Employment 1929-1941

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Employment 1929-1941

Issue Summary
Contributing Forces
Notable People
Primary Sources
Suggested Research Topics
See Also


In the months following the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression swept across the industrialized world like a plague, out of nowhere and taking many down with it. Its most obvious characteristic was unemployment on a scale never before experienced. The other symptoms of the Depression were: massive decline of the value of money, the dramatic shrinking of demand for products, the continued slump in agriculture, the sudden collapse of the banking system, and the eventual decline in industrial production. These were all very baffling events to people trying to understand how the Depression occurred and what to do about it. But the greatest tragedy was the enormous unemployment and the resulting poverty that soon followed.

The level of unemployment was so great that it was difficult, if not impossible, to estimate, no reliable statistics being available. For the month of March 1933, when the Depression was near its worst, Robert Nathan, an economist in the Commerce Department, estimated that 15,071,000 people were unemployed. The American Federation of Labor, the nation's oldest national labor union, estimated that the number was higher at 15,586,000. In actuality both of these estimates were probably low. In 1936 the Bureau of Labor statistics determined that 1933 was the worst year and March of that year the worst month for joblessness in the history of the United States. It was estimated that 29.2 percent, close to a third of the labor force, was out of work. Nearly one out of five children was malnourished and families in the rural South and Midwest were quickly abandoning their farms. In several mountain communities in Appalachia, it was reported that entire families were reduced to eating dandelions and blackberries for their basic diet.

The great paradox of the Depression during the early 1930s was that the 1920s had been a decade of unprecedented prosperity. How had this reversal come about? There were many theories cast about but in 1933 nobody really knew for certain what had caused the economic downturn. The only thing people desperately came to believe was that something had to be done to put an end to it. This sentiment drove President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (served 1933–1945) administration to experiment until solutions that worked were found, even if progress was measured only step-by-step and even if the approach to fighting the Depression required new ways of thinking. This was especially important for Americans to hear. When Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," people understood it to mean that the worst enemy was inaction "—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." The new President called for "action and action now" and above all else, this meant finding bold new ways to put people back to work.

Issue Summary

Unemployment Arrives

With the collapse of the stock market in October 1929, panic about the stock market's economic soundness led to immediate concern about the nation's economic health, and the resulting effect on income and employment. While only a small number of Americans were directly affected by the crash at first, it was an event of momentous significance in the minds of most people old enough to understand what had happened. Symbolically it appeared to herald the dramatic end of the commercial optimism that characterized the "roaring twenties" and for a long time thereafter the end of prosperity for the vast majority of Americans. The collapse of the stock market was also a point of reference for those who lived through this traumatic time. There was life before the Great Crash and then there was what followed. Even for those Americans who did not have money invested in the stock market, the event was a profound emotional turning point. But it also became a material turning point as well. In the wake of the crash the worst fears of Wall Street, which had tried to play down the crash in the hope of revitalizing confidence, were realized. Unemployment rapidly followed. Within five months unemployment more than doubled from 1.5 million in October 1929 to at least 3.2 million in March 1930.


March 5, 1933:
President Franklin Roosevelt upon taking office issues Proclamation No. 2038 convening Congress into Emergency Session.
March 31, 1933:
Congress passes the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Act.
April 5, 1933:
President Roosevelt signs Executive Order No. 6101 creating the Civilian Conservation Corps.
May 12, 1933:
Congress passes the Federal Emergency Relief Act.
July 8, 1933:
Executive Order No. 6198 names Harold L. Ickes Federal Emergency Administrator of Public Works.
November 9, 1933:
Executive Order No. 6420B establishes the Civil Works Administration.
February 15, 1934:
Roosevelt orders the dismantling of the Civil Works Administration.
May 6, 1935:
Executive Order No. 7034 establishes the Works Progress Administration.
June 26, 1935:
Executive Order No. 7086 establishes the National Youth Administration.

President Herbert Hoover (served 1929–1933) insisted the unemployment was only a temporary situation that would right itself soon and confidently predicted on March 7, 1930, that the worst effects of the crash on unemployment would pass within 60 days. Hoover firmly believed that charities and private organizations could provide sufficient relief during the so-called temporary downturn. Yet employment only declined further. Early in the next year it had become obvious to anyone who witnessed the literal hundreds of people standing in bread lines and soup kitchens that the country was experiencing something much more than a mere setback. By the following winter it was generally recognized that the country was in the midst of a very deep depression.

The cold winter of 1932–1933 was particularly difficult in the large cities of the Northeast and Midwest. By this time, not only was much of the labor force unemployed, thousands were now homeless and had to endure the frozen temperatures as best they could on the street, many not surviving. In Chicago judges started refusing to evict families who could not make their monthly mortgage payments and the state legislature decided that banks could not repossess property. In a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Justices held that the state of Illinois could allow judges to do this because it was a national emergency.

Some unemployed workers in large cities began forming loosely organized neighborhood councils that would negotiate food relief from state agencies and work to prevent cuts in relief. Members of these councils blocked sheriffs and police carrying eviction notices from entering into apartments, returned the furniture of evicted families back into their apartments, and packed courts to pressure judges to stop evictions. Some councils attempted to set up a barter system with local farmers so that work, such as the transportation of produce to markets, could be paid directly with food. Many unemployed councils eventually merged with the nationally organized Socialist Worker's Alliance. Although the councils never attracted more than a minority of the jobless, they did teach the skills necessary to organize as a political weapon. Many of those who later organized trade unions came directly out of the unemployed councils.

Despite the growing effort of the unemployed to organize, the relief systems already in place were woefully inadequate. By 1932 with unemployment rates exceeding 25 percent and business failures and home foreclosures increasing, communities of the homeless and unemployed formed. Tens of thousands of Americans were living in makeshift shacks of cardboard and scrap metal in empty lots, city parks and garbage dumps. Most of these communities consisted of hundreds of families living in conditions of squalor. In New York City, hundreds of people lived along the Hudson River between 72nd St. and 110th St. In Seattle a complex of shacks made from scrap wood and sheet metal arose in empty parking lots and train yards. In California groups of migrant farmers banded together as they lived out of their parked cars. The largest of these communities was in St. Louis where more than a thousand people lived in ramshackle housing. All of these large communities of the homeless were soon commonly referred to as "Hoovervilles," implying that President Hoover and the Republicans had been responsible for the economic downturn. The

Unemployment, 1933-1945
YearUnemployed, in millions
193313 million

word itself came to represent the poverty and suffering wrought by the Great Depression.

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)

Recognizing that private and local relief efforts had been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the Depression, the federal government launched an ambitious program to grant money directly to states for unemployment relief. In July 1932, during the last months of the Hoover administration, congressional democrats had authorized an already existing agency, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), to loan $300 million at three percent interest to states and counties specifically for relief payment to the unemployed.

By the time Roosevelt took office, the $300 million had already been exhausted. It seemed to have made only a dent in helping the more than 15 million people out of work. Prominent progressive Senators and leading social workers throughout the country joined with the new administration in pushing Congress to approve a new national relief system. As a result Congress passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act on May 12, 1933, creating the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).Unlike the RFC that guaranteed and financed low interest loans, the FERA was authorized to spend $500 million in direct grants that were not to be repaid.

Cash payments were given directly to city and state work relief projects. This was an enormous change in the relationship of the federal government to the states. In fact the Hoover administration was

Federal Deficit, 1933-1945
YearFederal Deficit, in billions
1933$2 billion

unwilling even to consider giving money directly to the states. Hoover argued in a campaign speech in Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1932, that such a program would give too much central power to the federal government and undermine American individualism and voluntary cooperation. He even suggested that the proposed New Deal was "un-American" and based on the "same philosophy of government that poisoned all of Europe" (from William S. Myers, ed. The State Papers and Other Public Writings of Herbert Hoover, 1934, Vol. II, pp. 498–413). Such arguments were frequently tossed about during the presidential campaign of 1932. Even when Congress was debating whether to pass the Emergency Relief Act, conservative members of the Senate argued that it would be the end of the Republic for it would heavily centralize government power in the federal government.

