Even in a town newly populated by go-getters, Hopkins stood out. Forty-two years old, lanky and slumped, with large, bright brown eyes animating a thin, almost concave face, he disdained the normal courtesies of politics and cared not a whit about the trappings of bureaucracy or status. His singular talent was for creating organizations on the fly, organizations free of complicated charts and tangles of responsibility. He worked to exhaustion and inspired others to do the same. And he believed with a fiery passion in the rights of the poor to decent treatment, rights that he expounded with sharp-tongued, impatient wit.
He had been poor himself, though not deprived. His father, David Aldona Hopkins, was a Sioux City harness maker when Harry was born in August 1890. When the harness shop failed two years later, Al Hopkins moved his wife, Anna, and four children, of whom Harry was the youngest, to Chicago, where he worked as a traveling salesman for a Milwaukee harness maker. In 1901, after the birth of a fifth child—there were now one daughter and four sons—the family returned to Iowa and settled in Grinnell, which Anna chose because of the college there. She was a sober and religious woman, active in Methodist church work that focused on helping the less fortunate. Al Hopkins, on the other hand, was a free spirit who indulged himself in luxuries and entertainments during his sales trips around the Midwest; good times were had when Al Hopkins was in town. In 1910, an accident settlement allowed him to stop traveling. He set up a new harness shop in Grinnell, became active in civic affairs, and pursued a passion for bowling, which also gave him an income in side bets. This was something he couldn’t talk about at home; Anna forbade it, and once Al had to sneak into the basement with Harry to show him $500 in bowling alley winnings. He also enjoyed taking self-important people down a peg; this and his taste for the good life were his chief legacies to his son.
Grinnell College solidified the egalitarian instincts Hopkins had learned from both his parents. The school, founded by Congregational ministers in 1846, was a fountain of Social Gospel Christianity, which taught that the greatest sin was selfishness. When he graduated from Grinnell in 1912, Hopkins left for New York to begin a career in social work. He had a job with Christodora House, one of the city’s settlement houses that ran various social, relief, and job placement programs, and he spent that summer in New Jersey overseeing a youth program. Then he hit New York. By night, he joined a claque of opera fans who traded their loud applause for free seats, and also guided out-of-town friends on tours of the city’s racy neighborhoods. By day, he got serious. As a “district visitor” at Christodora House, he went to the homes of poor people to assess their worthiness for aid. In the squalid tenements and teeming streets within his Lower East Side territory, the same neighborhoods that had produced Al Smith, Hopkins found a level of poverty he had never known existed. Over time, his understanding deepened. He began to bristle when he heard the jobless referred to as malingerers; obviously some were, but far more craved the opportunity to work. He also realized that forcing people to reveal just how poor they were in order to qualify for aid abused their dignity. He developed a low tolerance for the assumptions many people made about the poor, the conditions in which they lived, and the ways society treated them.
Bright, committed, and in a hurry, Hopkins moved quickly. He left Christodora House after nine months to work for the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), New York City’s oldest social welfare agency. The AICP administered a wide range of programs, and in less than three years Hopkins moved from its employment bureau to relief supervisor for the Lower East Side to supervisor of the agency’s Fresh Air Hospital, a tuberculosis clinic. In 1915, New York’s Progressive mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, appointed Hopkins’s boss at the AICP, John A. Kingsbury, to be commissioner of public charities. Kingsbury brought Hopkins into city government as executive secretary of the new Board of Child Welfare, and there, still in his twenties, he built from scratch an effective organization to deliver relief to mothers with dependent children.
When Tammany Hall ousted Mitchel two years later, Hopkins left the city to work for the Red Cross. During five years there, he headed disaster relief in the middle Gulf states, and then civilian relief focused on the families of men serving in the world war. He worked long hours and gained a reputation both for delivering relief and for inspiring those under him. By the time he was thirty, he was heading the relief program in the Red Cross’s ten-state southern division. In 1922, he returned to New York, and the next year was appointed director of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association. In the meantime he helped found the American Association of Social Workers and served as its president. And when the depression hit and began to take its toll on jobs in New York City, he volunteered his free time to help his friend Bill Matthews, with whom he had worked at the AICP, try to find jobs for the unemployed through the city’s Emergency Work Bureau.
