Hopkins started work the next day, Monday, May 22. Space had been cleared in one of the RFC offices for the new relief operation, but before heading there he dropped by the White House at Roosevelt’s request. Behind the invitation lay the president’s concern that while his new relief administrator knew as well as anybody in the country how to put the necessities of life into hands that needed them, he knew less well, if at all, the demands that were about to descend on him for jobs and patronage. He wanted to brief Hopkins about the realities of political pressure and to reassure him that he could ignore politicians who wanted to swap jobs for votes or campaign support. The meeting lasted only about five minutes. Roosevelt said that relief had to be immediate, adequate, and dispensed without regard for politics, and that Hopkins was never to “ask whether a person needing relief is a Republican, Democrat, Socialist or anything else.”
Hopkins was pleased to have an ally in the president, whose directives reflected his own views. He objected on principle to the mutual backscratching that was the norm in politics, and he also knew that political interference would make it harder to build the decentralized, professionally run relief structure he envisioned.
Minutes after leaving the White House, he reached 1734 New York Avenue and the Walker-Johnson Building, situated between the Corcoran Gallery and the Washington Girl Scouts’ Little House, as the organization called its local meeting places. The place seemed appropriate to the needs of a relief agency, given its exposed steam pipes and an odor of poverty that to one visitor smelled like “a combination of hospital, locker room and stable.” There was also a cockroach problem, so it smelled of insecticide as well. At his tenth-floor office, no polished mahogany desk or other symbols of a grand bureaucracy awaited him. In fact, the office lacked any desk at all; it was still in the hall outside, together with chairs and cabinets, waiting for workmen to move it in. Without waiting for them, he pulled a chair up to the desk, sat down amid the scattered furniture, and composed a telegram to be fired off to the governors of all forty-eight states. Washington would henceforth be paying attention to their needs, he told them, and he instructed them to set up organizations for administering relief. Once the telegrams were dispatched, he started to throw together the beginnings of a staff. He drank coffee, chain-smoked Lucky Strikes, and moved through his duties like a sheriff in a Tom Mix western, leaving swirls of smoke to mark his progress. Before that first day was over, he had reviewed requests for RFC loans and under the aegis of the new agency, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA in the rapidly evolving alphabet soup of the New Deal, issued $5,336,317 in grants to eight states: Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas.
Hopkins’s swift, almost hungry grasp of his new position stunned a capital still getting over the inaction of the Hoover years. “Money Flies” read the Washington Post’s headline the next morning. The story under it predicted that the half-billion-dollar relief appropriation “won’t last a month if Harry L. Hopkins, relief administrator, maintains the pace he set yesterday in disbursing more than $5,000,000 during his first two hours in office.”
“I’m not going to last six months here, so I’ll do as I please,” Hopkins retorted.
Assembling his staff, he chose his closest aides from among a lifetime of social work contacts. One of them was Frank Bane, the head of the American Public Welfare Association, which Bane had organized just two years earlier. The two men had met when they were doing Red Cross relief work in Mississippi during the world war; they had stayed in touch, and Bane agreed to come to the Emergency Relief Administration as an unpaid consultant. As his chief deputy, Hopkins hired American Public Welfare Association fieldworker Aubrey Williams, an Alabaman who had grown up poor, fought in the world war, and stayed on in France to earn a doctorate at the University of Bordeaux. Alan Johnstone, a Harvard law school graduate, headed the South Carolina Relief Administration before he came to FERA as a field representative for the Southeast, and other aides included holdovers from the RFC’s Emergency Relief Division and workers from the Community Chest and other private social agencies. But experience in social work was not a strict prerequisite. Jacob Baker, a former high school teacher, personnel and engineering consultant, and founder of the Vanguard Press, was hired to head the work division. Corrington Gill, with a degree in economics and statistics, had tracked hiring and unemployment data for Hoover’s Federal Employment Stabilization Board before becoming a reporter and later business manager of the Washington Press Service. He visited Hopkins one day to offer his help, and Hopkins promptly hired him to compile the vast array of statistics on relief cases, unemployment, and other evidence of need he would use to guide the work of FERA. Thus, backgrounds varied; what mattered was that Hopkins’s top staff all shared his commitment to federal relief and his capacity for crushingly long hours.
They were few in number. Hopkins rejected the bureaucratic tendency to multiply just as he spurned the corner office and the big desk. He wanted a handful of people he could trust, and he refused to shoehorn them into an organizational chart to satisfy other bureaucrats. “I don’t want anybody around here to waste any time drawing boxes,” he told inspectors from the Bureau of the Budget when they came to look at the way his agency was organized. During FERA’s first year, he ran it with a Washington staff of 121 people whose combined salaries totaled $22,000 a month.
