PART III

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THE DAWN OF THE WPA

$3,187,000 Relief Is Spent Teaching Jobless to Play: “Boon Doggles” Made

—HEADLINE, NEW YORK TIMES, APRIL 4, 1935

They are damn good projects—excellent projects…'dumb people criticize something they do not understand, and that is what is going on up there—God damn it!

—HARRY HOPKINS, APRIL 4, 1935

1. TOWARD A PERMANENT JOBS PROGRAM

The Civil Works Administration was over, but its vast spending and its swarms of workers, its variety of jobs and range of projects, were a vivid prelude to what lay ahead. The patronage grabs that it inspired, the bureaucratic jockeying and political warfare, were also a foretaste. And when this prelude was gone, the first to miss it—other than the workers it helped sustain through the harsh winter—were governors and mayors who saw the dust settle on open ditches, partly surfaced roads, and public buildings hung with scaffolding as the workers who had manned them headed back to the relief lines.

With the demise of the CWA, FERA resumed its role as the lead work relief agency. In addition to picking up as many of the unfinished CWA projects as he could, Hopkins also sent word through his state offices that FERA was accepting a limited number of new applications. Many FERA reliefers worked on construction or sewing jobs; others taught, immunized children, or performed research. But compared to the flurry of jobs created by the CWA, the number of workers under FERA continued to be a small percentage of the total unemployed. There were never more than 2.5 million workers employed on FERA projects, 2 million fewer than those who worked for the CWA. The hated means test was back in force, and the private economy was still not picking up the slack. In the spring of 1934, therefore, unemployment remained stubbornly above 10 million, and more than 18 million were receiving some form of relief.

Within the inner councils of the White House, Hopkins continued to argue for a much expanded jobs program. This went against the counsel of other of Roosevelt’s advisors, including postmaster general and politico Jim Farley, who was looking ahead to the fall elections and trying to win business support by holding down relief spending. By April, Hopkins believed that he had won the day. In an April 18 telephone conversation with Colonel Henry M. Waite, the deputy administrator of the Public Works Administration and the author of the PWA’s project criteria, Hopkins hinted that Roosevelt was ready to launch a three-to-five-year program that would spend as much as $6 billion on “projects we will get the dollars back on.” Such projects included building housing, highways, and traffic-easing grade eliminations at congested road and rail crossings, and carrying electricity deeper into rural areas. “The big boss is getting ready to go places in a big way,” Hopkins told Waite.

His reading of the president was premature. Roosevelt continued to believe that families on relief would fare better during the summer months, and he still held out hope that the economy would rebound before the next winter arrived, foreclosing the need for massive work relief. In the meantime he, like Farley, had the upcoming elections to consider.

But Hopkins pushed forward undeterred. He and his top aides had recognized that the CWA had had a limited effect. It had boosted sales and production levels for a short time, but it had not pushed the economy past the tipping point into strong growth. Once the stimulus provided by the jobs was removed, sales and production lapsed back into stagnation. Assessing these results, they believed that only a big and ongoing works program could pump enough money into the economy to bring it around. They also believed this kind of program was necessary to prepare jobless workers physically, psychologically, and spiritually for the moment when the private economy finally did take off. It would “prevent deterioration of moral fibre, not only in the persons engaged on the projects, but in their families, by maintaining the heads in the normal relationship of breadwinners for their dependents.” It would also forestall “the lapsing of skilled workers and highly trained and professional people into a vast pool of unqualified inepts” by keeping them “in practice and in physical condition.” A massive public jobs program would thus serve a dual purpose: it would help bring the economy to life and at the same time ready workers to face the requirements that new and longed-for day would thrust upon them.

Before that happened, however, there were still many hungry mouths to feed. Farm surpluses provided one potential source of food, but attempts to use these surpluses got off to a macabre and troubled start. The year before, Roosevelt’s push to control farm production through the Agricultural Adjustment Administration had come too late to affect the planting season; wheat and corn were already in the ground. At the same time, hog producers were seeing their stock grow healthy and fertile on the previous year’s feed corn. Drought forestalled a wheat surplus in 1933, but in the South the cotton grew profusely and in the corn belt farrowing hogs produced a bumper crop of piglets. With warehouses already groaning with baled cotton, and hogs selling for less than they cost to raise, the administration asked farm experts for advice. The answer was unanimous: pay the farmers, kill the piglets, and plow the cotton under.

