8. THE BIRTH OF THE CIVIL WORKS ADMINISTRATION

FERA continued to compile data revealing the sweep of unemployment idling laborers, skilled-trades workers, and professionals. Harry Hopkins, looking at their full range of talents, could imagine “a stupendous and varied work program.” And as he looked at the approaching winter, the more he believed such a program had to be put together quickly.

Roosevelt shared his dismay at the slow pace of jobs growth, but unlike Hopkins, the president had politics to think about. He wanted to keep peace with organized labor, and he needed a sign that the unions would support a new federal jobs program. So Hopkins bided his time while he looked for a means of persuasion. Late in October, he boarded a train for a football weekend in Chicago and lunch with University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins. Frank Bane and Louis Brownlow, director of the Public Administration Clearing House, who like Bane was serving Hopkins as an unofficial and unpaid advisor, met him on arrival. As they drove him to his appointment, they laid out statistics that argued for a jobs program aimed strictly at unemployed workers on relief. The figures were persuasive and gave Hopkins new selling points, but they did not give him the labor endorsement that the president required.

His next destination was Kansas City, Missouri, where he was booked to speak at a conference. His contacts there included Judge Harry S Truman, the federal reemployment director for Missouri, who also told Hopkins more job projects were needed. It was when he was in Kansas City that he received an excited call from Aubrey Williams, who was overseeing FERA’s relations with the states. Williams said he had spoken with labor expert John R. Commons in Madison, Wisconsin, and Commons had told him that back in 1898, American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers had recommended a government work program for the unemployed. Commons had reported this in the union magazine, the Federationist, and it was just what Hopkins needed to sell his plan to Roosevelt.

Hopkins saw the president over lunch the day he returned to Washington, and pressed his case. He said he could create 4 million jobs if he had the money to do it. Roosevelt mused that with Ickes moving so slowly, the PWA’s $3.3 billion remained largely unspent. Maybe Hopkins could use some of that money to help the unemployed through one more winter.

Five years earlier, during a visit to England, Hopkins had found himself at the house where poet John Keats had written “Ode to a Nightingale.” A Keats enthusiast, he wrote home that in recalling the experience, “I fairly walk on air.” Now, leaving the White House, he had the same exhilarated feeling. Roosevelt had promised to take $400 million from Ickes’s PWA to allow him to build a short-term jobs program, and the president hinted at the new program in a press conference the next day, November 3. “There is a great deal to be said for it…. It adds to the self-respect of the country,” he said. He stopped short of committing himself publicly, but Hopkins read between the lines. When an aide asked if Roosevelt had approved his proposal, he replied, “Approved it, hell—he has just announced it at his press conference.”

Hopkins hurriedly brought his staff together to begin mapping out the details. Working through the night in sessions at downtown Washington’s Hotel Powhatan, Hopkins, Williams, Baker, Bane, and others sketched out their thoughts and refined them, and in two days’ time sent a plan to Roosevelt for a temporary jobs agency that would last through the deepest part of winter.

Ickes learned about the raid on his budget on November 6, when the president sent Hopkins and others to meet with him to work out the $400 million transfer. The normally fretful Ickes raised no objections. He, too, thought the need for jobs was critical, and he saw Hopkins’s plans as a pale and puny imitation of what real public works were all about. “It will put up no buildings. It won’t build any sewers or water works or incinerators or bridges,” he wrote in his diary, so the new agency’s projects would be “of a minor character.” Nevertheless, he attempted to rope off big projects for himself, sending out a decree that no project sponsor could withdraw its application for Public Works Administration funds in the hope of getting the same work done by the new agency without having to put up matching money. If it did so and failed to win approval, that sponsor could not resubmit its plans to the PWA.

On November 9, 1933, less than two weeks after Hopkins’s Chicago visit and exactly a week after the lunch at which Hopkins had presented him with the idea, Roosevelt signed an executive order using Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act to create the Civil Works Administration (CWA). He announced the program the same day, and jobless workers saw their prospects brighten beyond what FERA had been able to provide—if only for a time.

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