RFC transfers made up the bulk of FERA’s field staff. Since they had already been working with state and local officials on loan requests, they gave Hopkins a quick way to prepare these governments to handle the flow of federal money to the poor. He divided the nation into ten districts and dispatched field representatives to introduce the new structure to state and local workers. Few states had highly evolved welfare organizations staffed with professional social workers. Most were outmoded agencies filled with political hacks whose attitudes echoed those of the Elizabethan poor laws: they believed they were serving lazy individuals who didn’t deserve the charity they got. This was where Hopkins’s impatience flared hottest, and when he encountered resistance to putting relief into the hands that needed it, he had the option, with Roosevelt’s approval, of federalizing a state’s relief structure and appointing his own administrators.
FERA’s first charge was to drag families back from the edge of starvation, put clothes on their backs, and give them shelter. “In more places than could be believed,” Hopkins wrote later, “families had been asked to live on two dollars a month.”
Half of the $500 million relief appropriation was to be spent as matching funds, one federal dollar for every three state and local dollars spent on relief during the previous three months. Because some states and many cities had exhausted their resources, the other $250 million was for outright grants, but Hopkins also recognized that some states might say they were broke even if they weren’t, so from the start he dispatched teams of public finance experts to scour their books for hidden funds. Despite such precautions, however, spending continued at the frantic pace suggested by his first hours on the job. By the end of June, he had parceled out $51 million in grants and matching funds to forty-five states, the District of Columbia, and the Territory of Hawaii, and family subsistence levels were rising toward an eventual $15 a month.
Those first federal dollars undoubtedly saved lives. But Hopkins wanted to move quickly from providing handouts to providing jobs. Logic and his own experience had given him strong feelings about this. The memories of more than twenty years earlier, when he was working for Christodora House, stayed with him. In one family in his caseload, a young boy was shot and killed while stealing milk to feed his sister. He had seen lines of people with their feet wrapped in rags shuffling their way along to receive their single daily meal of crude soup dipped out of a garbage can; entire families sickened by the damp, cold basements that were the only places they could afford to live in and from which they were cast out onto the street when they couldn’t afford them any longer. Nonetheless, most people sought charity only as a last resort. In the soup lines and the dank basements, they were at least anonymous. Asking an agency for help was different; thus identified by name, they themselves were devalued.
It was as true now as when Hopkins had been a beginning social worker. The application offices run by local relief boards, which determined eligibility, lined the needy up in open rooms to confess their poverty to clerks who assumed they were lying. They could own nothing that had any value. Survival was parceled out in bits and pieces—food from a surplus commissary, chits for groceries from a store, donated clothes, a check given to the landlord, a bucket of coal for heat. The attitude of the time was that a person getting relief “must be made to feel his pauperism,” wrote Hopkins in his account of his federal relief work, Spending to Save. “Every help which was given him was to be given in a way to intensify his sense of shame.”
What was worse, it was a relief investigator’s job to share what he found with the community. Relief boards reported to schoolteachers, clergy, public nurses, and any other group that might provide assistance to the poor. The poor had no secrets.
Hopkins hated the paternalism of telling people what they needed and the ignominy of exposing their plight. If people on relief got handouts, he preferred that it be straight cash, with no strings attached. That, at least, gave them the freedom to spend part of a relief check on beer and cigarettes if that was what they wanted; the human spirit suffered more from loss of choice than loss of vitamins. But the truth was Hopkins didn’t like any form of direct relief at all. He wanted to give people jobs.
One federal work program—the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—was already in place. This was the reforestation initiative Roosevelt had first spoken of in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination. He had proposed it to Congress on March 21, and it was approved so swiftly that the president signed it into law only ten days later. The CCC enlisted the cabinet departments of Agriculture, Labor, War, and the Interior in coordinating a greater range of jobs than he had originally envisioned. The young men Roosevelt was sending to work on federal lands would upgrade the national parks and forests, improve flood control, and fight soil erosion. They would live in military-style camps that would be administered by the army.
Not everyone embraced the CCC at first. The American Federation of Labor objected on grounds that the proposed $30 monthly pay was too low. Socialist Norman Thomas feared that placing young men in outdoor work camps was a step toward the kind of fascism that was beginning to emerge in Europe. Only a few short weeks had passed since the end of February, when a fire had destroyed the German Reichstag and given Adolf Hitler the opportunity to claim dictatorial powers and proclaim the Third Reich, and one component of his power was “Hitler Youth,” bands of goosestepping teens who engaged in physical and military training. Roosevelt neutralized labor’s objections by appointing a vice president of the machinists union, Robert Fechner, to head the program, and worries about an American version of Hitler Youth emerging from the CCC camps never took hold. The first enrollee, Henry Rich, was inducted on April 7, a week after the program was approved, and the first camp opened ten days later in the George Washington National Forest near Luray, Virginia. It was named Camp Roosevelt, in honor of the president.