In fact the model for the FERA was not based on any system practiced in Europe, but instead on an experiment that had already been underway in New York. As governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been a believer in local responsibility for relief. Each city and town should take care of their own. In the face of mass joblessness afflicting his state, however, he changed his position. Governor Roosevelt called the state legislature in Albany into special session on August 28, 1931 (reprinted in Franklin Roosevelt. Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, p. 788.) He told them,

One of the duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstances as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence with the aid of others…To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.

The New York legislature responded positively and Roosevelt created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Prior to the New Deal, this effort became the nation's largest relief program. The administrator whom the governor appointed to run the program was a social worker by the name of Harry Hopkins. Once Roosevelt became president, he appointed Hopkins, who had now been running the relief programs in New York for over a year, to be the director of the newly created FERA. A fascinating personality, Hopkins not only had experience, but also tremendous ability. With little doubt Hopkins became one of the greatest administrators ever to serve the United States.

Harry Hopkins could be both compassionate and tough. He had an exceptional capacity to understand the politics of unemployment relief and strip complex problems to their essential elements. He enjoyed nothing more than learning the intricate details of how a bureaucracy worked, whether it was a relief agency or a state government, quickly grasping the problem and then cutting through the red tape. It was jokingly said that he could smell corruption from a mile away. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once told Hopkins that he wanted to put him in the British House of Lords and entitle him "Lord Root of the Matter." But the truth is Hopkins was painstaking in keeping track of FERA funds allocated to different state agencies; when a discrepancy was found, he investigated immediately.

FERA was divided into four divisions. The Works Division tackled federal work projects such as building hospitals, roads, and bridges, and helped states that had already begun such projects. There was a division that handled relations with the states and a division that did research, collected information, and handled the finances. Lastly the Division of Rural Rehabilitation helped desperate farm families move to better land so they could rebuild their farms on more fertile soil. One of the strengths of FERA was the competence of the administrators who ran it. Hopkins appointed people of great ability and he commanded enormous loyalty from his staff. FERA administrators working under Hopkins constantly analyzed their own policies as to their effectiveness. When program deficiencies were found, they were often quickly restructured. When a new relief problem was discovered, such as the previously unimagined levels of poverty among sharecroppers in the Arkansas delta, administrators sought ways to tackle the problem with speed and flexibility. Ideas for programs came from every possible source, for example, one day a tramp walked in off the street to sell the idea of hiring cartographers (mapmakers) to survey sunken ships in and around the coast. An assistant director liked the idea and a new project was born. It turned out that the tramp was a highly competent ship designer who had not received a commission since 1929.

The primary job of FERA was giving matching grants to states. For every $3.00 that a state was able to set aside for relief, FERA would "match" that amount with $1.00. This matching system offered two important advantages. First it encouraged states to establish and operate relief agencies rather than take the federal money and spend it on short-term projects. States had to make considerable investments both in terms of money and personnel. Therefore they would be especially careful in monitoring relief agencies to make sure they were operating free of graft or corruption. The second advantage was that the matching

Unemployment Rates of Women in Select Cities,January 1931
Percent ofPercent of
CityWhite WomenBlack Women
Chicago, Illinois20%58%
Cleveland, Ohio1855
Detroit, Michigan1975
Houston, Texas1446
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania1751
St. Louis, Missouri1648

grant system encouraged both states and the federal government to raise more money overall. State officials knew that for every $3.00 they raised, it would be worth $4.00 once the amount was matched. Congress knew that for every $1.00 it was allocating, the states would throw in another $3.00. In theory it was an effective way to get both the states and the federal government to spend money on relief. But there was also the practical concern of simply having too little time to create an enormous federal bureaucracy to administer FERA grants across the country. It seemed it was much faster to use existing state agencies, at least initially.

Unfortunately Hopkins encountered a great deal of resistance from state legislatures who did not want to spend money on relief. Sometimes legislatures were not in session or were hampered by constitutional restrictions. States like Virginia and North Carolina refused to jeopardize their balanced budgets to spend money on relief. Some states even showed outright hostility, often reflecting traditional attitudes toward the poor. Georgia did not furnish its relief administrators with office space. Idaho's Governor C. Ben Ross prided himself on his ability to keep state spending at a minimum while still reaping the benefits of federal grants. In Oregon complete opposition existed to the very idea of relief itself. Oregon Governor Charles H. Martin, elected in 1934, believed that no able-bodied person should receive relief. He privately confided that the needy aged and feeble-minded should be chloroformed. The only threat Hopkins had at his disposal was to cut off funds to the uncooperative states, but both FERA administrators and local politicians knew that those who would really suffer would be the poor.

Tremendous variations also existed in the competence of relief administration at the local level. In places like New York, relief administrators could capitalize on the experience of social workers that had worked at the state government's Temporary Emergency Relief Agency, as well as the many private organizations that did charitable work. But in many Southern states it was another story. South Carolina and Mississippi had inadequately supervised and untrained personnel and poor salaries. The absence of social workers in Mississippi required that county relief directors would have to come in from out of state, which local politicians had no desire to tolerate. In addition there was often male opposition to female social workers in the more traditional areas of the South.

A significant drawback of the relief system to individuals was that relief recipients were given food coupons rather than money to purchase food. Often recipients felt the stigma of being treated as "charity cases." Some states even required that recipients of relief demonstrate their need through a "means test," a series of questions involving a person's residential, employment, and financial history that determined whether or not they were needy enough to warrant aid. Answering these types of personal, private questions to prove how poor one was could be very humiliating. In the South racial discrimination was near universal. Black Americans found it particularly difficult to get on the relief rolls and when they did get on they received less money than whites. Southern cities usually paid whites twice as much and in some rural "black-belt" counties, black American relief payments were as little as 30 percent of the payments in other areas. Hopkins fumed at the injustice but found he could do very little until the federal government had more direct control of relief.

Sometimes battles with local politicians became quite heated. In Ohio, Governor Martin L. Davy rewarded his numerous supporters with jobs in the Ohio Emergency Relief Administration. As it turned out, many of these supporters demanded kickback payments and were skimming money off the top of contracts with local businesses. Hopkins ordered a thorough investigation and uncovered conclusive evidence of corruption. He quickly ordered that relief operations in Ohio be "federalized," no longer under state control but rather direct control of FERA. When Hopkins threw out Governor Davy's men, the Governor retaliated by threatening to have him jailed when he visited Cleveland. But Hopkins was not deterred and came to Cleveland anyway and Davy backed down. He was not about to carry out this threat against the most trusted advisor of the President of the United States.

Both Roosevelt and Hopkins concluded that the FERA needed to move into work-relief, rather than direct relief. Work-relief, Hopkins believed, would provide proper jobs for the unemployed and reassure hostile conservatives in Congress that FERA relief payments were not subsidizing idleness. From a personal standpoint, Hopkins had been appalled at the unkind treatment the unemployed were receiving in many relief agencies. In addition it had become clear that any new relief plan could not depend on the unpredictable responses of state and local agencies. What was needed, Hopkins had concluded, was a relief organization that operated directly as a federal program. The timing at which this conclusion, that the federal government needed to commit itself to administering work-relief, could not have been more appropriate, because a potentially alarming crisis was looming on the horizon.

Civil Works Administration (CWA)

At first FERA planners had assumed that recovery measures would work quickly. Relief appropriations were made only two months at a time under the assumption that it would only be a matter of months before federal emergency relief would no longer be needed. But by October 1933 it became apparent that recovery was not taking place as quickly as originally hoped. Meanwhile FERA was rapidly running out of funds while millions were still unemployed. This was of tremendous concern, because winter was approaching. The memory of hardship experienced the previous winter left a vivid impression on the American psyche and the prospect of another such catastrophe was extremely frightening. Hopkins and his staff moved quickly to persuade Roosevelt to secure another $400 million for a work relief program. On November 9, 1933, Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Civil Works Administration and appointed Hopkins to be its director. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) was launched with unprecedented speed, literally overnight the majority of state relief administrators became federal employees of the CWA. By mid-January, only two months later, the CWA employed 4,200,000 workers who received minimum wages for projects being developed all over the country.

