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The New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration: October 1, 1931
By June Hopkins, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Armstrong Atlantic State University
In 1930, with unemployment rising and jobs becoming increasingly scarce, American citizens began to feel the effects of the economic downturn that began with the Stock Market Crash the previous October. The Great Depression was just beginning. The problem of unemployment in New York State and in its major cities grew increasingly critical, and it was obvious that neither local funding nor privately-supported agencies could handle the crisis. Despite the lack of accurate statistics, all cities had reported that unemployment had reached unprecedented proportions. New York, as the leading industrial state, had an especial need to maintain and develop the wage-earner market. With the support of both labor and business, Frances Perkins, the state industrial commissioner, told Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt that public works projects were “the greatest source of hope for the future,” and she recommended the immediate implementation of local public works programs along with public employment clearinghouses.
In January 1931 newly-reelected Governor Roosevelt suggested that the governors of the eastern industrial states meet for a three-day conference to discuss how to deal with the economic emergency. Roosevelt spoke at two of the sessions and declared that in order to meet this unprecedented emergency the state had to look for new solutions to meet new problems. Deploring the “Pollyanna attitude” of the Hoover administration, Roosevelt called for experimental programs, an innovative tactic that became a hallmark of his social policy during the New Deal years. “More and more, those who are the victims of dislocations and defects of our social and economic life,” he declared, “are beginning to ask respectfully but insistently of us who are in positions of public responsibility why Government cannot and should not act to protect its citizens from disaster.” The proper response according to Governor Roosevelt was that the government on all levels had to accept responsibility and act to protect the welfare of the people. He recognized that private charities and local public agencies simply did not have the resources to help: “In the long run, State and national planning is an essential to the future prosperity, happiness and the very existence of the American people.” At the time, Roosevelt did not have any comprehensive or long-term plan to offer; but he did propose governmental action. The only question would be one of method.
Many experienced social workers, with access to at least some statistics culled from case studies, agreed with Roosevelt and feared that crisis would only worsen without government intervention. In early 1931, shortly after his reelection, Roosevelt called for legislation that would enable the state to give immediate aid to unemployed New Yorkers, declaring that “the duty of the State towards the citizens is the duty of the servant to its master.” The tone and the substance of the governor’s message was unmistakably a precursor of his social policy as president: “The serious unemployment situation which has stunned the Nation for the past year and a half has brought to our attention in a most vivid fashion the need for some sort of relief to protect those men and women who are willing to work but who through no fault of their own cannot find unemployment. This form of relief should not, of course, take the shape of a dole in any respect. The dole method of relief for unemployment is not only repugnant to all sound principles of social economics, but is contrary to every principle of American citizenship and of sound government. American labor seeks no charity, but only a chance to work for its living. The relief to which the workers of the State should be able to anticipate, when engulfed in a period of industrial depression, should be one of insurance, to which they themselves have in a large part contributed. Each industry itself likewise should bear a part of the premium for this insurance, and the State, in the interest of its own citizens, and to prevent a recurrence of the widespread hardship of these days, should at least supervise its operation.”
On October 1, 1931, under authority granted to him by the New York State Legislature in Extraordinary Session, the governor created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) with an initial appropriation of $20 million targeted for the emergency relief of the unemployed. Able-bodied workers without jobs would get relief from the state—first home (direct) relief and then the more desirable work relief. Roosevelt thus set a precedent by creating a new agency to meet a new problem, one he relied on during the New Deal years.
The TERA board (consisting of Jesse Straus, president of R. H. Macy department stores; John Sullivan, president of the New York State Federation of Labor; and attorney Philip J. Wickser), offered the job as executive director to social worker Harry L. Hopkins, who was then head of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association. Hopkins immediately accepted and assumed his duties as executive director in October 1931 and the next August he took over Straus’ position as president when the latter retired.
Both Roosevelt and Hopkins were committed to jobs as the solution to the state’s economic problems. Neither liked direct relief, or the dole, and considered it demeaning and stigmatizing. In directing TERA work-relief projects, Hopkins made sure that they were consonant with economic needs as well as with prevailing cultural attitudes. He insisted on socially useful projects that would not replace or duplicate normal municipal functions, would not interfere with private industry, and that would pay wages in cash at the prevailing rate for the type of work performed. Because of limited funds, Hopkins had to require a means test for applicants and limit jobs to one person per household.
Hopkins concentrated on creating a program in New York State that could set an example for other states. This was important, he believed, because the TERA represented “the first enactment under which a State, as such, had accepted any liability for the support of its population, viewed not as wards but merely as men and women unable temporarily to accommodate themselves to the social scene, with-out at the same time placing such men and women in the position of recipients of a bounty or a dole and in such a manner as to preserve the self-respect of every beneficiary. . .” Yet, because it was aimed at a particularly deserving population – the involuntarily unemployed worker – it was, according to Hopkins, as American as corn on the cob. The TERA was not radical. Work as an antidote to poverty was deeply embedded in American culture. What was new was Hopkins’ open declaration that it was the responsibility of the state government to provide this work.
