Civil Works Administration (CWA)

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The Civil Works Administration (CWA), created in the fall of 1933 and disbanded the following spring, was the first, public employment experiment of the New Deal. At its peak in January of 1934, CWA employed approximately four million workers. The program initiated many projects that later were absorbed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935 to 1941). Perhaps most importantly, CWA took several million relief recipients off of the federal "dole" and gave them employment and regular wages.

The CWA reflected the values of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his relief administrator Harry Hopkins, both of whom favored employment over direct relief. Both feared that the federal relief program (FERA) would institutionalize a permanent national "dole." During the summer of 1933, the New Deal had reduced the federal relief caseload significantly and forced some states to finance a larger share of the relief burden. But both the caseload and federal expenditures threatened to rise again during the coming winter. In late October, Hopkins's assistant Aubrey Williams prevailed on Hopkins to propose a dramatic expansion of public employment. The program would take large numbers of "employable" recipients off the relief rolls and also employ several million unemployed workers who were not on relief. The program would be financed by the large unexpended balances of the New Deal's slow-moving public works program, the PWA. Hopkins presented the plan to Roosevelt on October 29. The president stunned Hopkins by immediately accepting the extraordinary proposal. The CWA was one of the most dramatic policy experiments of the New Deal era. Between November 1, when the program was announced, and December 15, approximately three and a half million workers were placed on hastily constructed federal projects. In mid-November, a large portion of federal resources was devoted entirely to issuing the first CWA paychecks. Although civil works drew on the staff and resources of the federal relief program, state Civil Works administrations hired engineers, efficiency experts, and professionals in the field of labor relations, making the program much more like public employment than work relief. Workers were paid regular wages and were not supervised by social workers.

During its brief lifetime CWA workers built approximately 500,000 miles of roads and worked on thousands of schools, airports, and playgrounds. Reflecting a gendered division of labor, CWA employed women in primitive workshops, sewing garments for the unemployed. Although civil works absorbed many projects from work relief programs established earlier in the Depression, a key goal of CWA was to move beyond traditional "made work" to projects of permanent value. The program's pioneering "Civil Works Service" program for "white collar" professionals produced surveys of coastlines, harbors, and public buildings. The CWA employed artists, musicians, and actors on projects that were precursors to the more well known WPA arts projects.

The CWA was enormously popular. Hopkins later estimated that approximately ten million workers "walked up to a window and stood in line, many of them all night, asking for a [CWA] job." The program also generated significant support in Congress for a permanent federal employment program. But the growing political support for CWA alarmed may New Deal officials, who feared that public employment would become an expensive "habit" and create a permanent drain on the federal treasury. Fiscal conservatives within the New Deal, led by Bureau of the Budget Director Lewis Douglas, successfully lobbied Roosevelt to discontinue the program in the early spring of 1934.

The mercurial history of CWA once led historians to view the program as a noble but haphazard experiment, plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Recent research, however, has suggested that projects were relatively well run, free of graft, and represented a significant improvement over traditional "made work." Perhaps most important, the CWA experiment greatly increased support for public employment, creating pressure both within the New Deal and in Congress for the administration to end the general relief grant program and launch the WPA in 1935.



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Charles, Searle F. Minister of Relief: Harry Hopkins and the Depression. 1963.

McJimsey, George. Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy. 1987.

Schwartz, Bonnie Fox. The Civil Works Administration: The Business of Emergency Employment in the New Deal. 1984.

Salmond, John. Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Williams. 1983.

Singleton, Jeff. The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression. 2000.

Walker, Forrest. The Civil Works Administration: An Experiment in Federal Work Relief, 1933–1934. 1979.

Jeff Singleton

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Civil Works Administration (CWA)

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