The CWA was entirely a federal program. Its staff dispensed checks from the federal government and hired workers directly from the ranks of the unemployed. To Hopkins' immense satisfaction, there were no longer relief rolls or means tests. The program undertook nearly 180,000 projects, which were collectively referred to as public works. Five hundred thousand miles of secondary roads were built, forty thousand schoolhouses were either built or improved, thousands of playgrounds were constructed, nearly five hundred new airports were built, and hundreds of community swimming pools, parks, and waterways were established.

Although more than 90 percent of the projects involved construction and repair of public buildings, the CWA also hired scholars, artists, engineers, and teachers. Hopkins sought to utilize the skill and talent of more than manual labor. "We are not," Hopkins asserted, "going to permit CWA funds to be used for garbage collection or for cleaning of streets or for snow removal" (Schwartz, Bonnie F. The Civil Works Administration, 1933–1934: The Business of Emergency Employment, 1984, p. 45). In the Southwest CWA engineers helped farmers find methods to combat the drought that worsened agricultural conditions in the "dust bowl." Archeologists were hired to study and excavate prehistoric mounds of American Indian cultures, three thousand artists were hired to paint murals on public buildings, and forty thousand teachers were hired to teach adult illiterates. Surveys were made of harbors and historic sites, musicians organized two symphony orchestras in New York and Buffalo under the auspices of the CWA, and opera singers were sent on a tour of communities in the Ozark Mountains, most of whose audiences had never heard a recording, let alone a live performance, of classical music.

As an administrative feat, the organization of the CWA was nothing short of remarkable. Indeed nothing comparable in terms of mobilization of resources and personnel had ever been attempted in so short a time. Even the army was impressed by the magnitude of the operation and assigned a Corps of Engineers officer to determine exactly how the CWA had accomplished so much in so little time. The report of Lieutenant Colonel John C.H. Lee gave much credit to the ability of Hopkins and the able assistants he assembled and inspired. They worked tirelessly under him, he noted, and they mobilized as if reacting to a war emergency.

For the federal government to employ such a large workforce was an enormous managerial task that often required technical expertise, which was lacking among state agencies and local relief efforts. Therefore, engineers and business executives were brought in to supervise and plan projects. Contracts for supplies were made directly between the CWA and the supplier, much to the chagrin of many local politicians. As a result the CWA was markedly free of corruption. In addition the generous wage rates were unique among the New Deal relief programs. CWA workers received wages that were related to the type of work they performed and were not necessarily based on need. Whereas the FERA made average weekly relief payments of $4.25 a week, the CWA paid an average weekly wage of $15.04 per person, comparable to wages paid in private industry.

Political Worries Over High Wage Rate Inevitably the high wage rate created some political anxieties. First there was concern about the budget. It became clear to Hopkins that the initial $400 million allotment would be exhausted by February if more funds were not forthcoming. When Hopkins approached Roosevelt for more money in early January, he was told that no more funds were available. Roosevelt would have had to siphon money from funds allocated to other agencies. Fortunately Congress stepped in and earmarked expenditures for the CWA, enough to keep the program running. However Hopkins was forced to lower wages and rotate workers in order to stretch out what little resources he had remaining. Administrators in the CWA were forced to the realization that the amount of funding necessary to keep the CWA in operation for anything more than a short-term relief period was never fully contemplated by either Congress or the administration.

The other significant political problem created by the wage rates of the CWA was that in some regions of the country the hourly rates were higher than local wages. The social impact of this fact should not be underestimated. Hopkins had no reliable statistics with which to compare wages in different parts of the country. Administrators in the FERA were a little suspicious since most of the complaints came from Southern farmers and industrialists. So Hopkins sent Lorena Hickok, his special field representative, to investigate. What she discovered, upon comparing hourly wages paid to textile workers in the Carolinas, was that CWA wages were higher. Poor sharecroppers now had an alternative source of income. As a result many were able to escape the financial domination of local landlords. Hickok became quite cynical at what she observed and attributed most of the opposition to the CWA to the "nervous landlord who realizes he may have to make better terms with his tenants and pay his day laborers more" (from Badger, Anthony J. The New Deal. New York: Noonday Press, 1989, p. 200; see also, One Third of a Nation: Lorena Hickock Reportson the Great Depression. University of Illinois Press: Urbana, 1981).

Where the CWA most strongly challenged the Southern social order, however, was in its payment of equal wages to black Americans, which tended to deplete the region's great resource of cheap labor. Hickok reported that white truck farmers in South Carolina complained that the CWA was creating dissatisfaction among black Americans because the CWA paid so much more than prevailing wages to black farm workers in the South. White farmers were anxious to have the CWA removed.

Hickok also voiced concern over what she perceived to be a view among the CWA workers that the program would be permanent. Roosevelt was himself fearful that the CWA would become a "habit" that the administration could not afford. The $200 million being spent each month on the CWA was a substantial increase above the $60 million that had been spent monthly on the FERA and Roosevelt feared a potentially endless drain on the federal treasury. Believing also that the need for general relief would diminish as the economy recovered, Roosevelt ordered the CWA terminated by the end of March 1934. The popularity of the CWA had also grown in Congress as the various successes of the program and its achievements in member's districts became apparent. Despite certain political shortcomings, there was little doubt that the CWA was a great domestic achievement. The model it put forward to combat the Depression, that of a massive federal relief effort, paved the way for what many New Dealers hoped would become a permanent and even larger program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Public Works Administration (PWA)

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was responsible for the New Deal's early construction program. The popularity of a public works spending program had been around at least since the early twenties. At the time several economists called for creation of a reserve fund for public works, including Otto T. Mallery who published The Long Range Planning of Public Works in 1921. Likewise a number of construction trade groups were joined by social work organizations in advocating public works during the 1920s. With the economic collapse, several members of Congress, most notably Senator Robert Wagner of New York, Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, and Edward Costigan of New Mexico, turned to the idea of public works as a relief measure. The idea had already gained earlier support and several plans existed. In fact the means for financing construction loans was already in place, with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created by the Hoover administration. In 1932 Congress gave $2 billion to the RFC to make loans for public works projects. It was hoped the funds would support projects that would produce work relief. Against the desire of many in Congress however, Hoover was hesitant to go forward very quickly on the appropriation. Much of the RFC's time was spent in drafting feasibility studies.

By the time Roosevelt was inaugurated, the demand for public works was quite vocal, although there were competing views on the underlying goals of a federal public works program. Some envisioned a massive works program that would stimulate the economy by "pump-priming." Pump-priming referred to the theory that if enough people received wages once again, that they would begin buying goods and services and the economy would eventually come back into balance. In the early 1930s, however, theorists often underestimated just how much "pump-priming" would be needed. Although disagreement existed as to how much of an expenditure of federal funds would be needed, it was clear to advocates of this plan, that a "pump-priming" stimulation of private purchasing power would require rapid expenditure. Thus huge projects that would take years would not sufficiently stimulate the economy to tackle unemployment in the short term. On the other side of the debate, some viewed public works as a means of providing short-term relief to the unemployed on less grandiose projects. And though perhaps an oversimplification, these competing views on public works can essentially be understood as coming down to large, long-term projects that employed fewer workers versus smaller, short-term projects that employed many. What eventually emerged was something in between. It was not entirely a federal program since the vast majority of projects were performed under contract with private construction firms. Nor was it entirely a relief program since contractors were allowed to hire the majority of their workers without regard for whether they were on relief or not.

The PWA was actually established under the National Industrial Recovery Act when it was passed on June 16, 1933. Roosevelt then turned over the administration of the program to Harold L. Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior. Ickes decentralized the PWA into state and local committees, partly to reward loyal Democrats. Ultimately $3.3 billion dollars was allocated to the program. Secretary Ickes then compromised with fiscal conservatives and adopted the RFC loan model. The PWA required that two-thirds of the cost of projects be secured by loans. The remaining third would be funded by federal grants, which seemed like a practical compromise. However largely due to the loan security requirements, as well as the complex nature of the projects undertaken, the PWA was slow. Each loan had to be fully secured and fit into models of RFC contract requirements. This sometimes took months. The projects, such as dams, tunnels and canals, though impressive, were often quite elaborate engineering proposals and required a great deal of planning before construction could begin. As a result the PWA was somewhat disappointing in relieving unemployment. Many became disillusioned with its potential by the mid-1930s, including Roosevelt who became disenchanted with the slowness of the PWA. He soon began diverting PWA funds to agencies that could work faster, such as $400 million to start the CWA.

