Share Our Wealth
Share Our Wealth was a movement that began in February 1934, during the Great Depression, by Huey Long, a governor and later United States Senator from Louisiana. Long, a left-wing populist, first proposed the plan in a national radio address, which is now referred to as the "Share Our Wealth Speech". To stimulate the economy, the Share Our Wealth program called for massive federal spending, a wealth tax, and wealth redistribution. These proposals drew wide support, with millions joining local Share Our Wealth clubs. Roosevelt adopted many of these proposals in the Second New Deal.
Long believed that the underlying cause of the Great Depression (which he called "Mr. Roosevelt's depression") was the growing disparity between the rich and everyone else. For most of his political career, he focused his speeches and efforts on the "little man", which refers to the rural poor. The Share Our Wealth program was going to become the capstone project for Long's populist agenda.
In March 1933, Long offered a series of bills collectively known as "the Long plan" for the redistribution of wealth. The first bill proposed a new progressive tax code designed to cap personal fortunes at $100 million (about $2 billion in 2021 dollars). Fortunes above $1 million ($20 million in 2021) would be taxed at 1 percent; fortunes above $2 million ($40 million in 2021) would be taxed at 2 percent, and so forth, up to a 100 percent tax on fortunes greater than $100 million. The second bill would limit annual income to $1 million ($20 million in 2021), and the third bill would cap individual inheritances at $5 million ($99 million in 2021).
In February 1934, Long introduced his "Share Our Wealth" plan over a nationwide radio broadcast. He proposed capping personal fortunes at $50 million and repeated his call to limit annual income to $1 million and inheritances to $5 million. (He also suggested reducing the cap on personal fortunes to $10 million–$15 million per individual, if necessary, and later lowered the cap to $5 million–$8 million in printed materials.) The resulting funds would be used to guarantee every family a basic household grant, or "household estate" as Long called it, of $5,000 and a minimum annual income of $2,000–3,000, or one-third of the average family homestead value and income. Long supplemented his plan with proposals for free college education, with admission based on an IQ test, and vocational training for all able students, veterans' benefits, federal assistance to farmers, public works projects, greater federal regulation of economic activity, a $30 monthly pension for those over the age of 65, a month's vacation for every worker, World War I veteran's adjusted Compensation certificates due in 1945 would be issued immediately, and limiting the work week to thirty hours to boost employment. He proposed a $10 billion land reclamation project to end the Dust Bowl. Long promised free medical service and what he called a "war on disease" led by the Mayo brothers. These reforms, Long claimed, would end the Great Depression.
Long's plans for the "Share Our Wealth" program attracted much criticism from economists at the time, who stated that Long's plans for redistributing wealth would not result in every American family receiving a grant of $5,000 per year, but rather $400/per year, and that his plans for confiscatory taxation would cap the average annual income at about $3,000. They argued that the confiscated fortunes would only yield $1.50 per each poor family. In 1934, Long held a public debate with Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party of America, on the merits of Share Our Wealth versus socialism.
With the Senate unwilling to support his proposals, in February 1934 Long formed a national political organization, the Share Our Wealth Society. A network of local clubs led by national organizer Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, the Share Our Wealth Society was intended to operate outside of and in opposition to the Democratic Party and the Roosevelt administration. By 1935, the society had over 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs across the country. Long's Senate office received an average of 60,000 letters a week, resulting in Long hiring 48 stenographers to type responses. Of the two trucks that delivered mail to the Senate, one was devoted solely to mail for Long. Long's newspaper, now renamed American Progress, averaged a circulation of 300,000, with some issues reaching over 1.5 million. Long's radical programs were very attractive to union-members; Teamsters president Daniel J. Tobin expressed his growing concerns to Roosevelt. Long drew international attention: writer H. G. Wells traveled across the Atlantic just to interview Long. Wells noted that Long was "like a Winston Churchill who has never been at Harrow. He abounds in promises."
Program mismanagement after Long's death
Any presidential ambitions which Long might have had were cut short when he was shot by an assassin on September 8, 1935, in Baton Rouge; he died two days later on September 10, 1935. Control of the Share Our Wealth Society fell to Gerald L. K. Smith, who was widely viewed as a political demagogue. Smith brought the Share Our Wealth Society into a brief coalition with the followers of radio priest Charles Coughlin and old-age pension advocate Francis Townsend in support of the short-lived Union Party, a third party effort which ran William Lemke of North Dakota for President in 1936, but under his leadership, the Share Our Wealth movement quickly fell apart.
Influence on the New Deal
Some historians believe that pressure from Long and his organization contributed to Roosevelt's "turn to the left" in the Second New Deal (1935), which consisted of the Social Security Act, the Works Progress Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, Aid to Dependent Children, and the Wealth Tax Act of 1935. Each tenet of the Second New Deal seemed to foil one of Long's corresponding proposals. For example, Roosevelt's National Youth Administration provided part-time employment to the country's youth, counteracting the appeal for Long's free college proposal. Roosevelt reportedly admitted in private to trying to "steal Long's thunder."
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