Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression

By Robert Cohen | Go to book overview

chapter 3
Social Life

In the early years of the Great Depression, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was among the New Deal agencies most intimately connected with the poor. Headed by Harry L. Hopkins, a veteran social worker, FERA hired masses of unemployed Americans who built thousands of bridges and public buildings from coast to coast. FERA loaned money to desperate farmers, taught more than a million adults to read, established nursery schools for poor children, and gave 100,000 low-income students part-time jobs that enabled them to attend college. Through his work with FERA Hopkins had come to understand how the economic crisis disrupted the social lives of millions of Americans who had lost jobs and status. His sensitivity to the pain that this disruption caused was nowhere more evident than in the Christmas message he released in 1934.1

Hopkins noted in this message “how lacking in the traditional pleasures this Christmas is for many American people.” He pointed out that Americans had traditionally greeted Christmas merrily by exchanging presents, holding family reunions, taking time off from their jobs, and “turning aside from workday preoccupations to celebrate the warmth of home.” But the Great Depression placed such celebrations out of reach for many lowincome Americans. “Gifts,” Hopkins said, “can be few. Families are broken. They have no workdays from which to turn and cold homes to turn to. Unless we are blind we cannot send these greetings in terms of those things which people have always expressed when they say 'Merry Christmas.'.… For millions of people these have become barren words.”2

Using Christian imagery, Hopkins turned his Christmas message into a call for a war on poverty. He argued that though traditional modes of holiday celebration were unattainable for the poor, “the deeper significance of Christmas cannot be taken away from the destitute. It means more to them than even to those who have known no discomfort. It is the birthday of one who disliked poverty and injustice and who taught us we are our brother's

-145-

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Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgements ix
  • Introduction 3
  • Chapter 1 - Ill-Clothes Ill-Hiused Ill-Ted 35
  • Chapter 2 - Education 91
  • Chapter 3 - Social Life 145
  • Chapter 4 - Minorities 195
  • Epilogue - Responses to the Letter 237
  • Notes and Sources 245
  • Index 261
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