Another major problem was that too few workers were employed for the program to have much of a national effect on unemployment relief. At its peak in July 1934 only about 634,000 people were employed. Several months later in February 1935 that number fell to 282,000 reflecting the cyclical stops and starts of the construction industry. This was hardly conducive to "priming the pump" of the national economy. By the mid-1930s, Congress began allocating fewer funds to the PWA and instead shifted the burden of relief to the newly created Works Progress Administration after 1935. In fact the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 only allocated $313 million to the PWA, hardly enough to undertake any new projects. In many ways Congress was financially tying the hands of the PWA until finally another $1.6 billion was appropriated in 1938. Even this was grudgingly given in part so the PWA could finish the projects it had begun. Eventually in 1939 Ickes turned the PWA over to the Federal Works Agency. That agency had been created as part of a consolidation of New Deal agencies in the Reorganization Act of 1939 and Congress ultimately abolished it in 1949.

Although the PWA failed to bring recovery in the short term, it would be a mischaracterization to call it a failure. In fact its long-term economic effects may have been the most significant of any New Deal public works programs. The projects themselves were of high quality and lasting. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams on the Columbia, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the All American Canal, the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, the Denver and Los Angeles water supply systems, the Triborough Bridge in New York City, the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River, and the Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West were all PWA projects, to name a few. The PWA built 1,527 sewage systems, 2,419 waterworks, and 762 hospitals. In addition it constructed hundreds of bridges, viaducts, airports, and state and county public buildings. Through all these projects the PWA did stimulate some recovery in the construction industry and gradually over time, other investments were made around the projects themselves. For example reclamation projects gradually led to the formation of new farms in project areas; new highways attracted roadside enterprises; sewage systems, waterworks, and cheap electricity allowed for industrial expansion; and, so on. These long-term effects have never been fully studied but economist John Kenneth Galbraith has speculated that they were integral to the economic growth of America following World War II (1939–1945). When Roosevelt decided to move the PWA into the Federal Works Agency, and consequently take it away from Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior was upset. But in a letter to Roosevelt on June 26, 1939, he closed by writing, "instead of complaining, I ought to be thanking you for allowing me to be Public Works Administrator during the last six years…I have loved this job."

Works Progress Administration (WPA)

By authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, passed on April 8, 1935, President Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by executive order a month later on May 6, which reflected a change in the approach to federal relief. Roosevelt wanted the federal government to "quit the business of relief." He wanted to create jobs, not government handouts. This was also what the vast majority of the unemployed wanted as well. Rather than being a withdrawal of the commitment of the federal government to relief efforts, work relief represented a progressive commitment to a larger-scale and longer-term relief program. In fact the WPA was intended to replace what were essentially viewed as emergency programs, the FERA and CWA, with a program that would be permanent. In the view of the administration, this could only be accomplished by turning relief programs back to the states.

In theory the role of the WPA would be to undertake public works, much as the CWA had done, but on a larger and more permanent scale. Like the CWA the WPA would also be involved in all manner of projects ranging from the employment of artists to creating public murals to the building of community centers. But the underlying objective of the agency was to employ workers on building projects of large-scale public works. This was not a new idea but rather the culmination of a series of experiments the most important of which was the earlier PWA.

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act provided $1.4 billion to the program. Many of the leaders of the FERA, which officially ended at the end of 1935, were assigned to operate the WPA, including Harry Hopkins who became its director. From 1935 to 1943 the WPA spent over $11 billion building or improving public facilities, at its peak it employed 3.3 million workers. The projects included 2,500 hospitals, almost six thousand school buildings, one thousand airports or landing strips, thousands of public and utility parks, and hundreds of thousands of miles of streets, country roads, and sidewalks. Almost 40,000 people were employed in the Federal Writers, Music, Art, and Theater Projects. The WPA provided employment for almost one-third of the jobless with an average monthly income of $50.

Despite its accomplishments, some problems arose with the WPA. Due to the fact that the program was administered through individual states, minorities and women were frequently discriminated against. Also the businessmen complained of government competition in projects and organized labor complained about the lowered wage standards for construction. Finally Congress renamed it the Works Projects Administration and placed it in the Federal Works Agency in 1939 along with the PWA. Hopkins had resigned the previous year in 1938. As private industry gained strength again with the demands of World War II the WPA finally faded out by 1943. The WPA left a long lasting legacy, however, with its improvements made in public facilities throughout the nation.

Jobs For Young People

One limitation of the early New Deal efforts in combating unemployment was that programs, like the PWA and the CWA, tended to employ people who already had job skills of some kind, whether musicians, artists, mechanics, or teachers. Roosevelt had personally been concerned about what would happen to young people in the Depression who had no job training or not yet developed employable skills. Imagine coming out of high school and knowing that not only were their no jobs, but that there might not be jobs available indefinitely for unskilled workers. The prospects for young people were grim. Many New Dealers, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were afraid that young people would become alienated from American society and find outlets in political movements or organizations that were counterproductive to economic recovery and to American ideals. By the mid-1930s, this was an especially alarming concern to those who had observed how easily young people were being mobilized to partisan political ends in Hitler's Germany. One of these people was National Recovery Act administrator Edward A. Filene who after a brief trip to Germany, quickly concluded that the United States ignored its unemployed youth at its own peril.

President Roosevelt in fact had been concerned about young people from the very early days of the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC, was a New Deal program specifically designed to target two problems in one: unemployment among youth and emergency conservation work. Soon after taking office Roosevelt presented Congress with an ambitious plan to help alleviate the severe unemployment problem among young men between the ages of 18 and 25. Roosevelt asked Congress for funding on March 21, 1933. Within 10 days he was given the authority to establish a conservation program under the Civilian Conservation Corps Reforestation Relief Act of March 31, 1933.

The program was the conception of the president himself. It was expected to provide jobs doing conservation work of various kinds for young men who came from families already on relief. By July 1933 over 239,000 young men were organized into work "companies" and assigned to a camp. The program was very expensive for the federal government but as a result of the projects completed, the country more than got its money's worth. CCC workers restored historic sites, built national park facilities, fought forest fires, enlarged reservoirs, and, most impressive of all, undertook an immense reforestation effort. The young men who worked on these projects were often referred to as "Roosevelt's tree army" because eventually they planted approximately two billion trees. This was an especially important conservation enterprise in fighting the dustbowl in the American southwest and Great Plains. Together with the "Shelterbelt Project," begun in 1936, the reforestation efforts of the CCC helped reverse the topsoil erosion due to misunderstood farming practices that had been destroying good farmland for decades.

Within a short period of time, the restrictions on age were lifted and eventually World War I (1914–1918) veterans could join the CCC. A separate division was also created under the Bureau of Indian Affairs that employed nearly 15,000 Native Americans on reservations across the country. Unlike other New Deal agencies, however, the CCC remained segregated when it came to black American enrollment. This was partly the result of little effort made to desegregate the corps by Robert Fechner, who served as the director of the CCC during its nine-year existence. There also was local opposition to enrolling black Americans. Surprisingly however, the CCC had been the first federal program that sought to eliminate racial discrimination. Representative Oscar DePriest of Illinois, the only black member of Congress, had inserted an amendment in the law stating that "no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color or creed." Southern states, particularly Georgia, simply ignored the provision, but the Labor Department, and particularly the U.S. Employment Service, kept pushing to get black Americans admitted to the CCC. Some 200,000 black Americans ultimately served in the CCC with 84 of the 152 "black" camps located in the South. Black American workers in these camps were paid the same amount as non-blacks and given equal rations of food, clothing and shelter. This represented a rise in the standard of living compared to that of most black Americans living in the South during the 1930s. Fechner had continuously received pressure to integrate the camps from various circles within the New Deal, especially from the Department of Labor. Eventually 71 camps were integrated by 1937. At its peak in 1935 the CCC had over 500,000 men working in 2,500 camps across the country. Each worker was paid $30 a month with anywhere from $23 to $25 to be sent home to their families. Workers were initially enrolled for a period of nine months to give as many young men as possible an equal opportunity. In little time, greater flexibility was established to allow the opportunity to re-enroll.

