In a great new book which I have been listening to on audiobook, 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) -- which put over four million American to work in the winter of 1933-34 -- dealt with another southern governor, Eugene Talmadge (D, yes Dem) of Georgia, who, like Sanford, refused to use all the relief funds provided by the CWA.
But first I want to underscore that Taylor’s book is just what the country needs right now. It details the many experimental programs launched by FDR as he sought to end the Depression, before finally getting to the story of the creation, success, and legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was established on a more long-term basis along the lines of the CWA, which had been authorized and funded only for that winter of 1933 through 1934. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA is a wonderful antidote to the wrong-wing nattering nabobs of negativism, and the conservative extremists trying to paint President Obama as a socialist.
Taylor actually begins the book with vivid descriptions of the hardships and fears common Americans had to endure at the beginning of the Depression -- while President Herbert Hoover (R, let’s rub it in), a millionaire who owned over 40 mines around the world, dined on gourmet cuisine each day, and proclaimed that the depression was "a passing incident in our national life . . . . the number who are threatened with privation is a minor percentage" (nationwide radio address, October 18, 1931).
Taylor tells how states and local governments struggled to meet the needs of the tsunami of unemployed as the U.S. economy shut down. He then outlines the 1932 presidential campaign, which ended with Roosevelt trouncing the incumbent Hoover, 57 percent to 39 percent. (Someone should look up FDR’s margins in his next three elections, and we can wave the numbers in the face of the wrong-wingers today as proof that Americans voted repeatedly in favor of the "socialism" of the New Deal. UPDATE: Thanks to sfbob, who does exactly this in a comment below!)
Taylor’s book is the first time that I have really been introduced to the towering figure of Harry Hopkins. Soon after he graduated from Iowa’s Grinnell College in 1912, Hopkins began work as a social worker at Christodora House, a social settlement in New York City's Lower East Side ghetto. His incredible energy and drive soon led, in the spring of 1913, to a position with the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), where Hopkins was quickly elevated to superintendent of the Employment Bureau. In 1915, the mayor of New York City appointed Hopkins to the Bureau of Child Welfare as executive secretary. In the 1920s, Hopkins oversaw the rapid growth of the New York Tuberculosis Association, as its general director.
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). 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.
Ahhh, but down in the South, they’ve always been cursed with having would-be aristocrats as political leaders. Hopkins had implemented a pay scale that was roughly equivalent to prevailing wages: 40 to 50 cents and hour for unskilled labor, and $1.20 an hour for skilled workers and professionals.
The pay rates were based on prevailing wages in the different regions of the country but were supposed to be low enough not to compete with private jobs. Farmers in the South, however, were used to paying black and poor white farm hands as little as 5 cents an hour. Southern politicians protested that the CWA wages would lure workers from the fields and leave farmers unable to plow their fields or plant their crops. These protests also had a racial component: as little as a white farm owner might pay white laborers for hoeing corn and picking cotton, it was an unspoken rule in the old plantation belt that he would pay his black workers even less.
The loudest protester of all was the governor of Georgia, Eugene Talmadge. Talmadge was a flamboyant, suspender-snapping country lawyer who had ridden into office on the farm vote. He opposed relief in general and federal relief in particular, and considered all the people on relief as "bums and loafers." This judgment fell heavily on his constituents, since 28 percent of Georgians received some form of assistance. City dwellers on relief were a cut below the average; he viewed them as chiselers trying to "outsmart you," while outside the cities reliefers were merely victims of temptation, being lured by fancy wages to abandon the moral virtues of a day's work in the hot sun. Even the lowest payments were too much, since farmers typically paid black
tenants $3 a week for an entire family's labor during the planting and harvest seasons.
Eugene Talmadge. Looks a lot like George Will, doesn't he?
A year later, when running for re-election, Talmadge declared that
"The New Deal is a combination of wet-nursing, frenzied finance, downright communism, and plain damned foolishness. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is not a Democrat. The real fight in this country is Americanism versus communism, mixed up with some kind of crazy give-me."
Taylor quotes a September 1933 letter to Hopkins from CWA Georgia field representative Alan Johnstone:
. . . days and weeks of delay interrupt the organization. Appointments are held up. The Governor insists on signing every check. Wants to know the name and address of every person on staff and almost the name and address of every person on relief. Harasses the administration by continued criticism. . . . In order to do in Georgia what ought to be done, it is literally necessary to take the State of Georgia away from Talmadge on the question of relief and the whole relief program.
When Talmadge sent a letter to President Roosevelt, enclosing a note Talmadge had received from a Georgia citizen complaining that "I wouldn't plow nobody's mule from sunrise to sunset for 50 cents a day when I could get $1.30 for pretending to work on a DITCH," Roosevelt
dictated a withering reply that eventually went to Talmadge over Hopkins's signature. "I take it... that you approve of paying farm labor 40 to 50 cents per day." Calculating
that this amounted to $60 to $75 a year for seasonal farm work, he added, "I cannot get it into my head that wages on such a scale make possible a reasonable American standard of living."
Speaking for himself, Hopkins was more direct: "All that guy is after is headlines," he said of Talmadge. "He never contributes a dime, yet he's always yapping. Some people can't stand to see others making a living wage."
Hopkins said that since Talmadge didn't want CWA jobs in Georgia, he would shut down the state program and use the money elsewhere. This triggered a flood of telegrams and letters from Georgia congressmen, local officials, and citizens urging him to keep the works program intact. With that ammunition, Hopkins used his power to federalize the program, dissolving the Talmadge-appointed relief board and naming a professional social work administrator, Gay Shepperson, to run the state program, reporting to him and not to Talmadge.
Get the book to read the full details!
Harry Hopkins had no qualms about putting powerful people in their place, and a nation in distress rewarded him by giving him even more power than they had. Hopefully, since not much else has changed in American politics, the story of Harry Hopkins will be played out again. Already, in South Carolina, a Republican in the state legislature has introduced legislation to strip Governor Mark Sanford of his role in disbursing federal stimulus funds.