Despite the efforts of the TERA, the growing number of unemployed placed an enormous pressure on state coffers. Recognizing that relief administered in New York State was woefully inadequate, Hopkins wrote to Frank J. Taylor, commissioner of public welfare for New York City, outlining the shortcomings but also emphasizing the efficiency and courtesy with which the TERA had operated. Inadequate relief on the state level was caused only by lack of sufficient funds. Consequently, states now began to turn to the federal government for relief and when Roosevelt successfully ran for president in 1932, the foundation was laid for this to happen.
Almost immediately after Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in March 1933, Hopkins suggested that the federal government replicate the TERA on a national level and that a federal relief administrator be appointed to run the new agency. Federal responsibility for the unemployed would send a clear message to the country that the unemployed were not at fault for their condition. In May, Congress passed the Federal Emergency Relief Act and Roosevelt, acting on his experience with the TERA, immediately signed it into law and appointed Hopkins as director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA).
Administrators of the TERA were proud of what they had accomplished. A statement made in late 1932 reflected this pride in their efforts “to supply the relief provided in the manner laid down for us by the Legislature, at the same time conforming as far as possible to legal precedent, inherited habit, and the predilections of local influence. We believe that we have been enabled to have a part in . . . one of the greatest social and legal experiments ever undertaken.”
Note: A pdf copy of the first year’s interpretation and application of emergency relief laws by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (T.E.R.A.) of the State of New York published October 1, 1932 can be viewed by clicking here–> TERA
The first page of the pdf includes a handwritten letter written by Harry Hopkins in November 1932 to Jesse Isidor Straus, previously the president of R.H. Macy, who had been appointed by New York State Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to be chairman of the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) on October 1, 1931.
Hopkins had been head of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association when he joined the TERA as executive director in October 1931; the following August he became chairman when Straus retired. Henry Epstein, mentioned in the letter, was counsel to the TERA.
The letter from Hopkins had been taped into a beautifully bound book published by the TERA on October 1, 1932, Emergency Unemployment Relief Laws in the State of New York: 1931-1932, a gift from Hopkins to Straus, obviously when the latter retired.
The typed, unsigned note, is from one of the sons of Jesse Straus who is the “Father” the writer refers to. It was likely written by Irving Straus, an old friend of mine, who lives in New York City and gave me the book over ten years ago. (Note the typo, FRD instead of FDR.)
June Hopkins, Ph.D.
Armstrong Atlantic State University
1 Frances Perkins, Press Release, March 27, 1930, Reel 177, OGNY, FDRL.
2 Attending were Joseph B. Ely of Massachusetts; Norman S. Case of Rhode Island; Wilbur L. Cross of Connecticut; Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey; Gifford Pinchot of Pennsylvania; George White of Ohio; William Tudor Gardiner of Maine; and John G. Winant of New Hampshire. Paul H. Douglas, an economist from the University of Chicago, organized the conference for Roosevelt. See Perkins, The Roosevelt I Knew, 104-105.
3 Official Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Conference of Governors, June 1 and 2, 1931, 17, 24, Reel 68, OGNY, FDRL.
4 “Origin and History of the Commission,” Reel 59, OGNY, FDRL.
5 Emergency Unemployment Relief Laws in the State of New York, 1931-1932 (Albany: Temporary Emergency Relief Administration and the Attorney General’s Office, 1932), 18.
6 Emergency Unemployment Relief Laws in the State of New York, 1931-1932, 23-25; “Minutes of a Regular Meeting of TERA, March 22, 1932.” Reel 173, OGNY, FDRL.
7 Barbara Blumberg, The New Deal and the Unemployed: The View From New York City (Lewisburg, Penn.: Bucknell University Press, 1979)27; Chief Investigator to Miss Lena Parrott re: Charles H. Stone, December 9, 1932, Reel 173, OGNY, FDRL; “New York Unemployed Relief, Report for TERA, Nov. 1, 1931- June 1, 1932,” Box 7, HHP. The restrictions of one TERA job per family essentially meant that most of the jobs went to men.
8 Emergency Unemployment Relief Laws in the State of New York, 1931-1932, p. 7; Harry L. Hopkins, “What is the American Way?” July 16, 1938, p.1, Hopkins IV, 52:1, GUSC.
9 Harry L. Hopkins, “What is the American Way?” July 16, 1938, 1, Hopkins IV, 1:52, GUSC.
10 “Home Relief Efficiently Administered, but Inadequate, T. E. R. A. Finds,” Better Times, 14 (March 6, 1933), 20.