The selection standards of the CCC, however, did not allow young men to be enrolled who were already employed or were already in school or college. It turned out that nearly a third of the enrollees had not completed grade school or were illiterate. As a result the CCC encouraged educational programs and some 40,000 men learned to read and write while working in the Corps. Teachers from state schools and colleges were recruited by the Department of Education to help develop training programs in the camps. By 1940 every camp had an average of 18 instructors permanently assigned to it. Camps were eventually fitted with libraries and classrooms where both vocational skills in manufacturing and agriculture, and academic subjects were taught. During the history of the CCC over 25,000 young men received eighth grade diplomas, 5000 received their high school diplomas, and 270 were even awarded college degrees while serving in the Corps. By June 1941 over three million had served in the CCC for periods of up to two years. Their families received relief payments of around $25 a month and, perhaps more important, young men acquired job skills that would help them in the future. Eventually the coming of war spelled the end for the CCC. By early 1942 young men were enrolling or being drafted into the armed forces and federal funds were redirected to the war effort. Finally in June 1942 Congress simply appropriated enough operating funds to close the camps. Despite this unceremonious end, the CCC had undoubtedly been an exceptionally popular program. Its success continues to be recalled as an example of one of the New Deal's finest achievements.

More About… Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Soon after Robert Fechner was appointed to direct the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles J. Rhoads called for including Native Americans in the program and he recommended establishing a separate division to work on tribal lands. Shortly after, John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes agreed that such a separate program should be established. The program, known as the "CCC-ID" (for Indian Division), was almost entirely under the control of the Office of Indian Affairs. The War Department, responsible for obtaining the supplies for the regular CCC, did not want to operate on tribal lands.

Rather than undertake only conservation jobs, Collier stressed the importance of local participation by tribal leaders in developing the scope of projects. Six district offices administered the CCC-ID throughout the United States. In addition to the regular boarding camps of the CCC, there were also work camps and family camps as well.

The most severe conservation problem on tribal lands was soil erosion. In the 1920s and 1930s, Indians on reservation lands received only 20 percent of their income from farming or ranching, yet Indians held over 50 million acres of land. Unfortunately, most of this land was too dry to support grazing or agriculture. Therefore, a major goal of the CCC-ID was to increase the value of this land. Crews worked on irrigation projects, built dams and roads, planted trees, undertook soil erosion control measures, and even built housing and schools.

The impact on most reservations, which were the most poverty-stricken communities in the United States, was enormous. Agricultural yields at the end of the 1930s increased dramatically. Diet and health-care improved and people from many tribes were brought together in the camps where they could meet and exchange ideas and friendship. For many reservations, it was the first time that full employment opportunities were available. Unfortunately it was also the last time that many tribes would experience that level of income until the 1970s or later.

National Youth Administration (NYA)

The CCC and the FERA employed or gave relief to hundreds of thousands of youths, yet millions more were still not affected by New Deal relief efforts. On January 26, 1935, President Roosevelt signed an executive order establishing the National Youth Administration (NYA) under the WPA. The NYA was designed specifically to meet the problems of young people and had two objectives. The first was to keep young people in school by providing them with part-time work so that they did not have to drop out. The second was to provide resources to local schools and colleges so that they would be able to train and educate young people. The NYA provided funds and set standards while school systems administered the programs at the local level. Later in the decade Student Work Councils were formed giving both the students and the community more control over the program. Each state received an allocation based on its student population, existing educational facilities, and number of families on relief. Colleges and universities received funds on the basis of the number of regularly enrolled day students. The NYA merely prescribed that the work should be "useful and practical." The institutions themselves made the project assignments that ranged from academic tasks to manual labor. In the high schools job emphasis was on construction, machine and auto shop, landscaping, health and sanitation as well as organizing recreation activities. In college, students worked in libraries, labs, and assisted professors in research. Between 1936 and 1943, a total of 2,134,000 students worked on NYA projects with more than two-thirds in high school. Pay levels for students were set by national criteria. College and graduate students received from $10 to $30 per month. The rate for high school students was no less than $3 and no more than $6 per month. Local schools fixed the number of hours for work but could not exceed four hours on school days.

The other major activity of the NYA was the out-of-school work program. This was essentially supervised work on local, public, educational, and health related agency projects. Young people were employed doing all manner of construction and repair, woodworking, hospital care and educational assistance and tutoring. In rural areas farm projects were organized at centers where young people lived together and produced food for people on relief. In urban areas special programs were developed to assist the handicapped and, in the case of New York, programs were developed to assist refugees, mainly Jews from Nazi Germany. Like the CCC the NYA had an impressive record of accomplishment, with over 1,500 miles of road paved, six thousand public buildings erected, a little over 1,400 schools and libraries constructed, and 2,000 bridges built by NYA workers. Most of these laborers in the out-of-school program received training in arc welding, machine tool work, and other industrial skills. To assist rural communities, "resident training centers" were established where young people could live for a period of time and receive training. Each of these centers also had a "Citizenship Instructor" who taught civics and other skills necessary to take an active role in their communities and local government.

By far the most impressive accomplishment of the NYA, from an administrative standpoint, was its cost. Because the agency could use state and local facilities and equipment, the cost to the federal government was substantially lower than the CCC. The cost of keeping a young person in high school, for example, was one-thirtieth the cost of keeping a young person in a CCC camp. The NYA was perhaps the only agency that numerically benefited women more than men. Women constituted a slight majority at the high school level and only a slim minority at the college level. In addition black Americans were enrolled in the program based on a non-discrimination policy and a division of Negro Affairs was established under the direction of the black American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, which targeted assistance to traditional black schools and colleges. By the time the war was underway armed forces' enlistments had drained most of the young men from the program, leaving it primarily benefiting young women. Congress felt compelled to reduce non-essential, war-related expenditures and the NYA was finally terminated in 1943. Interestingly it was two future presidents, Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Harry S. Truman, who tried hardest to save the program.

The benefits of the NYA to the country did not end abruptly in 1943. Toward the late 1930s, when it appeared to NYA director Aubrey Williams that war was imminent, training programs focused on industrial war production were developed. The "resident centers" essentially became industrial training schools and once the war came, they were ideal locations for war plants. In the last year of the NYA, 1943, over 30,000 youths graduated from these centers and all were placed immediately in war industry jobs.

Contributing Forces

Early Beliefs About Unemployment

Throughout nineteenth century America, the conventional image of the unemployed worker was that of a lazy and worthless man whose own character flaws were to blame for his condition. The individual who had no job or became temporarily unemployed was quickly associated with those who suffered from afflictions such as intemperance or other vices. Whatever local relief was available in the almshouses was often just enough to maintain subsistence. Assistance was usually donations of food or clothing but rarely money. By the 1830s charitable groups that helped the poor emphasized more on reforming the individual. They would teach discipline and personal regeneration rather than provide actual material aid. Despite a severe economic downturn in 1819 and a more severe depression in the early 1840s, there was no sense that economic conditions and sudden downturns in the business cycle could cause displacement of large numbers of workers. In part this was because before the Civil War America was still largely an agricultural nation and a common perception existed that work could always be found on the land or in the building trades. Only a few observers began to look with misgiving at the plight of the unemployed in urban slums.

The unprecedented industrial expansion following the Civil War made more and more workers dependent on the growing industrial economy. Yet when a massive depression hit the United States in 1873 putting thousands out of work, calls for public relief were quickly derided as socialist. Political machines in some of the largest cities, notably Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall in New York, assisted the needy unemployed. The machines, however, were so associated with corruption that reformers sought to abolish municipal relief altogether. People tended to distinguish between the "worthy poor," such as the aged, the infirm, and orphans, and the "indolent," those who would not work even if provided aid. Unemployed workers were more commonly associated with the "indolent," and it was widely believed that private philanthropy was sufficient to separate and assist the worthy poor from the unworthy poor. It was not until an extremely severe depression in 1893 that a perception arose that some of the "worthy poor" were affected by economic downturn for which they were not individually responsible. The 1893 depression was the first time public work relief was attempted in the United States. Work projects, however, were purposefully small, involved physical labor, and generally useless. Careful to avoid competition with the private market, workers were also underpaid.

