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The Works Progress Administration:
Relief for the Unemployed

March 19, 1936 — Democratic Women’s Regional Conference for Southern States, Tampa FL


When I say that it is a privilege to be invited to address this large group of Southern Democratic women, I want you to believe that I am doing more than the banal and expected.

I am firmly convinced that the Presidential election in which you shortly will be engaged is one which will have far-reaching effects upon the happiness and welfare of a great number of our people. Naturally, I am heart and would for the continuation of those policies which have brought this happiness and welfare about.

So when I express my gratitude to you, and to your chairman, Mrs. Hortense K. Wells, it is with the humble hope that what I have to say may provide you with a little additional powder and shot for the battles which lie before you.

The Problem of Unemployment

In the intensity of political opposition preceding the election, it is becoming more and more apparent that one of the most serious problems confronting the nation is being either distorted or evaded. That problem is unemployment — the question of the relief of the unemployed and the destitute.

To begin with, let us face the undeniable fact that unemployment did exist and still exists According to the conservative estimate of the Committee on Economic Security, in March 1933, at the end of four years of an economic toboggan slide, there were 15,071,00 workers in this country cut off from their jobs.

And let us face the further and more painful realization of what unemployment on so large a scale actually means to the country. Here we have no past experience to prepare our minds. True, in the last fifty years we have had periods of economic depression, what the economists attempt to explain away by calling cyclical  depressions. Then, at the most a few millions of workers were idle, but always the country was growing — new processes and needs were developing and foreign markets were expanding. Under these conditions the pressure of demand quickly became so great that it broke through the stoppage.

But over 15,000,000, more than one-quarter of the workers of the country, were idle after four years of increasing unemployment, with no hope around the corner, no new frontiers, no new industry to supply a new general demand, such as the automobile, moving picture and electrical equipment had been in the past, and as a result of foreign tariff walls, not an expanding but a contracting foreign trade. This was no momentary situation, not just another cyclical “bad times.” It was unemployment that meant mass poverty; a poverty such as our country had never met before. It meant a direct deprivation, a drastic lowering of the standards of living to approximately 36,100,000 persons.

These, we must remember, are not people living in distant Mongolia. They are not figments of the imagination called up by an hysterical government to disturb your peaceful slumber — they are actual American workers — your neighbors, my neighbors, people whom we pass daily on the city streets or meet in the village post office. No one can tell us they do not exist.

But this is exactly what is being done, not in clear words, perhaps, but my implication, either by ignoring their existence, or ignoring the problem resulting from their existence.

Now, it is a simple matter for anyone to criticize the relief program of the present Administration It is simple, that is, so long as the critics ignore or evade the condition which makes necessary a relief program, but once we hold clearly in our minds a realization of both the necessity and the problem it gives rise to, most of the attacks upon Federal relief measures reveal themselves for what they are — vehicles designed to carry political ambitions.

Misplaced Blame

Again, there are some critics who admit the fact of a mass unemployment, but (and here also by implication) they would have us believe that the unemployed are worthless, shiftless human beings who are unwilling to work.

This last implication finds a far broader acceptance than realistic minded people imagine. There is a curious quirk in human character that makes it acceptable. The man who has a job, or the  person who has some degree of security, is always ready to believe that the unemployed, the destitute, are inherently lazy, incompetent, and worthless. The is the traditional attitude. It began in the days when man himself was the tool who had to be employed then, twelve, fourteen hours a day in order to produce the necessities of life. Today, with the machine replacing the man in factory, field, and office, millions of competent and ambitious workers are being forced into impoverished idleness. In spite of this obvious fact, the traditional attitude still finds many honest but unthinking followers.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not placing all the blame on the machine There are many other factors, we know, though a discussion of them here is outside my range.

But what I do want is to point out that even if President Roosevelt’s Administration succeeds in overcoming all the other causes of poverty and distress in the country, there still remains technological unemployment.