During this time another of Hopkins’s characteristics came to the fore: he outspent his income. He earned $10,000 a year, a handsome salary at a time when most Americans were making less than a third of that, but he maintained a suburban home and a summer cabin in the Catskills for his family, booked first-class hotels and train compartments when he traveled, ate and entertained his friends at expensive restaurants and speakeasies, and was beginning to indulge an interest in collecting rare books. His first marriage, to a social worker he had met at Christodora House named Ethel Gross, began to fall apart from both financial strain and a new romance, this with a secretary at the Tuberculosis and Health Association named Barbara Duncan. After fitful efforts to patch up his marriage, he and Ethel divorced in May 1931, with Ethel receiving custody of their three sons, and he married Barbara a month later.
That August, Governor Roosevelt called a special session of the New York legislature to address the effects the depression was having in the state. “Our government is not the master but the creature of the people,” he told the legislators. “The duty of the state toward its citizens is the duty of the servant to its master. One of these duties of the state is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstance as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others. To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by government—not as a matter of charity but as a social duty.” A month later, the legislature appropriated $20 million for unemployment relief in the form of grants to local governments. The money came from doubling the state income tax. Jesse Isidor Straus, president of the R. H. Macy department stores, headed a three-member board overseeing the organization set up to administer the relief funds, and he persuaded the Tuberculosis Association to give Hopkins a leave of absence to get the program under way as its executive director. Hopkins started work on October 8, 1931, and by November 1, New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) was up and running.
From the start, he demonstrated a capacity for which he later would be famous: he was extraordinarily efficient at spending public money. By the end of January 1932, 1.2 million New Yorkers, nearly 10 percent of the state’s population, were receiving TERA aid. Its funds were gone by the end of the winter, and Roosevelt had gone back to the legislature for another $20 million to carry the program until November, when a $30 million bond issue for further funding would be on the ballot.
The agency was divided into two components. One, the Home Relief Bureau, oversaw direct relief in the form of chits for immediate needs, from food, clothing, and heating fuel to rent and medical care. Recipients submitted their chits to doctors and landlords, brought them to local retail stores and took away the goods, or turned them in at relief commissaries for surplus foodstuffs or donated clothing. The other component, the Emergency Work Bureau, envisioned creating jobs for employable but jobless workers.
Hopkins much preferred work to direct relief. It cost more; the pay had to approach prevailing local wage rates, and except for make-work jobs such as raking leaves, there were added costs for equipment and materials. But all of his experience had shown him that most people would rather work than take handouts. A paycheck from work didn’t feel like charity, with the shame that it conferred. It was better still if the work actually built something. Then workers could retain their old skills or develop new ones, and add improvements to the public infrastructure like roads and parks and playgrounds.
By March 1932, Hopkins had managed to put 80,000 people into jobs. Straus resigned as head of the TERA board the same month, and in April the governor appointed Hopkins to replace him while continuing to run the agency itself. That summer, Hopkins reported to the legislature that after nine months of operation, TERA’s work program had “prevented the starvation of 130,000 families” and “produced many lasting improvements.” Eighty-five cents of every dollar had gone for wages, with the rest for materials and maintenance. He said he needed another $11.5 million to carry the program into the fall, speaking of the “renewed morale many of [the unemployed] have felt in earning bread and butter for themselves and their children.”
