The Road Not Taken: Harry Hopkins and New Deal Work Relief

Article excerpt

One hot summer day in 1935, federal relief administrator Harry Hopkins presented his plan for alleviating the effects of the Great Depression to a group of shirt-sleeved Iowa farmers, not noted for their liberal ideals. As Hopkins began to describe how government-sponsored jobs on public projects would provide both wages for the unemployed and a stimulus for foundering businesses, a voice shouted out the question that was on everyone's mind: "Who's going to pay for all that?" Hopkins, with his characteristic flair for the dramatic, slowly took off his coat and tie, rolled up his sleeves, and looked out at the now-fascinated audience. Everyone knew the extent of Hopkins's influence in Washington. His answer would reflect the attitude of President Roosevelt. "You are," Hopkins shouted,

   and who better? Who can better afford to pay for it. Look at this great
   university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is
   America, the richest country in the world. We can afford to pay for
   anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this
   country. And we are going to pay for it.(1)

Harry Hopkins, President Franklin Roosevelt's outspoken and often brusque relief administrator, brought with him to the White House the conviction that the ultimate responsibility for the welfare of citizens lay with the federal government. In the depths of the Great Depression, his sentiment that "there is no need for any American ... to be reduced by the bondage of [unemployment and poverty] into either political or economic impotence" struck a chord with FDR.(2) Hopkins had the president's ear, and most Washington insiders knew that if something needed to be done, Hopkins was the man to see. A sort of harmonics existed between the two men, and they forged a deep and enduring friendship. Yet, despite the amount of power Hopkins wielded in the White House, his particular blueprint for the American welfare state did not make it past the drawing board; his plan for a permanent government job assurance program did not become part of the Social Security Act.

From 1933 to 1939, Hopkins acted as President Roosevelt's federal relief administer, responsible for both direct and work relief. He headed the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Projects Administration CWPA). He helped formulate the Social Security Act of 1935, the revolutionary legislation that founded the American welfare state. This article focuses on Hopkins's plan for countercyclical public works as an addendum to the act's social insurance program.

By 1930, the Great Depression had plunged New York State into economic chaos. One million of the state's workers were unemployed.(3) Hopkins, New York City social worker, recalled conditions at the beginning of the Great Depression when "almost every time the clock ticked a man lost his job.(4) He felt that it was time for the state to step in and provide jobs for the unemployed. Because large-scale public relief for the able-bodied unemployed was still anathema in the social work community, Hopkins sought solutions within the confines of the private relief community. In 1930, he and colleague William Matthews, under the auspices of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), raised $6 million from private contributions for a work relief project in cooperation with the Emergency Work Bureau (EWB).(5) Hopkins and Matthews, supported by the park commissioners of Manhattan and the Bronx as well as Mayor James Walker, put approximately one hundred thousand people to work in city parks. Every worker was paid the same wage, five dollars a day, and was restricted to either three days a week or alternate weeks of work. There was a notable lack of red tape, with no means test and no supervisory social workers.(6) This, of course, even in 1930, flew in the face of every tenet of scientific philanthropy. …