Before long, however, they would be. Almost as soon as it began, the CWA began to wind to a conclusion. Roosevelt got from Congress the $950 million Hopkins had sought to complete the program and resume direct relief, but refused appeals from some senators and governors to ask for more. New York’s Governor Lehman said he feared “grave social and economic consequences” when the program was shut down. The American Association of Social Workers, citing a “serious feeling of insecurity,” urged that it continue. And after the announcement that it actually would end, the White House received more than 50,000 protesting letters and 7,000 telegrams in a single week.
CWA field workers reported that the program had raised expectations that might be difficult to bring back down to earth. “I’m a little afraid,” Hickok wrote from Georgia, “that some of these people down here do not realize that the CWA business can’t go on forever.”
But Roosevelt refused to relent. The program had cost more than he anticipated, and despite Hopkins’s largely successful efforts to find and expose corruption before it could fester, he worried that accusations alone, coming from Republicans and the anti–New Deal press, would become a liability in a midterm election year. Conservative Democrats had voiced fears, shared by some of Roosevelt’s advisors, that the government would never be able to wean people from their jobs if they got too used to them, and Hickok’s letter to Hopkins suggested the same thing. The Public Works Administration had at last broken ground on several multimillion-dollar projects, including the Boulder Dam across the Colorado River in Nevada and the Triborough Bridge in New York City, and Roosevelt hoped these would finally give the economy the boost he had anticipated when the agency was launched. He didn’t want citizens to think the depression was permanent, or that the jobs the CWA provided would “become a habit with the country.” And while the winter was hurling record cold and snowfalls at the East, he took it for granted that nobody was going to starve once the weather moderated.
The Time magazine issue that featured Hopkins on its cover reported that he agreed wholeheartedly with Roosevelt that the CWA had been intended as a temporary emergency measure and “should be gradually demobilized.” But in his heart of hearts, wrote historian Robert Sherwood, Hopkins was reluctantly “obeying orders.” As in the Time report, his public comments masked his disappointment. He had announced rules and regulations for the phaseout at a news conference three days earlier, which he opened with an anecdote. “You know, this is a great job,” he said. “Here is a letter from a man who had a faithful wife, but he was unfaithful to her. He wants me to write her to take him back.”
“Well, you are the relief administrator and he needs relief,” said one of the reporters.
After some more banter, Hopkins went on to say that the CWA would drop workers in families where more than one person was employed, as well as all people “with other resources,” in an effort to keep the program at full strength in all industrial cities through the winter. And again he repeated his support of Roosevelt’s position: “We have tried here to do an emergency job and we believe that it has been done, and these appropriations from Congress are for the purpose of meeting the emergency needs, and do not represent an indication of permanent government policy.”
Once it began in the third week of February, the phaseout first hit rural areas and the warming South. The pink slips that signaled the program’s end, advancing north with the weather, left remarkable changes in their wake. At the literal end of the United States in Key West, Florida, CWA workers had swarmed over the rundown buildings of the flat-broke town, hammering, plastering, painting, and even building an aquarium to encourage tourism that would be brought by a new road. In Palatka, Florida, azaleas and palm trees planted by the CWA had transformed a fifty-nine-acre ravine carved by the St. Johns River into a magnificent garden. Dozens of public buildings in Texas and Oklahoma displayed new western-themed murals. CWA workers in Pittsburgh had helped move the forty-two-story Cathedral of Learning at the heart of the University of Pittsburgh closer to completion. In Helena, Montana, they renovated parts of the state capitol and refaced the building’s copper dome. Atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, the walls and stairwells of the new Coit Tower were being filled with vibrant scenes of street life in the city by the bay. In Mississippi, sagging rural schools were shored up and plumb and sparkling with new paint; more money had been spent on them in the CWA’s brief life than in the previous twenty years.
New sanitary privies had appeared in great numbers, 150,000 or more. Hopkins joked that some of them might be named for him, since contractors had been told to put up CWA signs at each jobsite and one had cabled to ask if he wanted a sign on each privy or one for the whole site.
By February 23, 720,000 CWA workers had been demobilized, and some 3 million remained at work. CWA workers were still on the job in Salt Lake City on the morning of March 12, painting the inside of the capitol dome, when an earthquake struck; it wrenched their scaffold into a dizzying spin that then subsided so they were able to climb down, shaken but unhurt. In New York City, parks commissioner Moses kept men at work in three shifts around the clock, digging, paving, painting, and planting through snow, sleet, rain, and cold. Then, despite the appeals of Norman Thomas and others in a march on Washington, on March 31 the CWA’s construction program ended. Artists and researchers kept working under other programs, and half the remaining workers shifted onto FERA’s payroll to mop up unfinished jobs. The rest went back on direct relief.
In its brief life the CWA had spent almost a billion dollars. Earning an average salary of $13 a week, its workers had built or improved some half a million miles of road, not just in the United States but in every U.S. territory. They had built or renovated 40,000 schools and 3,700 playgrounds and athletic fields. Under the whip hand of Moses and his “ramrods,” they had restored every park in New York City. They had built 469 airports and improved 529 more. They had dug ditches into which they had laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe, and built 250,000 outdoor privies. CWA-paid masons, carpenters, painters, and cleaners had improved thousands of public buildings including state capitols, city halls, county courthouses, libraries, police stations, hospitals, and jails. Hundreds of other buildings that were beyond rehabilitation had been torn down. Workers had refurbished irrigation ditches in the drought-parched West. In the South, they had drained thousands of acres of swampland and in the process advanced malaria control. They had restocked countless lakes and streams with fish. Ninety-four Eskimos working in the Kodiak Islands of what was then the Territory of Alaska replenished the snowshoe rabbit population. CWA sewing rooms, using surplus cotton, made tens of thousands of mattresses that went to relief families. The agency took over a bankrupt underwear maker, rehired its workers at CWA wages, and produced sets of underwear for families who could not afford to buy their own. About 300,000 women worked at CWA jobs, in the sewing rooms, as teachers, and in professional roles such as nurses and home economists within the growing relief system.
Hopkins summarized the program this way: “I think it was a grand thing and that it was altogether successful…'these millions of men and women did excellent work, worked hard and earned their money. As an effort on the part of the government to meet a critical situation, it seems to me that it did the trick and that the stories about graft and politics and inefficiencies were relatively unimportant, and that it has resulted in works of social usefulness that will be beneficial for years to come. When you realize that not a single county in America was omitted from this enterprise, it seems to me that it speaks well for the kind of cooperative endeavor that can be done by the American people in a crisis.”
But by the time he said this, at a March 30 news conference as the clock was ticking to its zero hour, he was already backing away from his earlier statements supporting its demise. The CWA may have been a temporary program to meet an emergency need, but he hoped the government would stay in the business of providing jobs to the unemployed: “I would hate to see a decline in the work program and a return to direct relief. Of course, we have some serious financial problems to work out.”
He was working on these problems, Hopkins said. But for the moment, in the spring of 1934, the great surge of public works and jobs was in retreat as the hopeful administration awaited signs that the economy might finally be improving on its own.