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Harry Hopkins and Work Relief During the Great Depression

Harry Hopkins and Work Relief

by Dr. June Hopkins, Armstrong Atlantic State University

Harry Hopkins’ New Deal work relief and jobs programs, designed to overcome the economic devastation wrought by the Great Depression during the 1930s, included the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These programs reflected policies that Hopkins had developed over his career as a social worker.

Harry Hopkins (1890-1946) entered into the world of social work after he graduated from Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. He spent most of his early career in Manhattan, first as a settlement house worker (go to The Sacred And The Secular In Christodora Settlement House) and then as a “friendly visitor” for the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP). When World War I broke out, he joined the American Red Cross and acted as director of its Gulf Division in New Orleans and Atlanta. He returned to New York in 1921 and as director of the New York Tuberculosis Association, became a nationally recognized social work administrator.

Christian Science Monitor Article
Christian Science Monitor Article
Page two of Christian Science Monitor Article
Page two of Christian Science Monitor Article

In the early years of the Great Depression, Hopkins was tapped by New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt to head the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) and to provide both direct relief and work relief for the unemployed throughout the state. In 1931, the New York State Legislature had appropriated twenty million dollars for this purpose. As head of the TERA, Hopkins was wholly committed to government jobs as a solution to the state’s economic problems. He insisted that these jobs be limited to useful projects and not compete with private industry. Because of limited funds, it was necessary for applicants for TERA jobs to pass a means test that would establish need. However, guidelines clearly prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or politics. What was new about the TERA was the realization that the unemployed did not want charity. They wanted jobs and Hopkins believed that it was the responsibility of the state government to provide those jobs. During his years in Albany, Hopkins established an innovative program that provided of government assistance in times of economic emergency.

Two months after the newly-inaugurated President Roosevelt initiated his New Deal to deal with the economic crisis, in May 1933, Hopkins arrived in Washington to head up the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the federal relief program that was modeled on the TERA. Hopkins, the ultimate New Dealer, believed that if private industry was unable to absorb the available workforce, then it was the government’s duty to provide jobs. If local governments did not have the wherewithal or the inclination to provide these jobs, then the federal government had to step in. He also believed that a national commitment to alleviate unemployment by providing jobs would help overcome a negative public attitude toward the unemployed as a permanent underclass. Seated at a makeshift desk in a hallway in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Building, Hopkins began to draft a program that would eventually put fifteen million people to work and also establish new and more adequate standards of relief for those unable to work.

The FERA provided funds to the states on a matching basis: one federal dollar for every three dollars the state could raise. Only one person in a family was eligible for FERA assistance and a social worker had to determine the extent of the family’s financial need. The main objectives of the FERA were adequate relief and useful work for the unemployed. Direct relief (cash payments or “the dole”) went to those in immediate and desperate need; however, work relief, that is, work on government projects in exchange for relief payments, was initiated in order to allow unemployed workers the dignity of working for a wage, however small. These work projects would not compete with private industry because this would defeat the purpose of economic recovery for American business. The very real need for direct relief was evident; statistics indicated that ten percent of Americans were reduced to bare subsistence levels and only stayed alive through public relief or the “dole.” Hopkins recognized the necessity for this. But he knew what this did to a person’s dignity. He wanted to remove the employable needy from relief rolls and place them in government jobs. “Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit,” he said. “Give him a job and pay him an assured wage, and you save both the body and the spirit.” The dole was certainly cheaper but for Hopkins it cost too much in terms of self respect and pride.

Hopkins was not happy, however, with the way limited funds forced him to administer work-related assistance under the FERA. He deplored having to impose the humiliating means test. The nature of the work eliminated many women from the program. The FERA’s work relief pro-gram was not putting enough people to work. Purchasing power had not increased enough to boost the economy of the nation. Hopkins felt that he now had enough ammunition to convince the president to back an innovative emergency program.Editorial from The New York Times April 22, 1939

On November 9, 1933, President Roosevelt created the very experimental Civil Works Administration (CWA) and placed it under the leadership of Harry Hopkins. Within four months four million unemployed Americans, skilled and unskilled, were put to work. Half of the workers were taken from the relief rolls, and the other half from those unemployed persons who were just too proud to ask for relief. These jobs were to be useful public projects, free of the taint of relief; workers seeking employment were not subjected to any means test. Furthermore, CWA projects did not limit the amount of a worker’s wage to their family’s estimated budgetary deficiency as did the FERA program. This was real work for a real wage, and the workers were proud of this. By the time the CWA ended in the spring of 1934, 200,00 worthwhile projects had been initiated.

Although the CWA was short-lived, it was successful because of the wages it provided for millions of Americans over the hard winter of 1933-34. However, by the spring of 1934 more than eleven million workers were still on relief; eighty percent of them were fully employable. For New Dealers this represented a deplorable waste of manpower. President Roosevelt declared to the nation that “continued dependence on relief induces a spiritual and mental disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for the able-bodied but destitute workers.”

In his State of the Union Address on January 4, 1935, President Roosevelt stated that the federal government “must quit this business of relief,” and requested $4 billion to provide jobs for those already on relief. To this end, Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an agency to provide government jobs for those able-bodied reliefers. WPA workers could earn no more that an established monthly security wage which, while lower than what they could earn in private industry, was higher than relief. The hourly wages could be no less than the prevailing rate for private industry but work hours could be limited to the number of hours necessary to meet the established security wage.

The WPA operated from 1935-1942 and at its peak, from 1935-1938, it gave jobs to 3 million each year and spent a total of $10.7 billion. Unlike the FERA, it was run by federal rather than local officials and required no matching state money; the care of unemployables was relegated back to the states.

Government jobs as a means of stabilizing business and providing employment for the able-bodied but idle worker in times of economic depression was a principle that Hopkins had brought with him to Washington in 1933. His work-relief programs mitigated the economic and psychological miseries of millions of Americans and demonstrated his firm belief that direct relief degraded the recipient, wasted his or her work potential, and returned little to the community. Harry Hopkins had faith in the federal government’s ability to assure men and women the opportunity to earn a decent living through useful work and faith, too, in Americans’ willingness to take advantage of that opportunity.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hopkins, J. (2011). Harry Hopkins and work relief. Retrieved [date accessed]  from /eras/harry-hopkins-and-work-relief-during-the-great-depression/.

3 Replies to “Harry Hopkins and Work Relief During the Great Depression”

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