Perceptions Toward Unemployment Change

Severity of the 1893 depression, the reform spirit of the early twentieth century progressive movement, and studies undertaken by sociologists and other experts gradually contributed to a shift in outlook. Economists, engineers, and "scientific managers" began to recognize that periodic fluctuations in the economy would periodically force people out of work. This, they acknowledged, was not caused by individual frailty, but by the result of disturbances in the industrial economic system. Given this intellectual framework, social workers and social engineers in the early years of the twentieth century also began to look differently at the individuals who suffered from these economic dysfunctions—the unemployed.

Social caseworkers became schooled in these new theories of sociology and obtained professional degrees from the University of Chicago and the New York School of Social Work. Their first challenge came during the recession of 1914–1915. Through the efforts of these early social workers, settlement houses and private charities in larger cities coordinated their efforts to devise small-scale work projects, such as street cleaning or clearing of empty lots. Usually these were organized for married men with dependents. They were paid wages in kind or in grocery orders. If they refused to work, however, they were usually taken off relief altogether. In this respect relief efforts resembled those of the nineteenth century. Significant new development did occur however. Caseworkers began to track and study the psychological dynamics of individual families and compile statistics. For the first time joblessness during the 1914–1915 recession was viewed as the result of disorders in the industrial system, problems which engineers and economists could solve. For the first time also the idea was advanced that the unemployed could be put to work on carefully designed projects, not as a relief measure, but as a way to increase the overall efficiency and productivity of the economy. That such technical expertise could be assembled to undertake such an endeavor was soon confirmed by the engineer's contribution to war mobilization during the World War I.

As Secretary of Commerce during the Harding Administration, Herbert Hoover initiated a meeting of trade association leaders, business academics, and "socially responsible engineers" to compile data and study the problem of economic displacement of workers. The committee, known as the Conference on Unemployment, would meet four more times and develop statistical methods for monitoring business fluctuations in the economy. The Committee's suggested that a federal agency was needed to create a permanent database and coordinate public works during periods of economic depression. Worthless, or "made work," was officially abandoned as a policy since it never absorbed more than a fraction of the unemployed. Instead, large construction projects that would in time pay for themselves were favored.

The Great Depression Arrives

It became clear when the Depression hit in 1929 that such an incredibly large extent of need of the unemployed was never fully anticipated by the experts on the Conference of Unemployment. First the Depression was far bigger than previous economic downturns and millions were unemployed. It was not clear whether this depression, unlike the Panic of 1873, the depression in the early 1890s, and the severe recession of 1914–1915, was due to a fluctuation in the business cycle or some indefinable industrial collapse of a different order. Second the Council's experts envisioned projects that would employ skilled workers in the construction trades. They never anticipated the massive unemployment in nearly every sector of the economy, affecting all economic classes, wrought by the Great Depression. The Depression was too extensive to be cured simply by more building. In fact construction had peaked in 1928 and city and county governments could not accelerate further building. Moreover the collapse of the bond market on Wall Street left financiers unwilling to issue bonds for civic improvements, therefore any that were planned quickly collapsed. Finally only local relief organizations existed to cope with the emergency and they were overwhelmed. Municipal intervention seemed inadequate, despite some heroic efforts, and states soon clamored for federal relief.

Early attempts by states and cities to fight the Depression did yield some valuable experience, however. Relief efforts were diverse and by far the most comprehensive was New York's Temporary Emergency Relief Administration organized by then Governor Roosevelt. Cities, however, also developed new approaches to deal with the crisis. For example, Philadelphia organized a committee of Unemployment Relief that brought together business leaders and social workers, organizing a wide range of programs funded by both private and municipal funds. A general relief system was established, low interest loans created, work relief programs organized, a homeless shelter for men built, and school breakfasts given to children. The program was ambitious, broadly conceived, well coordinated in the community and soundly managed, soon, however, private donations evaporated and by the winter of 1930–1931, municipal funds dried up as well. The Committee, led by Horatio Gates Lloyd, a long time proponent of local relief, was forced to recognize the futility of continuing without direct federal assistance.

Detroit had nearly the opposite approach. Staggering under the virtual absence of public charity organizations, no attempt was made, nor was it possible, to organize a concerted community response. Instead the city offered direct aid to the unemployed. After Mayor Frank Murphy was elected in 1930 on a platform of public relief, he quickly reorganized the welfare department, set up emergency relief lists, and created a Homeless Men's Bureau. City government expanded to meet the crisis almost as quickly as the expansion rapidly depleted the city's funds. After the winter of 1930–1931 Murphy realized the situation was hopeless and called for federal assistance, the first plea of many to follow. All eyes turned to Washington.


National Perspectives

The New Deal relief programs drew many criticisms. During the 1930s much faultfinding and negative attitudes were aimed toward recipients of aid. There was tremendous concern that the New Deal was merely subsidizing the idle with the dole. This, it was suggested, would ultimately undo any efforts of long-term recovery. As it turned out work relief never reached more than 40 percent of the unemployed and spending limitations always constrained the further expansion of programs into more permanent agencies. New Dealers seldom escaped the conception that relief was temporary and that recovery was just around the corner. They, like everyone else, underestimated both the depth of the Depression and the massive spending required to "prime the pump" of the economy. It was not until the late 1930s that the extent of the situation became more obvious. By then congressional conservatism began stripping the New Deal of its strength. By 1939, for example, Roosevelt was no longer able to ask for the large budgets for work relief he was able to secure in 1935 and 1937. By 1940 Congress put caps on the number of people who could be employed by the WPA. The British economist John Maynard Keynes met with Roosevelt in Washington, DC, in 1934 and urged the President to spend more on relief, even to consider deficit spending. This, Keynes insisted, was the only way to stimulate the economy. But always wary of spending deficits, Roosevelt could not imagine that it would require the massive spending and deficit financing at the level World War II eventually produced to conquer the Depression. It was also difficult to expect Congress to approve the type of budgets Keynes suggested was necessary.

It was easy in hindsight for critics to accuse the New Deal for not instituting larger spending programs for relief than it did. No satisfactory theory existed, however, on the relationship between money, employment, and spending until the late 1930s. Just as many economists at the time were expounding a return to the limited budgets of the Hoover years. Critics sometimes also underestimated the external constraints on the New Deal. For example, no federal system existed to undertake massive relief in an economic emergency when Roosevelt took office. Government action characterized by the New Deal simply did not exist before 1933. The size and relative efficiency of the administrative structure that sprung up almost overnight was inconceivable in 1929. Balanced against the strong forces of localism and entrenched conservative leadership in Congress, the creation of relief programs was even more impressive. In a country historically suspicious of centralized authority, hostility to big government and political constraints on central planning were formidable. Perhaps what is most amazing was that the New Deal relief programs reached as many as 40 percent of the unemployed. The programs clearly made a significant impact. Federal public work programs prevented the Depression from getting worse and even initiated a modest recovery. Workers received very real benefits of food and money allowing them to survive.

Local Perspectives

Local perspectives around the nation were quite varied and the way localities dealt with the growing federal presence varied according to the region, state, and county. It frequently depended on the local culture, political system and power structure. This diversity owed to the fact that culturally America was much less homogenous during the 1930s than in later times. For example expenditures on New Deal programs in Colorado were greater than any other Western state. In the end, however, the impact on political reorganization, its force as a Democratic state, was minimal. Why this occurred is a very complex question having much to do with cultural perceptions of the New Deal in the West. Virginia, on the other hand, had historically been a strongly Democratic state but probably no state in the union received the New Deal with less hospitality than there. This had largely to do with the New Deal's threat to the political power structure and Southern social order. Massachusetts received the New Deal warmly but Democrats could not capitalize on the inroads made, due to the pre-New Deal weakness of Democratic Party organization in the state. The impact of the New Deal in different regions varied considerably and this remained a topic much studied by later historians. Generally, however, the federal government was, on some level, a threat to local power. This threat did not always show itself in direct confrontations between state and federal officials, although this did happen. Mostly it was a matter of New Deal electoral majorities eroding a local political power base. Newcomers could challenge longstanding state or county politicians by allying themselves with the New Deal work relief programs.