The CCC was limited to unmarried men between eighteen and twenty-five from families on relief, and $25 of the $30 monthly pay they earned had to be sent home. As they assembled at the quasi-military camps, the men encountered conditions that soldiers have always complained about: the food was bad, or at least monotonous; sleep was impossible in the tents and prefabricated barracks, which were either stifling or too drafty; city men ganged up against their country cousins and vice versa.
But despite these gripes, the CCC was popular from the start. A sense of camaraderie emerged as men from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco got to know their counterparts from small towns, farms, and ranches. Many corpsmen from the cities had never been out of earshot of the rumble of trucks and trains or the clatter of horsecarts. They had never slept out of doors, swum in running streams, or seen beyond the city lights to the stars of the Milky Way splashed across the night sky. They discovered a different country and a different world as they built fire observation towers, cleared firebreaks, planted trees by the millions to halt erosion, thinned overgrown forests, stocked fish, cleaned up and improved historic battlefields, and built shelters, paths, and camping areas. Most of them put on weight and added muscle. All this, plus money in the pocket and in the paychecks the government sent home, overwhelmed any complaints.
The CCC shared its one conspicuous failure with the nation as a whole. While almost one enrollee in ten was black, a number reflecting their percentage of the population, black Americans had been harder hit by the depression and were thus underrepresented in the CCC as a percentage of the poor. And while the CCC tried at first to integrate camps outside the South, this effort gave way to complaints from the communities where camps were located and to the army’s institutional racism. In 1935, Fechner would resegregate blacks into some 150 camps of their own and write Thomas L. Griffith, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who had complained to Roosevelt, that because blacks did equal work in the same conditions as whites, “this segregation is not discrimination.”
The CCC was barely a month old when over a thousand world war veterans, the remnants of the Bonus Expeditionary Force, returned to Washington to press their case with the new administration. For budgetary reasons, Roosevelt also opposed paying the bonuses immediately, but he gave the veterans a better welcome than Hoover had. Where Hoover had barricaded the White House, Roosevelt welcomed their leaders. Using his longtime political guru Louis Howe as an emissary, he provided them with tents, showers, and latrines at Fort Hunt, an abandoned army base across the Potomac River in Virginia. Army cooks manned a mess tent where three meals a day were served without charge, along with endless cups of coffee. Army doctors and dentists attended to medical and dental needs. A big tent was raised for meetings, and the navy band played for them. Eleanor Roosevelt went to visit them one muddy spring day, and they sang camp songs together. As one veteran said, “Hoover sent the army; Roosevelt sent his wife.” When new arrivals swelled their numbers to 3,000, Roosevelt offered them jobs in the CCC. Twenty-six hundred accepted once it was clear the bonuses weren’t going to be paid, and the rest took an offer of free rail transportation home.
Roosevelt’s estimate of a million jobs, however, had been wildly optimistic. More than 100,000 of the “CCC boys” were in the woods by June, with additional men signing up every day. August would see 1,500 camps and upward of 300,000 enrollees, but that would hardly dent the ranks of 15 million unemployed. Far more jobs were needed, and the administration was pushing to create them, directly through public works and indirectly through an engineered business revival. In mid-May, the president had presented a monumental two-part piece of legislation that was now working its way through the Congress. One part, Title I, attacked the vicious industrial Darwinism that had glutted the market with goods, shut down plants, and killed jobs even as it turned factories into sweatshops with child labor, seventy-hour workweeks, and wages as low as 15 cents an hour. In its place, the administration proposed a version of economic planning. It would regulate production by forming industries into voluntary trade associations exempt from antitrust laws. These would follow preset production levels, and adopt common standards—called codes—for wages, hours, and working conditions, and a minimum age for workers. The codes had force as penal statutes, although a system of government sanctions was expected to enforce compliance.
With private industry thus stabilized and, it was hoped, expanding and adding jobs, a flood of federal money into public works would add fuel to the economy as well as help enforce the voluntary standards in private industry. Title II, the second part of the legislation, proposed borrowing $3.3 billion to put into dams, bridges, and other large-scale projects that would both provide jobs and enhance the country’s infrastructure.
This legislation was called the National Industrial Recovery Act, and Congress passed it on June 13. Roosevelt signed it three days later, marking the end of the Hundred Days, the New Deal’s first thunderous volley of change. Its fifteen major pieces of legislation brought new protections to homeowners, farmers, and investors, provided necessities of life to those without them, established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as the instrument that would electrify the rural South, created new work programs, and attempted to force restraint on the inhumane world of industrial and agricultural laissez-faire. It was a stunning record, and it sent a message of hope to many across the nation and consternation to a few.