Franklin Roosevelt’s Early Experiences with the Poor

From an early age, Franklin Roosevelt was taught to help others. As a teenager, his mother encouraged him to join the Missionary Society at his boarding school. The society sponsored a summer camp for poor city children. Franklin taught campers to swim, canoe, and sail. He also heard prominent reformers of the time period speak at his school. They included Jacob Riis, who championed the cause of the poor, and Booker T. Washington who sought to help African-Americans improve their social status. Moved by the words of these men and others, Franklin wanted to contribute to their causes. Though he did not have money of his own, he wrote home for permission to donate to these reformers.

Even when he left for Harvard, Franklin still found time to serve the Missionary Society at his former school. Since he was older, he could teach classes to the children and oversee games at the St. Andrew’s Boys Club in Boston. At Harvard, he joined the Social Service Society. He was genuine in his desire to help the poor but he did not have much contact with them outside of classroom or camp settings. After meeting his future wife Eleanor, however, he would learn more about the daily life of the poor.

Eleanor taught dancing at a school for immigrant girls. Franklin came to pick her up after work and they helped one of Eleanor’s students return home at night. When he came out of the girl’s apartment, Franklin was appalled by the condition in which the girl lived. The hallway was greasy and unlit and the plumbing was bad. He said to Eleanor, “My God, I didn’t know anyone lived like that.” Eleanor thought Franklin’s visits to her school helped shape his career. She often asked him to pick her up at the school because “I wanted him to see how people lived…And it worked. He saw how people lived, and he never forgot.”

His early experiences with the poor made Franklin determined to help people who lost their jobs during the Great Depression. As president, he helped the unemployed find work by creating a variety of government programs. For example, the Works Progress Administration put people to work building roads, bridges, airports, schools, and other buildings. Although the programs could not employ everyone who needed a job, they had a positive impact on millions of jobless Americans.   

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