Even though the members of the President's conference endorsed only a limited federal intervention, Washington's heightened involvement did seem to make a difference.

More cities undertook emergency campaigns in the early 1920s than ever before, doubtless in part due to federal prodding. By one count, over two hundred cities mobilized to help the jobless. The sale of municipal bonds shattered all previous records in the wake of the President's conference, an indication that cities were piling up debt to fund public works projects as never before.

In addition, a wide array of cities came up with makeshift tasks to get the jobless back to work.

Fort Smith, Arkansas established a rock-pile "where men break big stones into little ones, to be mixed with cement and sand to improve local streets." In Fort Dodge, Iowa, the unemployed were put to work in abandoned coalmines to earn wages and bring down the local price of coal.

Salt Lake City gave the unemployed lodging and meal tickets in exchange for chopping decrepit railroad ties and light poles into kindling that the city could sell. In Pittsfield, Massachusetts a "flying shovel squadron" comprised of otherwise jobless men rushed to clear off snow-covered sidewalks whenever they were called.

Hoover eventually claimed that the emergency campaigns of 1921 had helped over a million Americans. There is no concrete evidence to back up this claim. What is easier to glean, however, is that a number of American leaders, including Hoover, deemed the 1921 fight against unemployment a success.

The experience convinced him that a combination of small-scale stimulus spending, federal cheerleading, and state, local, and private action could effectively address mass unemployment.

When unemployment spread again in the early years of his own presidency, Hoover followed a similar approach to the one he had advocated in the early 1920s. The results were not only disastrous for millions of unemployed Americans, but also ushered in a major watershed in the long history of America's struggle against mass unemployment: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

The New Deal and the Regularization of Unemployment Relief

The Great Depression brought the end of America's long tradition of relying on emergency, community-based campaigns to ameliorate widespread unemployment. After the depression hit, most local governments ran out of money relatively quickly and state governments struggled to fill the breach.

Until the final years of his presidency, Hoover resisted the creation of large-scale, federal programs to aid the unemployed. Instead, for most of his tenure, he pushed a series of highway bills, much like the one he convinced Congress to pass in 1921, along with a handful of other, relatively small-scale federal public works projects.

He especially used the Presidency as a bully pulpit to urge mayors, governors, and private organizations to take action. With state and local governments as well as private charities largely tapped out, Hoover's reluctance to embrace more aggressive federal programs left millions of Americans without meaningful aid.

In the final year of his presidency, Hoover expanded federal initiatives, particularly by creating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). The RFC was in part designed to lend money to state and local governments to help them finance public works projects. In the face of nationwide misery, however, the program proved to be too little, too late. In 1932, Hoover lost all but six states in his re-election bid.

Hoover's successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was far more willing to create federal programs to help the unemployed. During his first term in office, Roosevelt famously created an "alphabet soup" of agencies to pull the nation out of the Great Depression.

A number of these new agencies were geared directly toward helping the jobless. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and, most famously, the Works Projects Administration all used federal dollars to put unemployed Americans to work, whether clearing brush, building roads, schools and bridges, or even transcribing the life stories of ex-slaves in the rural South.

It is crucial to underscore, however, that Franklin Roosevelt envisioned most of these programs as temporary measures. Much like Hoover, Roosevelt feared that an endless supply of public jobs would make Americans overly dependent on government largesse. He hoped to get Washington out of most aspects of unemployment relief as soon as possible.

In 1937, when economic recovery appeared on the horizon, Roosevelt moved quickly to cut a number of the federal government's unemployment programs. This sharp reduction in government spending sent the economy crashing again, creating the "depression within the depression." The return of economic hard times, in turn, spurred Roosevelt to call for the resurrection of many of the programs he had just gutted.

Roosevelt did not want the federal government to remain the nation's employer of last resort. Still, he favored the creation of a permanent program to provide temporary assistance to Americans who lost their jobs.

In 1935, at the urging of the Roosevelt administration, Congress passed the Social Security Act. Among its many provisions, the act created the nation's first system of unemployment insurance.

Funded by state and federal taxes on employers, the system was designed to provide a short-term salary replacement for unemployed Americans. Much more than his alphabet soup of federal agencies, the creation of a permanent system of unemployment insurance comprised Roosevelt's most lasting contribution to the history of unemployment relief.

The new government unemployment program recognized periodic downturns in the economy for what they were—inevitable—and created a regularized system to cope with the intermittent waves of unemployment that had proven inherent to a modern, industrialized economy.

By the end of World War II, the United States had traded in one policy tradition for another. It abandoned emergency, local campaigns on behalf of the unemployed and instead embraced the systematic use of government-sponsored unemployment insurance. With a few exceptions, the United States has addressed mass unemployment in much the same way ever since.

Additionally, during the Great Depression and later during World War II, American policymakers learned an important lesson: that government spending could serve as a powerful antidote to flailing private markets.

