile market has bounced back; 50 years ago it kept plunging down, down, down. The Dow average closed at its depression low on July 8, 1932, of 41.22. It had fallen 89 percent in less than three years. No wonder poor old Hoover was defeated.

If we could have looked ahead 50 years in 1932, we might have got some comfort. But who gets comfort out of the never-never land of the uncertain future? About the best you can say is that things certainly have gotten better, amazingly better for a lot of people, and it is up to us to continue that way. House Democratic majority leader Jim Wright, Democrat of Texas, put it rather well, I thought, the other day on NBC television. He was talking about the past 50 years. Yes, he said:

* ''In those 50 years we have indemnified 36 million Americans against the ravages of old age through social security.

* ''In those 50 years we have changed the percentage of people who own their own homes from fewer than 30 percent to more than 70 percent.

* ''In those 50 years we have turned around a situation in which only 4 percent of the college-age youngsters were finishing college to a point where now 21 percent are finishing college.

* ''Fifty years ago fewer than 30 percent of the nonwhite Americans were able to finish high school. Today it's more than 80 percent, still not enough but, my , what progress has been made.

* ''The average American lives longer, lives better, is healthier, worries less, has better housing, better clothing, and is more secure in his and her person than 50 years ago.

* ''I think we've made more progress in the last 50 years than any civilized nation ever made in any like period in the history of the world. . . .''

I haven't checked Mr. Wright's enthusiastic figures (which sound a bit like a peroration from some campaign speech), but they give you the idea and sound authentic enough.

Other people have made similar retrospective contrasts which always seem to emerge at moments like this. We are experiencing a worldwide recession and have 11.6 million unemployed. It is demeaning to take food stamps, perhaps, and they didn't have them in Hoover's day, but they do provide a safety net: 23 million now receive them. Aid to Families with Dependent Children goes to around 11 million; housing assistance helps 4 million; millions of recipients get unemployment compensation; and 22 million are on medicare.

So that's the story of 50 years. There has been a vast extension of social welfare. It was accepted in Europe under Bismarck and jumped the Atlantic under Roosevelt. Many people don't like the ''welfare state'' but agree that it's better than the brutal old days of laissez faire. At least we don't have headlines like those across eight columns of the New York Times on March 6, 1933 (two days after FDR's inaugural). What was all the commotion about? Nothing much; he had just closed all the banks.

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