This month we welcome June Hopkins, PhD, who is a recently elected Member of the National Academy of Social Insurance. Dr. Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and one of the architects of the New Deal. She is currently working with four fellow descendants of giant figures in the history of U.S. social insurance — James Roosevelt, Jr. (also an Academy Member), Henry Scott Wallace, Harold M. Ickes, and Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall — on the 21st Century New Deal. She shares what this illustrious working group is doing.
Q: In an Open Letter to Joe Biden, then a presidential candidate, the five of you urged Biden to be “even more ambitious than FDR” and to lead a government unquestionably on the side of the American people. Do you think his administration is listening?
Hopkins: We haven’t gotten a response from Biden yet (laughs) if that’s what you mean, even when a letter has a name like Roosevelt as a signer. But we’re getting hints that we are being heard. For instance, Biden is talking about a reimagined CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression) that would become a Civilian Climate Corps today, working on infrastructure, dams, water, and more. The CCC could also address access to broadband, which is another part of our infrastructure. Access is a problem in many areas. How are children supposed to do online learning if they can’t connect to the Internet?
Q: Why look back to FDR and the New Deal?
Hopkins: As a group with deep roots in social insurance, we wanted to look at the New Deal because the situation was not too dissimilar to what is happening now. We wanted to analyze what the New Deal did and what it didn’t do, and fill in the gaps. Things cannot remain the same in U.S. policy. Transformation is going to be an important part of dealing with the problems we face.
We have to be bold. It is the government’s obligation to do something at a time like this. The Constitution says that the government has the responsibility for the welfare of all of its citizens. It has to look after that welfare in many ways. The idea of a “working poor” is anathema to our values. Workers deserve a higher federal minimum wage, significant tax relief, paid leave, and affordable child care.
Q: What is the focus of your working group?
We meet virtually every week from all parts of country and we discuss policy and policy recommendations. Right now our focus has been on supporting the Jobs for Economic Recovery bill that’s on the floor in Congress. We are urging the Biden administration to provide government supported jobs for people who can’t find jobs in private industry. It doesn’t all have to be done in the first 100 days. He can set an agenda and start with small steps, to show that the government can do these kinds of things and then build on them. We think taking those steps will help restore confidence in our society’s core value that government is the servant of the people.
Q: Is there a golden lining to all of the problems we have to face?
We’re going to have to adjust to a new normal. A lot of the jobs lost during the pandemic will no longer be available. Even in good times, private industry cannot employ everyone who wants a job. A recent Gallup poll asked people—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—if they would support a federal jobs program for the unemployed. Ninety percent said yes. Because of what’s happening now it’s important to get something going and there seems to be bipartisan support.
Sending money out to folks is great to address the immediate need. But that money could be used to hire people. It’s more expensive to create jobs, but you get so much more back—in the form of work being done, products being made, and people’s spirit being lifted. That’s something you have to add to the equation as well.
More About June Hopkins, PhD
June Hopkins is a history professor emerita of Armstrong Atlantic State University (now Georgia Southern University) where she taught history from 1998 to 2016. She currently teaches in the extension program at West Washington University.
She has written two books about her grandfather, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (1999), and Jewish First Wife, Divorced: The Selected Letters and Papers of Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins, co-edited with Allison Giffen (2003). She is now working on a history of World War II and the relationship between Winston Churchill and Harry Hopkins.
Dr. Hopkins received her PhD from Georgetown University in 1997. She became a Member of the Academy in 2020.