Hoover had begun toying with stimulus spending in the early 1920s. But the Roosevelt administration's experience in 1937—when slashing government programs had caused an economic tailspin—and during World War II—when a flurry of government spending finally pulled the nation out of the Great Depression—convinced generations of Americans that stimulus spending could act as a powerful economic stabilizer.

Throughout most of its history, the United States had used employment on public works projects as a way of directly helping the unemployed during especially hard times. After World War II, however, pursuing public works projects took on a slightly different role: as a macroeconomic strategy for jumpstarting a stalled economy.

Unemployment Relief since World War II: A Trans-Partisan Policy Lives On

The end of the Second World War ushered in a moment of unprecedented prosperity for the United States. The war left the economies of Europe and Japan in tatters. By the 1950s, the United States was producing over fifty percent of the manufactured goods in the world at a time when the American people comprised merely six percent of the global population.

Moreover, the federal government regularly pumped huge sums of money into the economy to fund large-scale public works projects like the construction of the federal highway system and the enormous military build-up that accompanied the Cold War. Thriving private markets and high levels of public spending helped keep unemployment low for over two decades.

Still, unemployment levels continued to fluctuate from time to time. For the most part, the federal government found a straightforward method for addressing these blips: temporarily extending the maximum length of time that out-of-work Americans could receive benefits from the country's new unemployment insurance program. Congress first extended unemployment benefits in 1958 and did so again in 1961.

By the end of the 1960s, both inflation and unemployment were on the rise. The postwar economic boom was beginning to trail off. As periodic economic troughs once again became a normal feature of American life, the federal government largely pursued a similar course. Congress authorized a series of extensions of unemployment benefits throughout the 1970s and has done so with stunning regularity ever since.

Even Ronald Reagan championed such extensions during the deep recession that plagued his early years in office.

Reagan is usually remembered for his opposition to most forms of government spending. At the time, he was one of many public figures who blamed federal expenditures for causing a number of the nation's woes, including an inflationary spiral that dragged down the American economy in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This line of thinking led Reagan and others to oppose large-scale stimulus spending as a macroeconomic remedy. Instead, policymakers, chief among them Paul Volcker, the head of the Federal Reserve, called for a dramatic increase in federal interest rates in order to curb inflation. As Volcker hiked up the price of borrowing, the economy dipped into a recession and unemployment levels rose. By November 1982, the national unemployment rate had climbed to nearly 11 percent.

As joblessness surged, Reagan embraced, rather than denounced, government action. In his State of the Union Address in January 1983, Reagan proposed the extension of unemployment benefits as well as offering "special incentives to employers who hire the long-term unemployed, providing programs for displaced workers, and helping federally funded and state-administered unemployment insurance programs provide workers with training and relocation assistance."

In fact, every Republican President to serve since World War II presided over an extension of federal unemployment benefits, belying the notion that offering government aid to the unemployed is a step on the road to socialism. Dwight Eisenhower was the first to authorize an extension. In 1970, when Richard Nixon did so, he cited the imperative "to provide security, equity, and dignity" to American workers throughout their lives.

In the face of yet another recession, George H.W. Bush cited the need to provide "critical support to the unemployed" and signed a law that temporarily doubled the amount of time that they could receive government payments.

The second President Bush extended general unemployment benefits four times during his years in office. When the economy sagged after the September 11 attacks, Bush II signed a bill that temporarily increased the number of weeks that the unemployed could receive benefits from thirteen to thirty-nine. Every single Republican in the House of Representatives voted for the measure. All but one did so in the Senate.

In 2003, Bush passed a similar extension, this time with unanimous Republican support in the Senate and only a handful of Republican detractors in the House. In 2008, as the current economic crisis took hold, Republicans – with Bush's approval – voted in large numbers to fund benefit extensions on two more occasions.

As these examples suggest, throughout U.S. history, pursuing government-backed unemployment relief has tended to transcend partisan lines.

The Democrat Woodrow Wilson called for state, local and federal aid to the unemployed just after World War I and so did his successor, Republican Warren G. Harding.

Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt differed sharply on many fronts. Hoover primarily favored state and local initiatives to help the unemployed while Roosevelt was willing to let the federal government step in. Nonetheless, both men agreed – like generations of Americans before them—that unemployed Americans deserved some form of government assistance.

Opponents of the Obama administration have taken to calling his response to the current economic crisis "radical." At least in the case of stimulus spending and especially providing aid to the unemployed, they are wrong.

Instead, the Obama administration has merely extended the nation's remarkably long history of government-sponsored unemployment relief as well as its well-established albeit shorter history of using government spending to resurrect the economy.

Real radicalism would be to abandon these traditions and instead leave ailing private markets to nurse themselves back to health while jobless Americans needlessly suffer without government aid.

Check out a lesson plan based on this article: America and Unemployment