During the years of the New Deal, its critics used the term "boondoggle" to refer to various work relief programs that fell under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency created in 1935 and run by Roosevelt's federal relief administrator, Harry Hopkins. The word implied a politically motivated, trivial, wasteful, or impractical government project funded to gain political favor.
The word originally meant a braided cord worn by Boy Scouts as a neckerchief or ornament, that is, a handmade article of simple utility and practical use. It may have been used earlier to refer to a device rigged by Daniel Boone to carry his equipment across rivers so that his hands would be free to swim. Thus, the term can be used to refer to anything people created for themselves to help them work more easily and effectively.
During the 1930s, however, boondoggle became a politically charged word expressing disdain for government programs that provided various types of work for the unemployed during the Great Depression. Hopkins's WPA work relief programs were especially vulnerable to criticism as "make-work," especially those that had to do with the arts. Although most WPA projects consisted of building or repairing roads and public buildings, parks, hospitals, and highways, one of its components, the Federal Arts Project (known as Federal One), paid thousands of unemployed artists, musicians, actors, and writers for working at their craft.
Artists suffered inordinately during the Great Depression because the market for art works virtually disappeared. In desperation, some artists would barter their work for food and rent while others tried selling on the street. The hard fact that the unemployment rate for artists was even greater than for the general population led the government to create jobs for them. When critics accused Hopkins of giving boondoggling jobs to people committed to the creative impulse, he defended Federal One as a way to keep the talents of millions of Americans alive. Art patronage, in Hopkins's opinion, was healthy and defined the artists' relationship to their society as an ultimately useful one. Government patronage made art accessible to the public and insured that the artist would have a creative role in American society that would be democratizing and culturally enriching for the entire nation.
Hopkins, Harry L. "Boondoggling: It Is a Social Asset." The Christian Science Monitor (August 19, 1936): 4, 14.
Hopkins, June. Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer. 1999.
McJimsey, George. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor, Defender of Democracy. 1987.