Road construction accounted for 40 percent of TERA’s work relief spending, but men had also worked on sanitation and water supply systems, parks and playgrounds, utilities, schools and other public buildings, and general public improvements. Hopkins had also put clerical and professional workers and teachers into TERA jobs, and a number of these workers were women who were heads of households. And when he learned that members of the artists’ colony at Woodstock were in danger of starving, he stretched the limits of TERA to create an arts program. In the same November balloting that elected Roosevelt president, New Yorkers approved the issuance of $30 million in TERA bonds by a four-to-one margin, allowing a further expansion of the work program.
All of these experiences formed components of the relief plan Hopkins took to Washington after the inauguration. He was becoming a familiar face in the capital by then, having first shown up just after the election to lobby for an RFC loan for New York. After the first of the year, members of Congress, anticipating federal relief, had sought his expertise as the head of the first, and largest, state relief program. In staff conferences and committee testimony, he had urged a federal appropriation of up to $1 billion to give grants, not loans, to states. (He had proposed something similar to Roosevelt in a letter he had written back in December.) There was of course no chance Hoover would sign such a measure even if it passed, but Hopkins was helping to lay the foundation for quick action after the transition.
The new administration was in its second week when Hopkins arrived on a train from New York on March 13. With him was William Hodson, head of the New York City Welfare Council. The two men had brought a relief plan on which they had collaborated and then refined during the three-hour train ride, with the intention of placing it before the president when they got to Washington. But Roosevelt was too busy to see them, so they sought out fellow New Yorker Frances Perkins, the new secretary of labor.
The three met at the Women’s University Club. Hopkins and Hodson told Perkins that the widespread poverty caused by unemployment was brewing revolution; the government had to intervene. Federal money should be granted to the states, and the grants should be managed by a single agency, acting on an emergency basis, that was charged with the dual role of parceling out direct relief and creating jobs. These were the main points Hopkins had made in his December letter to Roosevelt.
Perkins was impressed by the precision of the facts and figures laid before her. Here were both a grasp of the problem and a seemingly workable plan. She got them in to see the president, and as Hopkins and Hodson laid out their ideas in the White House, Roosevelt saw how the relief program he had championed in his home state could be expanded nationally. It gave shape to the vague calls for federal relief and was a plan that he could call his own.
Just one week later, on March 21, the president sent the plan for federal relief to Congress. It asked to place $500 million in unspent Reconstruction Finance Corporation funds in the hands of a federal relief administrator, who would head an agency to distribute the funds among the states. The Senate approved the plan over Republican objections before the month was out, the House followed suit a few weeks later, and the Federal Emergency Relief Act became law on May 12, 1933.
Roosevelt chose Hopkins as the relief administrator. The two had not had a close relationship in Albany; they had conferred perhaps a dozen times, by telephone more often than in person, but the agency had been successful, it had given Roosevelt no headaches, and he knew Hopkins was fast and energetic and bursting with ideas, all invaluable criteria for dealing with the national crisis. He called Hopkins to offer him the job on Friday, May 19. Hopkins’s secretary noted in his datebook, “Received telephone call from President Roosevelt requesting Mr. Hopkins to come down to Washington—on a temporary basis—to organize the Federal Relief Administration.”
Hopkins was eager to accept, but first the president had to wrest him from New York, which took some sleight of hand. “Very difficult to find a man fitted for this special work and felt Hopkins could get away for a month or two without interfering your state program,” Roosevelt telegraphed Herbert H. Lehman, his successor as governor. He had also to contend with a rich offer from Jesse Straus, who was trying to lure Hopkins to Macy’s. Both the state and Macy’s jobs paid more than the $8,000 federal relief administrator’s salary—in Straus’s case the offer was $25,000, and Hopkins needed money, since half his salary went to child support. But his social conscience was not susceptible to money, and he knew the federal relief job would let him apply on a grand scale the lessons he had learned at TERA. He accepted the job, taking an almost 50 percent cut from his $15,000 state salary, the minute Lehman agreed to let him go. The Senate confirmed his appointment the next day and his datebook closed out his New York career. “Took train to Washington on Sunday,” he wrote.