The hope for jobs, however, lay largely in the future. Through FERA, subsistence aid had begun to reach the starving, but except for the young CCC men planting trees and cutting firebreaks in the parks and forests, systematic efforts to create a large-scale work program had not yet begun to mesh. Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act envisioned massive and ambitious public works. So did the TVA, which would build forty-seven dams in six states—all of Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi—to provide flood control, river navigation, and, most important, affordable electricity to a neglected region. These programs would eventually reshape the lives of millions, but in the short run they would provide no jobs.
Roosevelt wanted to short-circuit this delay, and he talked with Harry Hopkins about creating more jobs immediately under FERA. In mid-June, the White House assembled a conference of state officials, including eight governors, to explain the agency’s policies and procedures. The president himself addressed the delegates, suggesting that they initiate practical projects such as road and street repair. It was important to put people to work quickly, said Roosevelt, but “there is no intention of using the public works funds to build a lot of useless projects disguised as relief. It is the purpose to encourage real public works.”
Three days later, on June 17, Hopkins addressed the National Conference of Social Work meeting in Detroit. He predicted that “between now and October first at least two million men are going to be put to work” under his emergency relief appropriation. He also hinted that the jobs to be created would employ not just unskilled laborers, the first casualties of the depression, but professionals as well. “We are now dealing with people of all classes,” he said. “It is no longer a matter of unemployables and chronic dependents, but of your friends and mine who are involved in this. Every one of us knows some family of our friends which is or should be getting relief. The whole picture comes closer to home than ever before.”
Hopkins made an additional point as well. He said—and it was the first time any federal official said it—that the people’s welfare was a direct federal obligation, that the government should provide relief without the artificial pretense of sending it through local governments and private charities. It was a pronouncement that would dictate welfare policy, for better or worse, for the next sixty years.
FERA’s first projects were inherited. These were mostly temporary and haphazard jobs originally launched by state and local governments using Reconstruction Finance Corporation loans. They continued while FERA’s Division of Research, Statistics, and Finance struggled to get a clear picture of the range of work needs; prior studies, such as the one done under Colonel Arthur Woods’s direction while Hoover was still president, were badly out-of-date. Indeed, a truly comprehensive picture of poverty and joblessness in the United States had never been possible under the previous patchwork of local governments and charitable agencies. The picture that was now emerging showed unemployment in almost every job category, which to Hopkins and his aides at FERA meant an opportunity to attack a wide range of social needs.
“Here is the chance of a lifetime to do something about some of these things if we have any brains at all,” he had said in Detroit. “I am for experimenting…'trying out schemes which are supported by reasonable people and see if they work. If they do not work, the world will not come to an end.”
There were, for example, vast numbers of teachers out of work, at the same time that there were still greater numbers of illiterate or semiliterate adults whose lack of education shut them off from jobs. Hopkins saw this as a prescription for adult education, a prescription whose final component fell into place because cash-strapped school districts, unable to offer full curriculums, had space to spare. As he wrote later in Spending to Save, “It might be all right to give groceries or cash relief to an unemployed textile worker, and let his former customer go without sheets. Sheets are private, and it is a matter of taste and nobody’s business whether you use them or not.” On the other hand, “to feed the school teacher and dispense with his services was not enough. With more leisure, there was a greater demand for education, both to while away the boredom, and to acquire and improve skills for a constantly more critical labor market.”
Thus teachers became the first white-collar workers hired under FERA; indeed, the agency would eventually put tens of thousands of teachers to work. They primarily conducted classes for unemployed adults in literacy and general education, vocational education, and vocational rehabilitation—but they also made it possible to reopen nursery schools that had been closed for lack of funds.
Unemployed textile workers fit the same prescription, despite Hopkins’s breezy—and utterly inconsistent—dismissal of their importance to consumers. Sheets may have been a matter of choice, but FERA’s field reports confirmed that millions of families were literally living in rags, and many needed blankets and mattresses as well as clothing. Completing this equation were countless vacant storefronts and unused factory buildings. FERA began renting these spaces and setting up sewing operations, hiring workers who had been thrown out of textile jobs to cut, stitch, stuff, and sew. Commercial garment and bedclothes manufacturers objected that these relief goods would steal their markets, but Hopkins begged to differ. He argued that the families receiving goods produced by the sewing rooms could not afford to buy them, so nobody was losing any business; and as he pointed out, once the sewing room workers started getting paid, they might start buying clothes and sheets again.
