Saving Democracy By Putting People to Work

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Suffering and Worklessness

“(Are) not happy people at work the greatest bulwark of democracy?”

Harry Hopkins to Hallie Flanagan. Hopkins successfully recruited Flanagan
to create a nation-wide theater project that employed thousands of
previously unemployed workers. 1

The inadequacy of the American relief system at the outset of the Great Depression was reflected in the pervasiveness and profundity of two needs that it could not fulfill. First, the small patchwork of programs that existed when the Depression struck could provide for the basic needs of only a small percentage of the population whose survival was endangered. Secondly, even when existing relief programs preserved the bodies of those Americans who came forward to admit they needed help, the assistance that they did provide did not necessarily improve the recipients sense of desperation or well-being. The relief that was offered to the recently jobless was typically associated with demoralization, hopelessness, and other types of deprivation and devastation.

USA Work Program
Work USA Work Program WPA

Why? Because the relief system that was in place did nothing to alter the new cause of mass suffering: Worklessness. Unemployment – which reached its peak of approximately 25% in 1932 when FDR took office – was recognized as a crisis not only because it deprived workers and their families of the means by which they could sustain themselves, but also because it left people without a means of survival that allowed them to maintain their dignity.

The end of work entailed the loss of spirit. The suicide rate reached record highs and was closely correlated with the unemployment rate. Hope disappeared along with access to jobs.2

People Wanted Jobs Not Handouts

What most people wanted was jobs, not handouts. They needed the pride of earning a paycheck. Roosevelt’s intuition – shared by Harry Hopkins, his most important Advisor – was to respond to this basic need for dignity.

Hopkins operationalized and guided Roosevelt’s intuitions regarding the centrality of work. Their efforts culminated in the creation of a nationwide jobs program called the Works Progress Administration. The program lasted 8 years, employed 8.5 million men and women, and combined the urgency of putting people back to work with the vision of physically rebuilding America.

Existing relief programs compelled recipients to demonstrate their poverty through application processes that tended to induce feelings of shame. Such processes were heavily focused on screening out “malingerers”. The attitude at the time was that a person getting relief “must be made to feel his pauperism…Every help that was given him was to be given in a way to intensify his sense of shame.” 3. The relief investigator’s job was to share findings with the community, thereby intensifying the shame of those that applied. By 1932 it was obvious that the vast majority of persons who would have been eligible to apply for relief craved the opportunity to work. Hopkins realized that forcing people to reveal how poor they were in order to qualify for aid abused their dignity.

Hopkins – through his decades of experience directly assisting the poor – had learned that most people would rather work than take handouts. A paycheck from work didn’t feel like charity, with the shame that it conferred. Better yet, the work at which people needed to be employed resulted in the creation of things that were useful, beautiful, or both. Workers would retain skills or develop new ones and add improvements to the public infrastructure.

Practical Economics Combined with Unifying Ideological Principles

“I am not willing that the vitality of our people be further sapped by the giving of cash…We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.” 4

“I have a feeling that the temper of the American people is not going to stand for the payment of insurance benefits over long periods of time to people who do not work” 5

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Hopkins and Roosevelt shared in a general attitude that government handouts would enfeeble recipients. Solutions to economic disaster operated within a culturally conservative ideology emphasizing self-reliance and personal industry.6 Hopkins wanted to give people jobs.

But although Roosevelt and Hopkins agreed that providing work was far more beneficial than providing direct relief, they acknowledged that it cost more, as it entailed costs for management, equipment and material.

The ideological foundations of the Program that Roosevelt and Hopkins envisioned addressed the economic needs of the population in a way that was compatible with traditional American values:

  • Although providing direct relief to the impoverished appeared to be less expensive in the near term, Hopkins foresaw that direct relief tended “inevitably toward the creation of a permanent pauper class, hopeless and helpless, and an increasing and crushing weight on the backs of the gainfully unemployed.” 7
  • Hopkins believed that direct relief violated values that coupled reward with work and that providing people with money without expecting work in return also cost too much in terms of self-respect and pride.
  • The work program could not interfere with private industry or compromise the people’s capacity to undertake private initiative and entrepreneurship. The principle of non-interference with private business was embraced not only by those with ideologically conservative inclinations but also by organized labor. Since 1893 organized labor accepted that it was the role of society to provide work only “when the private employer cannot or will not…” 8 The need to look beyond the private sector in order to provide work was conspicuously evident prior to the introduction of the program, as almost one third of Americans were unable to find work.

Productive Compromise

“Tilting at windmills became a luxury (Hopkins) the relief administrator could
no longer afford.” 9

The successful outcome of Roosevelt’s and Hopkins efforts – the Works Progress Administration – was partially attributable to their capacity to compromise. The WPA and other work programs were created as an alternative to a permanent program of government jobs that Hopkins initially sought, for permanent programs inspired fears of “socialism” and runaway government spending. Hopkins recognized the presence of political and cultural realities that rendered the permanent creation of a work relief program insurmountable. Harry Hopkins curbed his leftist instincts and settled for the possible.

While Hopkins acknowledged that putting people to work cost more than direct relief, he coupled such acknowledgement with reminders regarding the cost of the absence of such a work program. When asked about the cost in 1936, he responded: “What would America have to show today for the millions it has spent on relief if that relief had been in the form of a non-productive dole? Nothing except an army of disheartened, disillusioned, and resentful unemployed people nursing their sense of frustration and despair.” 10

Fundamental Operational Principles

“To us the wealth we have to put our idle people to work in the tasks of the internal development of our country and in the conservation of our national resources is the real economy. That is the heart of our work program.”

Harry Hopkins

The purpose of the program was economic and spiritual renewal. Its goal was simple: to provide any able-bodied unemployed person with real work at real jobs for real wages. Hopkins level of success was astonishing: Within four months of starting the federal work program he had put 4 million unemployed Americans, skilled and unskilled, to work.

Hopkins employed several noteworthy operational principles:

  • Work was paid at prevailing rate set by local authorities.
  • Whenever possible, human labor would be used instead of machinery.
  • Jobs needed to be socially useful.
  • Workers seeking jobs were not subject to intrusive means tests.
  • Work Projects were judged on their merits as labor absorbers.11

Hopkins efforts were enormously successful at addressing worklessness and the threat to democracy that it entailed. Over 7 years the WPA generated over 3 million jobs each year. Hopkins fully realized the intentions articulated when the WPA began in 1935: to create “a consistent, satisfactory and well thought out solution to the most serious problem in the present economy.” 12


  1. Taylor, Nick. American-Made. The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. Bantam Books, New York. 2008. Page 183
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Ibid.,106
  4. Hopkins, June. Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1999. Page 186.
  5. Ibid., 196.
  6. Ibid., 150.
  7. Ibid., 164.
  8. Ibid., 168. Quotation from Samuel Gompers.
  9. Ibid., 188.
  10. Ibid., Page 193. Quoted in NY Times.
  11. Ibid., Page 169
  12. Ibid., page 191.

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