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FDR asks Congress for drought-relief funds

On this day in 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt asks Congress to appropriate $52.5 million to battle economic and social disaster in the American Midwest caused in part by a series of droughts in the Great Plains region.

A series of great droughts that began in the 1920s and a history of poor land-management practices had created a Dust Bowl in the Great Plains by the 1930s, exacerbating the already difficult economic conditions of the Great Depression for hundreds of thousands of Americans. For days at a time, as an Oklahoma observer wrote, thick clouds of dust blotted out the sun. As water ran out and crops dried up, farmers migrated to other parts of the nation to find jobs. Farm-related businesses, including banks, were forced to close, creating even more unemployment. An influx of Dust Bowl refugees into industrial urban areas and the more productive agricultural areas of the West drove down wages, and created competition among workers, which in turn added to social unrest. By 1934, the economic situation had deteriorated to the point where violent labor-management clashes resulted in the deaths of many workers across the country.

In 1933, with the nation in the grip of the most disastrous economic depression in its history, Roosevelt took over the presidency. He immediately implemented drastic measures to aid the nation’s more than 13 million unemployed workers, hoping to stave off starvation and massive social unrest. His New Deal policies, which included drought relief, were unprecedented in scope and size; the sheer amount of federal financial aid involved dwarfed anything the nation had seen before. Until the Great Depression, U.S. presidents had maintained a relatively passive role in organizing disaster relief, preferring to encourage private charitable-aid efforts. Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had been harshly criticized for failing to avoid the Depression through proactive economic policies. To the contrary, Roosevelt’s drought-aid plan provided cash, livestock feed and equipment to farmers and businesses directly affected by the drought. It also established free emergency medical care for the indigent in hard-hit areas. The plan funded research into better land-management practices and set up government-based markets for farm products. In a controversial move, the government authorized the massive slaughter of livestock in order to stabilize meat and dairy prices. Tons of meat went to waste despite widespread hunger.

By 1938, when the drought had abated and normal rainfall levels returned, over $1 billion in federal aid had been appropriated for the Great Plans region. Out of Roosevelt’s drought-relief program grew soil conservation districts that remain in place today and have helped to prevent the emergence of drought conditions as devastating as the ones of the 1930s.

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