An important factor was that the federal government was not that significant a presence before the New Deal in most states. State governments had firm control of their areas and state politicians could be quite powerful. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, who became disenchanted with the New Deal by the late 1930s, thought of Roosevelt as nothing more than a powerful regional leader like himself, and said so. Even federal courts had relatively little jurisdiction over the states except perhaps when it came to navigable waters and issuing injunctions to stop labor union activity. There were no federal agencies that affected states or localities to any significant degree other than Port Authorities dealing with international commerce, military bases, or agencies managing Native American reservations.


To many Americans the most obvious impact of the New Deal work relief programs stem from the lasting results of the projects themselves. The accomplishments of the Public Works Administration are still with us today—the Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams, the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and the All American Canal are a few of the more well known of 34,000 projects. The PWA also began a federal housing program institutionalized by the Federal Housing Act of 1938, which served as a forerunner for the modern Department of Housing and Urban Development. The CCC, the FERA, the CWA, and the NYA all had equally impressive accomplishments. Roads, bridges, and reservoirs built by these agencies were still used all over the country into the twenty-first century. In the case of the CWA, it also laid the groundwork for the massive work relief program under the Works Progress Administration.

Changing Attitudes

Perhaps the most lasting impact, however, was the changing attitude that Americans developed toward both the government and the unemployed. For the first time Americans looked to the federal government for direct relief. Despite the New Deals' ultimate failure to achieve pre-1929 employment levels, the scale of the enterprise of federal work relief was not only unprecedented but also never equaled since. Millions of people were put back to work and, although national economic recovery was not fully achieved until the early 1940s, the relief programs did help families survive.

For all the faults of the relief organizations under the New Deal, it is also important to consider the immense scale of administration required. The New Deal and its relief agencies launched the modern administrative state. Americans gained a new sense of the possibilities of the federal government. When dealing with unemployment, every presidential administration since Truman has in some way come under the New Deal's shadow.

Changing Role of Government

The Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower administrations undertook new federal programs, including the National Defense Education Act. Increased federal grants for vocational training re-trained the work force for unemployment caused by technological displacement. The John F. Kennedy administration launched the Area Redevelopment Act of 1961 and the Accelerated Public Works Act of 1962. These were much smaller versions of the PWA placed in depressed areas. Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" modeled itself after the New Deal, at least in ideology. Unfortunately the Job Corps and Neighborhood Youth Corps provided only limited work opportunities for young people and were not much of a comparison to the scale of the NYA or CCC. Nevertheless, support for a large-scale federal employment program never disappeared.

More About… Woody Guthrie and the Great Dams of the Columbia River

The building of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams undoubtedly stand as two of the most impressive human engineering achievements in the history of the world. Less known, however, are the political difficulties that almost prevented the dams from being built. Not everyone in the Pacific Northwest thought the Bonneville Dam, which was the first of the giant dams on the Columbia, was such a good idea. There had been talk about building a dam during the 1920s but a bitter debate ensued over where on the Columbia it should be located.

In 1933 Roosevelt chose the location of the Grand Coulee Dam at the head of a large coulee in the scablands of central Washington. Few people living in the area, however, wanted a high dam. Even when the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, Oregon, was completed four years later, the Spokane Chamber of Commerce in northeastern Washington still opposed public rather than private power.

The situation worsened when the Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1941. Calling the idea a "socialist boondoggle," because the Bonneville Power Administration was organized as a public company run by the federal government as opposed to a private corporation as utility companies had been in the past, voters throughout the Northwest rejected the idea of switching their electrical lines to the Bonneville Power Administration that could now provide near limitless electricity from both dams on the Columbia. "Boondoggling" was a term widely used in the 1930s to criticize the New Deal relief projects as useless, "make-work" programs. The word rapidly came to embrace a broader meaning by newspapers and the public to mean pointless, unnecessary, or wasteful work created by the government to occupy individuals. It also came to be used to describe misuse of public funds for private benefit. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had a tough public relations job on its hands. How was it going to convince the people of Oregon and Washington the advantages of public power?

A lanky, 28-year-old singer/songwriter who had spent a good deal of time riding the rails searching for jobs in the early 1930s and worked for a few years as a radio personality in Hollywood seemed hardly the person to hire as the Bonneville Power Administration's "information consultant" to deal with the problem. But Woody Guthrie, who desperately needed a job, strummed and sang for an hour on a May morning in 1941. He impressed the BPA director so much that the director gave him a contract to write songs that would make people in the Pacific Northwest appreciate the work of the BPA and the value of public power.

Guthrie began his efforts on May 13, beginning one of the most productive periods of songwriting in his life. In one month he wrote 26 songs for the BPA. Guthrie's songs soon became popular and were given radio airtime. He portrayed the dams as among the greatest achievements ever contemplated by humanity and triumphs of the workingman.

Many later folk singers, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen, consider Woody Guthrie to be a source of great inspiration, and today Woody Guthrie is revered as one of America's greatest balladeers.

In 1970 Congressional Democrats passed the most ambitious work program since the New Deal under the Employment and Training Opportunities Act. The act provided $9.5 billion to create 310,000 jobs over three years. President Richard Nixon, however, did not believe in WPA-type programs that create federally funded projects to employ the jobless, and he vetoed the bill. A recession in 1971 did prompt Nixon to support a watered-down version of the bill through the Public Employment Program under the Emergency Employment Act of 1971. Like the CWA it was conceived as a temporary measure but once again it barely approached the scale of the New Deal program. At its peak in 1933 the CWA employed four million people. The Emergency Employment Act only provided jobs for 185,000 at its peak in 1972, and hardly made a dent in the six percent unemployment that year.

Clearly all of these programs pale in comparison to the size of the CWA or WPA, but each has been compared to the New Deal. The factor that has remained constant over time is an expectation on the part of the American people that unemployment is a problem that can and should be addressed by the federal government.

The Unemployed

Americans also changed their views about the unemployed during the 1930s. No longer were the unemployed seen as individuals with character flaws or as failures. Instead they were perceived as unwilling casualties of a modern industrial economy. Images of the worker in the paintings and murals of the 1930s depicted heroic men and women. Though sometimes at the mercy of a ruthless industrial order, their achievements in building the country and the character they showed could never be challenged or taken away. The public recognized that the effects of economic depression, like a disease, could strike anyone and a much greater compassion for the unemployed and the poor evolved.

A poignant reminder of the compassion of the New Deal toward the unemployed can be grasped from the words of the New Dealers themselves. On June 27, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepted the Democratic nomination for President for a second term (reprinted in Franklin Roosevelt's The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vol. V., p. 230). In his acceptance speech he told the assembly,

Governments can err, Presidents do make mistakes, but the immortal Gandhi tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales. Better the occasional fault of a government that lives in the spirit of charity than the consistent omission of a government that lives in the ice of its own indifference.

Notable People

Robert Fechner (1876–1939). Robert Fechner's six years as director of the Civilian Conservation Corps was actually the culmination of a career as a labor leader and early life as an adventurer. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on March 22, 1876, Fechner attended public schools in Macon and Griffin, Georgia, until the age of fifteen. After leaving school he got a job as a vendor on trains and somehow managed to fit in a few months training at the Georgia Institute of Technology. At sixteen he became a machinist's apprentice for the Georgia Central Railroad and at twenty he left the United States to work in mines in Mexico and both Central and South America. Fechner returned to Georgia sometime in the late 1890s and soon involved himself in labor union activities. In 1913 he became the executive officer of the International Association of Machinists where he remained until 1933. Roosevelt had met Fechner in Washington during World War I when Roosevelt was the assistant Secretary of the Navy and Fechner was serving as an advisor on labor policy to President Wilson. In the summer of 1917 Fechner demonstrated great negotiating skill in settling the Boston and Maine Railroad strike and by the 1920s was well known as a labor advocate.

When Roosevelt first launched the Civilian Conservation Corps, he encountered considerable opposition from the American Federation of Labor fearing that the Corps would undercut gains of union workers. Roosevelt decided he needed a labor leader to head the agency in order to counter this opposition and chose Fechner for the job. Fechner proved an able administrator and his years as head of the CCC were generally successful. Still, as the New Deal's most visible agency, the CCC was criticized for spending too much money and for initially rejecting an education plan, which Fechner later accepted. The most vocal criticism was leveled against Fechner in the late 1930s when he refused to allow military training in what he considered a fundamentally civilian program. After several months of ill health, Fechner died in December 1939.