But even an innovator such as Hopkins could not have imagined some of the work that FERA proposals led to. The central Louisiana town of Marksville applied for funds to build a park and a swimming pool on some city-owned land alongside the Old River. The project would employ more than a hundred laborers, and it was quickly approved. But Indian mounds on the park site had already attracted the attention of archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution, who knew that remains of an early native American culture called the Hopewell had been excavated nearby. FERA workers were already digging the swimming pool when they turned up Hopewell artifacts, and local amateur archaeologists persuaded the town to switch the project to an archaeological dig. The Smithsonian’s assistant curator of archaeology, Frank M. Setzler, arrived in Marksville in late August to supervise the revamped project. He and his assistant had worried that untrained laborers would destroy vital pieces of the early culture, but their fears were unrealized. The local diggers excavated the site just as well as trained workers could have done it, and as potsherds, stone knives, spear and arrow points, and pipes emerged from the mounds and the outlines of a native village became visible, the archaeologists found themselves with the rare luxury of workers to spare on a dig that covered several acres.
Both the projects FERA inherited and those it initiated under Hopkins eventually put some 2 million people to work, most in local road building and street repair. But as the summer of 1933 stretched into the fall, none of the new programs was creating enough jobs. The biggest laggard was the Public Works Administration (PWA), the agency designated to build large-scale public works under Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Roosevelt had placed interior secretary Harold L. Ickes in charge of the PWA, and Ickes was moving slowly. One problem was the very size and nature of the projects the PWA was undertaking. Some of the blueprints anticipated structures that were clearly grand in scope and execution, such as the Triborough Bridge linking Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx in New York City, or the bridge spanning San Francisco Bay that would connect Oakland and San Francisco. But others were multipurpose works whose combination of ambition and good intentions was meant to effect change on a much wider scale. The PWA was now responsible for the construction called for in the region-wide hydroelectric, flood control, and irrigation projects of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. One of these was the Colorado River Project. Its centerpiece, the huge Boulder Dam in a deep chasm of the Colorado in Nevada, had been started in 1931, but the plans called for more dams up and down the Colorado that would supply water and electricity to parched urban outposts such as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, and also pipe irrigation water to farmers in California’s Imperial Valley. The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River at Spokane, Washington, would absorb $63 million in PWA funds; more than 500 feet high and 4,173 feet across the top, at the time the largest structure in the world, it would back up water 150 miles all the way to Canada. At almost four miles in length, Montana’s Fort Peck Dam, costing $50 million, would be four times longer than any other earth dam in the world, and would back up the Missouri River into a 175-mile recreational lake while providing similar benefits of electricity, flood control, and water. By their nature, projects such as these, requiring elaborate and time-consuming preparations ranging from land purchases and site surveys to engineering, topographic studies, and sheafs of blueprints, took a long time to reach the construction stage, when at last they would put needed paychecks in the hands of workers.
But another problem was Ickes himself. Sixty years old, rotund, bespectacled, and affable-looking, he concealed within this avuncular exterior a vein of fretfulness and a host of prickly sensitivities that he recorded in a daily diary. He was intensely mindful of his role in the administration and his perception of how the president treated him. He was equally mindful of his stewardship of the $3.3 billion with which he had been entrusted. He was determined that the money be spent on substantial projects that would enhance the national wealth, and that corruption and graft would not intrude. This attention to the public trust had marked his career as a politically active lawyer dedicated to progressivism. It had earned him the nickname “Honest Harold,” though this was a tag he didn’t like nearly as much as another nickname, the “Old Curmudgeon,” which did indeed suggest his personality. He signaled early on that he was likely to vet each project application personally to make sure it fit his standards for planning, engineering, and legal and financial soundness. This meant that applications backed up while Ickes went over the fine print.
A further complication lay in the fact that contractors would do the hiring for PWA projects and there was no requirement that they give preference to or even take workers on relief. And while simple labor certainly would be a component of each project, the skills inherent in these elaborate jobs meant that many of the first people hired for them were less likely to be on relief.
Yet another hope for reversing unemployment, albeit indirectly, lay in Title I, the other half of the National Industrial Recovery Act. This was the component that meant to bring work standards and production limits to industry, and within weeks of passage the act’s governing arm, the National Recovery Administration (NRA), had become synonymous with the New Deal. Its head, General Hugh S. Johnson, was profane, hard-drinking, and inexhaustible, a retired army general who had run the purchasing arm of the War Industries Board during the world war. Also known as “Old Ironpants,” Johnson had written the act and seen its two components as working hand in hand. He was furious when Roosevelt put Ickes in charge of public works, but he swallowed his anger and stayed on to run the NRA. Even without the PWA as part of his arsenal, he managed to command public opinion in favor of the NRA and to persuade associations representing 2 million employers to adopt the codes. Those who signed on displayed a logo symbolizing their participation. The blue eagle, topping a message of solidarity against the depression—“We Do Our Part”—vaulted into prominence during the summer of 1933.
As far as new jobs were concerned, however, the NRA ultimately proved to be a force for stabilization rather than expansion; it was designed to increase purchasing power among those already working. The idea was that the money they returned to the economy would lead to increased production and thus more jobs. At best, this would be a gradual process. Therefore, with neither private industry nor the PWA adding jobs fast enough, and winter on the way, some new job-creating engine had to be found if the millions on relief—and those who soon would be—were to make it through the winter.