A Great Depression Question

Were public servants, and those in the military, paid their normal pay throughout the Great Depression in the US? I assume that some public servants lost their jobs, but certainly not all of them. Perhaps some public servants were forced to take a pay cut, but I can’t see them doing that to active duty soldiers.

Local governments were certainly hard hit, and laid off workers. Undoubtedly many workers had their pay cut. Chicago was so cash-strapped that schoolteachers were paid in scrip.

I was recently reading a biography of Eisenhower and it pointed out that he (and other career military people) actually did pretty well during the depression. His military pay may not have been great but he had a steady income at a time when a lot of people were broke and the cost of living dropped as a result.

My maternal grandfather was the county clerk of an Arkansas county during much or maybe even all of the Depression. I never heard his pay was cut. His family rode out the Depression rather comfortably.

My father-in-law was a school teacher in the 30s. They all kept their jobs, but every once in a while, the city (NY) would declare a “payless” Friday. They were happy to have jobs, so no one left.

One of my HS teachers was a fully qualified lawyer who took a teaching job in the 30s because it was secure. Same with one of my chemistry teachers. On the other hand, I bet a lot of civil servants lost their jobs as governments entered into austerity.

Remember, the number of active duty soldiers was far smaller than it is today. In 1940, there were less than half a million people in the military; today there are almost three times as many.

Government also was smaller, since many agencies that are now an essential part of it did not exist.

Since Roosevelt created new agencies, the government was hiring; Hoover, OTOH, was certainly not increasing government jobs.

A pay cut for Representatives during the Great Depression - March 20, 1933

There were job cuts and pay cuts at all levels of government, state, county, and local across the country. Of course there were. What were they going to pay them on? Tax revenue had plummeted. If governments were to keep the same level of spending they would all go bankrupt.

It’s true that relief programs to hire people were instituted widely, but those were paid at fractions of what those jobs had brought before the Depression. They were sought because any money was better than none, and having a job gave psychological comfort that was denied to the unemployed.

Given the comment about Eisenhower, as well as others, I suspect that some public workers did okay, while others suffered by having their pay cut or losing their jobs. If you were an Army General or a high ranking public official you probably fared well… others, not so much.

My paternal grandfather worked at a local grocery store and lost his job. He never worked again. My maternal grandfather owned a business with his brother and somehow managed to get by. Once Prohibition ended they opened a distillery and apparently did very well for quite a while.

The civil service increased by about 5% under Hoover. Certainly not as much as what came later, but enough so that in 1932 Roosevelt campaigned against Hoover’s “reckless and extravagant” spending and Hoover’s supposed view “that we ought to center control of everything in Washington as rapidly as possible.”

It says a lot about public attitudes at the time that Roosevelt campaigned against doing any of the things he immediately did while in office. And that he repeatedly turned down all invitations from Hoover to declare joint actions in the days between the election and inauguration, then still in March.

He knew that inaction was hurting people; he also understood that he needed to be seen as a new savior to ram bills through an approving Congress. To his great good luck - bad luck to everybody else - the country’s banks all failed just in time for the inauguration. With no banking system and therefore no money in hands and pockets, the public was wiling to allow him to do anything, probably including martial law, to get things started again. Roosevelt was a political animal through and through, and a heartless SOB when he needed to be.

The size of the federal government government wasn’t meaningful in itself. First, if you take out the Postal Service and the Military, what’s left is ridiculously small. Look at table #173 on p166 of your link. Not a single department other than them had even 100,000 bodies. As table #176 shows, the total size of the Civil Service had of course peaked in WWI. There were small variations in yearly size since, but I doubt if it went up or down by more than 10%. It might be a matter of perception as a campaign issue, but had no real economic impact.

The growth in the government started the next year after Roosevelt got into office. By then, the public thoroughly approved, although vilification continued.

FDR brought a pfc’s pay down to $17.00 a month (plus room, board and healthcare). He had to cut the military budget many other ways. Supposedly MacArthur said this to his face:

“When lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.”

In England they announced a cut in sailors’ pay, and the resulting ‘mutiny’ (more of a strike) forced Britain off the Gold Standard.