Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1939: Decades of Promise and Pain

By David E. Kyvig | Go to book overview

11

Creating the New Deal: A Larger Role for Government in Daily Life

A DISTANT FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

Before the onset of what 1932 Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged would be “a new deal for the American people,” most residents of the country seldom encountered the U.S. government in their daily lives. In the nineteenth century, the only federal service directly reaching people was the U.S. mail. Even in that instance, prior to the establishment of rural free delivery in the 1890s, contact with a federal postal worker required a trip to the post office, something not on most daily schedules. Noncitizens entering the country, inventors registering a patent, and currency counterfeiters were the only ones almost certain to confront federal officials. Except during and just after the Civil War, the federal government imposed no direct taxes on individuals until 1913; thereafter it only levied a small graduated income tax on the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. Only times of war and military service created extensive contact with a federal government that was much expanded in the emergency situation. Every other year national elections raised issues for debate and drew a high percentage of adult white males to the polls, but election results seldom produced changes discernible at the grass roots. The addition of women to the electorate in 1920 and the simultaneous implementation of national alcohol prohibition increased the awareness and reality of the federal presence, but otherwise the U.S. government remained distant from their lives as people struggled with depression conditions.

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