This went deeply against the grain. It offended the act of farming itself. Milo Reno of the Farmers’ Holiday Association said that “for the government to destroy food and reduce crops…'is wicked.” Nevertheless, the plan went forward and that August, across the cotton belt, farmers beat their mules to make them do the very thing they had taught them not to do—trample the cotton stalks as they walked down the plant rows. Together mules and machines plowed up 10 million acres of new cotton, for which farmers collected $100 million. And the following month, the AAA bought 6 million piglets and 200,000 pregnant sows and had them slaughtered, producing shocked news headlines and a public outcry, aimed not at the slaughter itself but at the fact that the slaughtered pigs were young or gravid.

In a much-quoted statement, agriculture secretary Henry Wallace, forced to defend the program, wondered why people thought that “every little pig has the right to attain before slaughter the full pigginess of his pigness. To hear them talk, you would have thought that pigs were raised for pets.”

But the protests against the slaughter, and the problem of farm surpluses in general, pushed the administration to create a way to turn waste into relief stores. As Hopkins put it later, “If there were great food surpluses while people went hungry, the public could rightly be revolted.” The result was the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, chartered on October 4, 1933, with Hopkins as its president and Wallace and Harold Ickes of the PWA its other officers. This was an arm of FERA, which would distribute the supplies through its nationwide network of relief offices. Authorized to spend $75 million, the corporation negotiated prices and processed the surplus products into food, clothing, and other necessities. More than 100 million pounds of baby pork immediately went into the relief food chain. In 1934, as the operation grew more sophisticated, it expanded to include beef and veal, butter and cheese, wheat and flour, potatoes and rice, cereal, apples, cabbage, sweet potatoes, sugar, and cane syrup. It distributed heating fuel, mostly in the form of coal. It bought raw wool and had it processed into blankets that went to relief families, and almost 120,000 bales of surplus cotton were made into clothing or bedclothes at FERA sewing operations. The corporation also purchased feed and seed that allowed drought-stricken farmers to maintain their stock and to plant again.

But now the drought that had stunted the 1933 wheat crop continued into 1934. Drought had been a fact of life in the Great Plains and the West for at least three years. Grass cropped close by grazing sheep and cattle had withered and died, and with nothing to tie the topsoil to the earth beneath, the prairie winds had sucked it up into the sky. Fourteen dust storms hit the five-state region of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas in 1932, thirty-eight in 1933. These storms, airborne avalanches of dirt, blocked the sun, turned day to night, buried buildings and vehicles, and choked humans and animals caught out of doors when they descended. The dust invaded everything. It blew through keyholes, under doors, and around window frames. Families wore dust masks and sealed the sills with towels or tape at night, and still woke up to find bucketsful of dust drifting on their floors. It found its way inside sleeves, up pants cuffs, and down collars; it got into food, so every bite was gritty. Despite the masks, it caused dust pneumonia in the lungs and made people who gulped for air vomit dirt. And the drought zone kept widening, affecting the Dakotas, Texas, Arizona, Utah, and ultimately twenty-seven states in all. Dust clouds could be seen as far east as Albany, New York.

The worst storm of all came in May 1934. Starting on May 9, strong winds vacuumed some 350 million tons of dirt into the sky and carried it eastward on the jet stream. It fell like black snow across Chicago, darkened Washington, D.C., turned street lamps on at noon in New York and Boston, and dusted the decks of ships at sea in the Atlantic. In its aftermath came summer heat so intense that on top of the drought and loss of grazing land, it brought millions of sheep and cattle to the brink of starvation. In Navajo County, Arizona, hungry cattle roamed into Holbrook, the county seat, and cropped at shrubs and flowers. In Utah, the Mormons prayed, the Coyote Clan of Hopi Indians performed snake dances, and according to historian Leonard J. Arrington, “even the grasshoppers were starving” from the lack of rain.

The government intervened to try to ease the drought and the tragedy of starving livestock. FERA workers used $1 million in emergency funds to build wells and irrigation projects in Utah. Four million sheep and cattle were killed and buried in the dusty earth that could not sustain them, but millions more, purchased by the AAA, were rounded up and shipped to slaughterhouses for processing into food, leather, and wool by the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. More than 650 million pounds of dressed canned beef went to relief families, along with countless blankets and pairs of shoes.

But these were stopgap efforts, not a substitute for work, and FERA’s work programs were still providing only a fraction of the jobs required. So as the year progressed, Hopkins and his aides drafted several plans for large jobs programs with costs ranging from $4 billion to $9 billion, and then waited for the right time to try to sell them to the president.

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