Harry Hopkins (1890–1946). Harry Lloyd Hopkins, a gangly, chain-smoking workaholic was, in many respects, the prototypical New Dealer. He seemed to embody in his complex personality the many apparent contradictions of the New Deal itself. Hopkins was willing to use immense federal power to bring about recovery, but shared a distrust of a permanent welfare state. Hopkins played one of the most important roles in guiding the unprecedented expansion of the federal bureaucracy, while having misgivings about bureaucratic routine.

As in his public life, there also seemed to be contradictions in his own personality. Hopkins' commitment to government service was tireless, yet he often joked about health problems from overwork. He was painstaking in tracking and managing the funds of the federal agencies under him, but spent a good deal of his own money at the races and died with scarcely any savings. Though not trained as a professional social worker, he eventually came to represent the pinnacle of the profession.

In fact Hopkins' early career in social work uniquely prepared him for his later career in the New Deal and World War II. Raised in Iowa by deeply religious parents, he attended Grinnell College at a time when it was heavily influenced by the Christian reformism of the Social Gospel Movement filling him with ideals of social reform. After graduation he moved to the lower eastside of New York, was quickly introduced to the diversity of turn-of-the-century American urban life, and worked at the Christadora House, a social settlement center. He married Ethel Gross, a Jewish immigrant, and moved rapidly into the network of the city's social reformers.

In 1913 Hopkins began working for one of New York's largest private welfare agencies, the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Within a short period of time he was selected to head its new Employment Bureau. During the recession of 1914–15 Hopkins pioneered the use of a work relief program at the Bronx Zoo. He became an expert and advocate on "widow's pensions," a social insurance program for single women that would be the predecessor of Social Security.

In 1915 Hopkins was appointed Executive Secretary of the city's Bureau of Child Welfare, the agency that administered the program. He stayed until America's entrance into World War I, whereupon he resigned to join the Red Cross as the assistant director of "civilian relief" in the Southern Division in New Orleans. He had a caseload of over 200,000 families of servicemen. He remained in New Orleans with the Red Cross until 1923 when he finally returned to New York to become the director of the New York Tuberculosis Association. Hopkins stayed at the helm of the Association until the early years of the Depression when Governor Roosevelt asked him to head New York's Temporary Emergency Relief Association.

John Maynard Keynes (1883–1949). John Maynard Keynes was a British economist whose work ultimately had a profound influence on United States economic policy. Born in 1883 in Cambridge, England, Keynes went on to have a brilliant career as a student at King's College, Cambridge. He spent two years in the India Office in London where he wrote a book on Indian currency and finance. He was given the editorship of the Economic Journal as a result of the book's positive reception.

In 1918 Keynes went to Versailles to assist in the peace negotiations after World War I, where he protested the imposition of war reparations on Germany and felt compelled to resign his post as deputy for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He immediately wrote The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). His conclusions about the imminent failure of the Versailles Peace Treaty gave him an international reputation. During the 1920s Keynes accumulated a small fortune as a speculator on the international securities markets. He wrote a few influential books on the theory of money, criticizing the preoccupation with the gold standard.

When the Depression turned the economic world upside down, Keynes focused his attention on studying its causes. His greatest influence came when he published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936. The theory he advanced was that contrary to classical economic theory, which assumed that the invisible hand of the market would eventually restore to balance any economic downturn, modern industrial economies could decline indefinitely. Declines in production, employment, and income were so interrelated that each could reinforce the other in a downward spiral. The strategy to offset this event, according to Keynes, would be government spending during periods of depression. For a sick economy this was the only way employment and investment could be revived.

By the late 1940s Keynes' theory was generally accepted by most industrialized countries. It was not until the 1970s that his General Theory came to be questioned.

Aubrey Williams (1890–1965). Aubrey Williams was born in Springville, Alabama, in 1890 but spent most of his childhood living in extreme poverty in Birmingham. So poor was his family that he only attended one year of elementary school before he was taken out to work as a "cash boy" in a local supermarket. His childhood memories were of always being hungry and the uncertainties of living with the day-to-day grind of poverty. He also experienced firsthand the town's discriminatory treatment of its black population.

At an early age Williams concluded that discrimination against black Americans in the South was an outrage. Poverty, he believed, was the region's largest problem, and racial prejudice only reinforced a social order that sustained poverty. It was a profoundly deep realization for a young, white Southern boy to make in turn-of-the-century Birmingham. His beliefs were bolstered by an equally profound commitment to social justice that he absorbed through his religious mother and two ministers who filled him with the social gospel.

Williams went to France during World War I as a Red Cross volunteer, but later resigned to join the French Foreign Legion. After returning to the United States he became involved in social work. In 1922 Williams was selected to be the executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conference of Social Work, an organization dedicated to preventing delinquency, poverty, and child neglect. He argued that social workers must draft model legislation and that work relief was the only respectable form of public assistance.

When the Depression came, Williams went to work for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in Texas and Mississippi. When the new administration arrived in 1933, Harry Hopkins appointed Williams to be his deputy in both the FERA and CWA. The two of them developed a very good working relationship that lasted throughout the New Deal. Williams believed that the New Deal could bring far-reaching reforms to America, including reform in racial relations. He was often outspoken in his insistence that blacks be given their fair share of assistance. He alienated many Southern politicians as a result, but Roosevelt never reprimanded him for his statements.

In 1935 Williams was selected to head the National Youth Administration (NYA) where he served as an able administrator until 1943. He made sure no discrimination existed within the NYA. Throughout his tenure as director, Williams continued to be outspoken on matters of race and politics. At times he could be unabashedly partisan, reminding relief workers to vote for the New Deal.

Occasionally his outspoken views were a political liability to Roosevelt. They were not, however, enough to keep him from being appointed to draft the legislation for the Fair Employment Practices Committee in 1941. The resulting bill ended employment discrimination in defense industries.

Williams spent the last twenty years of his life after World War II speaking out against racial discrimination. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1954 for speaking against the Committee and was accused of being a communist for his civil rights activities with the Southern Conference Education Fund. This ultimately damaged Williams' publishing business and he became increasingly disillusioned at the politics of the post-war South. Though somewhat embittered, this only intensified his commitment to social justice.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s Williams continued to speak out against the systematic denial of civil rights to Southern blacks. Together with E.D. Nixon, he became instrumental in organizing the Montgomery bus boycott. Williams died in 1965, having lived long enough to witness the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The anger that poverty instilled in him as a youth never subsided nor did his commitment to social justice.

Primary Sources

Suggested Research Topics

  • Describe which you think would be more useful to the unemployed today, public works programs or better worker education for re-training? Why?
  • Research what the CCC, the PWA, the NYA or WPA did in your area during the 1930s? What youth work programs exist in your area today?
  • How do you think people feel about the unemployed today? Is it a serious problem or are most unemployed out of work only temporarily?
  • Imagine being unemployed during the Depression. What could you do to make a living? If there were no jobs where you lived, and you had no money, would you be willing to travel across the country by sneaking aboard a freight train and getting off where there might be jobs?
  • If you were the local director of the Civilian Conservation Corps in your area, what worthwhile building or conservation projects would you design? What sort of training would it be important to give young people?



Blumberg, Barbara. The New Deal and the Unemployed: The View from New York City. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Charles, Searle F. Minister of Relief: Harry Hopkins and the Depression. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1963.

Patterson, James T. America's Struggle Against Poverty, 1900–1980. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Salmond, John A. The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933– 1942: A New Deal Case Study. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1967.

——. A Southern Rebel: The Life and Times of Aubrey Williams, 1890—1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Schwartz, Bonnie Fox. The Civil Works Administration, 1933–1934: The Business of Emergency Employment in the New Deal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Terkel, Studs. An Oral History of the Great Depression. New York: Pantheon Books, 1970, 1986.

Further Reading

Adams, Henry H. Harry Hopkins: A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977.

Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933—1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

——. The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920–1933. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Watkins, T.H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.

See Also

Civilian Conservation Corps ; New Deal (First, and Its Critics) ; New Deal (Second) ; Reconstruction Finance Corporation ; Works Progress Administration

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Employment 1929-1941

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