- Historic Sites
Jobs For The Unemployed: How They Did It The Last Time
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
A DMITTEDLY , anything so prodigious in scale was bound to develop abundant flaws. Many work-relief recipients were far from being the cream of the work force, and their output was low. Hopkins, both under the pressure of circumstances and because of his own preferences, prided himself on the speed with which he conducted work-relief operations. As a result, administrative safeguards were often short-circuited, sometimes at a heavy price—as much as a billion dollars in avoidable expense according to one estimate. His competitor “Honest Harold” Ickes was so fearful corruption might creep into the programs he managed that he operated with tireless caution and plodding decision. Today’s assumption that public works projects are too slow for effective relief is undoubtedly fueled by Ickes’s prudence of fifty years ago.
Then as now, work relief, with its billions in expenditures, is vulnerable to pork-barrel politics, to the demands of congressmen, governors, and mayors, to private contractors and labor unions, all hurigering for self-gain. Today’s workrelief programs are far more responsive to members of Congress seeking bonanzas for their districts than to the ideal that federal funding should be linked to unemployment rates in each state. Roosevelt better resisted the distorting effects of politics: most of the time, need was the sole basis for distributing projects to the states. With Roosevelt’s backing, Harry Hopkins was able to fight off state bosses bent on converting work relief into a patronage paradise right up until Congress belatedly overtook him when it required Senate confirmation of all WPA jobs paying over five thousand dollars a year.
Yet these shortcomings remain minor compared with work relief’s benefits. With nearly one in four of the work force unemployed, and state, local, and private resources exhausted, federal jobs programs were imperative to save the country from certain upheaval. The programs restored hope to millions who had worked all their lives and were searingly humiliated by having to seek public assistance. A CWA administrator in Michigan observed that “the joy of having even this brief opportunity to earn a decent living wage knew no bounds,” and some left her office “weeping for sheer happiness.”
Work relief was dispensed in an atmosphere of fairness and humanity. When an orthodox economist told the President that the economy must be allowed to strike bottom, Roosevelt replied disgustedly, “People aren’t cattle, you know!” Hopkins admonished his WPA staff to not make applicants “feel morally deficient” and to secure light, agreeable offices for meeting with them rather than dreary rooms. Work programs were designed to resemble standard employment routines, complete with weekly pay envelope. The wife of a WPA worker, who had just left the ranks of those receiving simple handouts, explained, “We aren’t on relief any more. My husband is working for the government.”
Above all, the New Deal’s work programs mirrored Roosevelt’s own deep commitment and understanding. “The President,” Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins observed, “had a keen feeling for the sensibilities of recipients of this relief. ” He was avid for information about work projects and how people felt about working on them and he was imaginative in conceiving new projects. To the President, Perkins noted, ” ‘make-work’ was finding useful things for people to do.”
For the more distant future, Hopkins urged in 1936 the creation of a permanent structure of public works that could be activated and halted as the economy fluctuated, a net to catch workers dropped from the payrolls of private employment. So far, the counsel of this most experienced of public jobs administrators has been ignored.