Commentary / History

The Emergency Jobs Program of 1933-34

By Nancy Spannaus

Nov. 21, 2020—When FDR’s relief expert Harry Hopkins told FDR about the looming emergency for tens of millions of Americans in the winter of 1933-34, FDR authorized action. If nothing were done, Hopkins had said, people would starve en masse. Immediate action was needed, because, as he so memorably said, “people don’t eat in the long run; they eat every day.”

Thus was born the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which could be called the emergency jobs program of 1933-34. It began on November 9, 1933. By mid-January 1934, it had employed more than four million people, and supporting millions more in their families.

The Emergency Jobs Program of 1933-34

CWA workers building a library in Maryland.

The FDR administration had been operating relief programs since the spring of 1933, but Hopkins, the chief administrator, knew it wasn’t enough. Funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration required matching funds from the states and involved means tests which discouraged many proud, but desperate people. The private sector had not picked up hiring. A brutal winter was approaching. Additional measures had to be taken immediately.

Productive Jobs

The final plan called for the Federal government itself to hire this huge workforce. The accomplishments of this short-term program, often vilified as “make-work”, were astonishing.

The CWA workforce built or improved about 500,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, over 3,500 playgrounds and athletic fields, a thousand miles of water mains, and 1000 airports. In addition, it provided teacher salaries to keep schools open, and salaries for artists, writers, and researchers. The workers also participated in major local construction projects, such as renovation of Montana’s State Capitol Building, and Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

CWA projects were actually determined by local governments, but the funds for salaries came from the Federal government. Those salaries were higher than those paid by relief funds, providing income a little closer to a living wage.

The Emergency Jobs Program of 1933-34

Cathedral of Learning, part of the University of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Summarizing the CWA’s accomplishments in his book Spending to Save: The Complete Story of Relief, Hopkins put it this way:

Long after the workers of CWA are dead and gone and these hard times forgotten, their effort will be remembered by permanent useful works in every county of every state. People will ride over bridges they made, travel on their highways, attend schools they built, navigate waterways they improved, do their public business in courthouses and state capitols which workers from CWA rescued from disrepair. Constantly expanded and diversified to offer use for the special skills and training of different types of workers, the CWA program finally extended its scope to almost every kind of community activity. We had two hundred thousand CWA projects.

Indeed, we are still living on the infrastructure CWA workers, among others in the New Deal jobs programs, provided today.

Lessons Learned?

Under pressure from conservative critics, and with the specter of huge Federal deficits, FDR cancelled the CWA in March of 1934. Four million people were fired. But its mission – creating jobs to rebuild the shattered American economy and social fabric – was picked up in 1935 through the programs of the Works Progress Administration, and FDR’s “national bank,” the Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

The lesson implicit in FDR’s and Hopkins’ emergency action should be clear. When there is an emergency, with millions of lives at stake, the Federal government has the responsibility to act. This is the principle of the General Welfare, which was elaborated by none other than Alexander Hamilton in his Report on Manufactures more than 200 years ago.

An unemployment line today

And can anyone deny we face an emergency today?  Under pressure from the rampaging virus, more of the economy is again being forced to shut down. After trillions of dollars have been thrown into propping up the major financial institutions and the Wall Street bubble, we still face a social disaster. Supplemental unemployment benefits are about to run out; mass evictions are looming; and it is clear that a huge percentage of small businesses, despite government infusions, are not going to reopen. Hunger and depression are reaching epidemic proportions, with the inevitable concomitant of increased violence, drug addiction, and social conflict. This crisis is hitting every area of the country, just as it did during the Great Depression.

We need jobs, productive jobs, rebuilding an industrial economy that can provide modern transportation, clean water, reliable electric energy, broadband, new hospitals. The long-term solution requires all the elements of the American System: reining in the speculative financial system, creating a national infrastructure bank (See H.R. 6422), launching crash Federal projects on the frontiers of science, such as thermonuclear fusion.

But, as Hopkins said, hunger is not long-term. What’s stopping us from launching an emergency jobs program now?

Nancy Spannaus is the author of Hamilton Versus Wall Street: The Core Principles of the American System of Economics.

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