A concrete legacy of the dole
Even in the Great Depression's darkest days, when a fourth of the workforce was unemployed, controversy surrounded the notion that the government should help the down and out. Lacking firsthand experience, many of the better off stuck to the traditional view that it was a man's own fault if he was poor. Surely there was a job at some wage for anyone willing to work, it was argued, and the dole only muted the desire to toil. Relief applicants, Georgia Gov. Eugene Talmadge declared, should be lined up and fed "a dose of castor oil."
The stigma of joblessness caused many of the poor to balk at seeking help. In September of 1933, during her first day in charge of a northern Michigan welfare office, Louise Armstrong interviewed over 40 relief applicants. Nearly all of them, she would recall, came in terribly afraid. "Some of them were trembling . . . and at first they could hardly speak." They feared a scolding for being destitute.
Herbert Hoover, insisting that "nobody is actually starving," had opposed federal relief. But Franklin D. Roosevelt, from the day he became president in March, wanted to assist as many people as possible as fast as possible. In his haste, he created the much-flawed Federal Emergency Relief Administration, giving the government its first large-scale welfare role. With state and local officials deciding who got how much of the $500 million from Washington, help was slow, inadequate, and inequitable. Nationally, payments averaged $15 a month--far below subsistence levels. Many blacks in the South got barely $4.
Into the woods. By contrast, FDR's scheme to put young men into the woods for conservation work became a hit. By September, the Civilian Conservation Corps had 300,000 recruits in 1,500 camps, reforesting denuded slopes, stocking fish, digging diversion ditches, and restoring Civil War battlefields. Many youths sent the bulk of their $30 monthly pay to their parents. Still, as a relief measure, the CCC, like the FERA, helped only a sliver of the needy. With winter on the way, relief officials envisioned a "rapidly onrushing catastrophe of proportions never before experienced or contemplated."
To meet the crisis, Roosevelt launched a purely federal work-relief project, the Civil Works Administration. By January of '34, some 4.2 million Americans were getting an average of $15 a week for repairing roads and building or improving schools, parks, and airports. "I hate to think what would have happened if this work hadn't come along," said a CWA ditch digger in Montana. "I'd sold or hocked everything I could. And my kids were hungry."
But FDR, worried by rising federal debt, shut the CWA down at winter's end. Prospects of reviving work relief depended on 1934's congressional elections. The Democrats, it turned out, won in a landslide. As a result, Roosevelt ordered more relief, energizing a sluggish Public Works Administration and creating the Works Progress Administration.
The New Deal could not cure the Depression--World War II did that--but the PWA and the WPA changed the face of America. From the PWA came such structures as Bonneville Dam, New York's Lincoln Tunnel and Triborough Bridge, and Florida's 100-mile causeway to Key West. The WPA left a broader but less familiar legacy: 650,000 miles of roads and streets, 125,000 public buildings, and 8,000 parks, including one in Ronald Reagan's hometown, Dixon, Ill.
"Now a lot of people remember [the WPA] as boondoggles and raking leaves," Reagan said in 1981. "Maybe in some places it was . . . . But I can take you to our town and show you things, like a riverfront that I used to hike through once that was a swamp and is now a beautiful park place built by the WPA." The WPA also provided 8 million jobs, including one for Reagan's father, Jack, its boss in Dixon.
This story appears in the October 6, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.