In American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. author Nick Taylor describes how Harry Hopkins, director of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration (CWA), put over four million American to work in the winter of 1933-34
Hopkins was not a businessperson, but he became Roosevelt’s closest adviser. When Hopkins became sick, Roosevelt had him moved into and cared for in the White House. Hopkins was not an investment banker like Rahm Emanual, a financial technician like Timothy Geithner, or an economist like Larry Summers. He had spent his entire life doing social work.
Hopkins first came to the attention of Franklin Roosevelt in 1931. President Hoover had vetoed multi-billion appropriations for federal work relief programs, and called upon state and local governments, and charities, to supply the needs of the citizens, to relieve the national government of the great burden of having to run a deficit. "No one is actually starving," Hoover said. "The hoboes are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day." (Yeah, the wrong-wingers’ rantings have not changed all that much – highlighting this is one of the many great attributes of Taylor’s book.) But in New York City, the Health Department recorded twenty deaths by starvation in 1931. The next year, there were 95 deaths by starvation.
Roosevelt was governor of New York, and he appointed the president of the R. H. Macy department store, Jesse Straus, as director of the state’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA). (This was a time when the idea of the "the general welfare" had not yet been destroyed by conservative economic doctrines, and also when the idea of noblesse oblige still rattled about the brainpans of American elites.) Straus selected Hopkins as TERA's executive director, where Hopkins’ efficient management, combined with a near-manic pace -- by January 1932, 1.2 million New Yorkers, or one in ten, were receiving TERA aid -- attracted Governor Roosevelt’s attention and admiration. In March 1932, FDR promoted Hopkins to the presidency of TERA when Straus resigned. Hopkins remained a close adviser to FDR through the remainder of their lives, and became a close friend and confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt.
In March 1933, Roosevelt was able to bring Hopkins to Washington by promising his successor as New York governor, Herbert H. Lehman, that Hopkins’ absence from TERA would be "temporary." Supposedly, all Hopkins had to do was help FDR get the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) going. The new Senate had quickly approved Roosevelt’s request to use $500 million in unspent Reconstruction Finance Corporation funds to set up FERA -- over the objections of Republicans, of course.
Hopkins blew into Washington like a hurricane. Finding that furniture had not yet been moved into his office in the building next to the Corcoran Art Gallery, Hopkins grabbed a chair and sat down at his desk at its temporary place in the hallway. Within the next two hours, Hopkins had approved and issued $5,336,317 in grants to Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Texas. Republicans were aghast at the speed that money poured out of Hopkins’ hands. Taylor names this chapter after the headline in the Washington Post the day after Hopkins arrived and "gave away" $5 million in two hours: "Money Flies." FERA would remain the largest of the New Deal agencies during FDR’s first two years.
Another New Deal agency that had been established was the Public Works Administration (PWA), but it had been placed under the management of Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. Ickes was determined not only that there would be no fraud or graft, but that the $3.3 billion Congress had appropriated for PWA would be used only on "substantial" projects which would clearly benefit the nation. But as the autumn waned, Roosevelt and Hopkins began to fret at the slow pace of Ickes’ PWA, and feared what unemployed Americans and their hungry families would have to suffer during winter.
Taylor describes how Hopkins, on a trip to Chicago in late October, met with Frank Bane, head of the American Public Welfare Association, and Louis Brownlow, director of the Public Administration Clearing House, came away with the idea that became the CWA to help Americans get through the winter. Bane and Brownlow showed Hopkins some recently gathered statistics which amply confirmed Hopkins’ and Roosevelt’s fear of stubborn unemployment -- and a plan for a jobs program targeted directly at getting unemployed workers on relief back to work. As soon as Hopkins was back in Washington, he had lunch with FDR and explained the Bane / Brownlow plan for putting four million people to work over the winter. Roosevelt immediately saw that he could take $400 million or more from Icke’s $3.3 billion, which had hardly been touched, and implement Hopkins’ suggestion.
On November 6, Hopkins met with Ickes and informed him of the new program, and the diversion of $400 million from PWA. Three days later, FDR signed Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act, formally creating the CWA, with Hopkins in charge. On November 15, Hopkins summoned mayors and governors to Washington and told them that the new CWA aimed to employ 4 million people within the next month, and asked for them to forward all their "shovel ready" projects. By November 20, CWA staff were approving over 100 projects a day, and by the end of the month, the CWA payroll numbered 1.9 million. By mid-December, the CWA had 2.6 million workers. The Bureau of Printing and Engraving had to go to three shifts in order to print the checks. You can imagine what Republicans had to say about the money gushing out of Hopkins’ agencies. But for people who had not seen a paycheck for months or even years, the "click of pick and the clink of shovel are Christmas bells to many at this time," as the Wisconsin State Journal put it.
A year ago, Charles Peters and Timothy Noah wrote in Slate.
The CWA laid 12 million feet of sewer pipe and built or made substantial improvements to 255,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, 3,700 playgrounds, and nearly 1,000 airports (not to mention 250,000 outhouses still badly needed in rural America). Most of the jobs involved manual labor, to which most of the population, having been raised on the farm, was far more accustomed than it would be today. But the CWA also provided considerable white-collar work, employing, among others, statisticians, bookbinders, architects, 50,000 teachers, and 3,000 writers and artists. ("Hell, they've got to eat like other people," Hopkins noted matter-of-factly.) This was achieved with a remarkable minimum of overhead. Of the nearly $1 billion—the equivalent today of nearly $16 billion—that Hopkins spent during the CWA's five-month existence, 80 percent went directly into workers' pockets and thence stimulated the economy by going into the cash registers of grocers and shop owners. Most of the rest went to equipment costs. Less than 2 percent paid for administration.
The CWA ended in March 1934. Later, Hopkins would be put in charge of the Works Progress Administration, which is what most of Taylor’s book is about.
Putting 4 million people to work in 1934 would be like putting 9.6 million to work today. And there’s plenty more work than just $16 billion that needs to be done: How about 19 million new jobs created with a $5.8 trillion infrastructure program?
Here's what's needed just to REPAIR existing infrastructure:
|Roads and Bridges||$930.0||$380.5||$549.5|
|Drinking Water & Wastewater||$255.0||$146.4||$108.6|
|Solid & Hazardous Waste||$77.0||$33.6||$43.4|
|Public Parks and Recreation||$85.0||$36.84||$48.17|
Yeah, that's right: we need $1.134 trillion just to repair our nation's infrastructure. That could put a lot of unemployed construction workers back to work!
And here's what's needed to build a sustainable, livable future for America:
|Drinking Water (EPA)||$300.0|
|Urban Rail Transit||$3,195.0|
|Hi Speed Passenger Rail||$450.0|
|Electricity Transmission Grid||$66.0|
|Energy Efficiency of Buildings||$125.0|
UPDATE - A tip o' the hat to h bridges, who notes in a comment:
Here's a bit of history for you: 1934 was the last midterm congressional election when the Democrats gained seats in Congress with a Democrat in the White House.
The numbers are simply incredible! According to the Wikipedia page on the party composition of Congress, the Democrats went from 217 seats in the 72nd Congress, to 313 seats in the 73rd Congress! The Republicans were decimated, losing nearly half their 217 seats in the 72nd Congress to only 117 seats in the 73rd Congress! And it got even better in the Presidential election cycle: 322 Democrats in the 74th Congress, versus the Republicans at 103 seats.
The same trend occurred in the Senate: the Democrats grew from 47 Senators, to 59 Senators, to 69 Senators, while the Republicans shrank from 48, to 36, to 25.
So, see, a crash jobs program even makes for great political strategy!