This, in part of course, is due to the fact that some industry, rather than employ more labor, has lengthened hours of work and utilized the stretch-out system. It still means a mass poverty, destructive to the American standard of living. Obviously, therefore, more than a return of business to the 1929 peak is necessary to combat the continuance of mass poverty. And we may expect it to continue until America’s capacity to produce and consume goods and services is graded up to a higher standard of living than any heretofore known.

The attitude of the Administration in attacking this problem comes closer to basic human values, I am sure, than does the traditional attitude.

The Administration is not willing to accept the implication that millions of American workers have suddenly lost all virility, all backbone, and all capacity; rather it assumes that human beings, that is, the general run of our average Americans, both those with jobs and those without, are made of the same salt. It assumes that in practically all cases the unemployed are victims of conditions over which the individual has no control.

In his message to Congress last year the President, in introducing the Federal Work Program, said: “Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers. The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief. We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destitution, but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination.” With this pronouncement there was started a program which is today touching every city and village and reaching into the rural areas in every corner of this country.

Useful projects are in operation in every single State. About two months ago I made a trip across the United States from the East to the West Coast. I had the opportunity of seeing first-hand many of the projects in operation. It was a great experience, to see thousands of destitute but able-bodied men and women who have been removed from relief rolls and have been given an opportunity to work on useful projects at security wages. Every project had to be sponsored by a local or State tax-supported body before it could be operated. The projects represent, therefore, what communities wanted and asked for. In most instances the sponsors have furnished space, light, water, heat, and much of the materials used on projects. This is a cooperative arrangement between the communities and the Federal Government. The communities are delighted to take advantage of this opportunity not only to give employment to their needy, but to secure for their communities, through work relief labor, many necessary structures, services, and facilities which otherwise they would have to go without. In one city I visited I saw a project starting — I saw 800 needy women take off their hats and coats and go to work. In another city I stood nearby while 1,000 women received their first pay checks. It was good to see their faces brighten and their steps quicken as they went back to their places with pay checks carefully folded in their old worn purses — a guarantee of food, clothing, and shelter for their dependent families.

Work Projects Create National Wealth

Work relief is truly a recovery measure. Projects give work to the unemployed and at the same time add to the national wealth. To give public employment to workers when private employment has failed, is to translate into national possessions the energy that would otherwise be wasted. Not only are we helping the unemployed by giving them the one thing they want — jobs, but at the same time we are putting into their hands purchasing power which flows directly into commercial channels and starts the wheels of industry rolling. This, coupled with the purchase of materials and services necessary to conduct such a program, is a potent stimulus to business.

Now, granting that our unemployed are human beings, men and women who delight in life and the effective utilization of their energy, men and women beset only by that common human frailty which demands food, clothing, shelter, and a free play of social expression, the question then arises as to what is the best method of meeting that demand.

Here it is quite natural that there should be a diversity of opinion as to method — these various opinions analyzed reduce themselves to two, with which we are all familiar; namely, work relief and direct relief.

The Administration carefully weighted both methods. It was a free choice; there was no external pressure directed at or restricting it. Nothing compelled its choice other than what would be the better one for administering to human beings in need, and it chose finally and definitely the work relief method.

There is a precedent for this choice. When the depression clamped down on America and the bread lines began trailing out around the block, a number of municipalities, countries, and States recognized the loss in human energy and productive labor these idle workers represented. It was then that work relief measures were first adopted in this country. Unfortunately, so many of our political units were so close to bankruptcy themselves that work relief projects could not be undertaken on a scale in keeping with the demand. The local municipalities had in most cases exhausted their credit facilities and the contributions of private philanthropy were wholly inadequate.

There is also a precedent for work relief abroad. Practically all European countries adopted some form of work relief in meeting the unemployment crisis. Some of the public work programs are extensive. Much of the armament and preparation for war undertaken in foreign countries is actually a form of work relief.

I thank God, we have not had to adopt that expedient! It is noteworthy, however, that this for of public works expenditure frequently has the support of those who attack the constructive work program of the Administration.

In formulating the public works program, Congress and the Administration realized that work relief might give no more food, no more clothing no more shelter to the needy than direct relief. It also realized that direct relief would cost less in immediate cash outlay. But it was convinced that in the long run direct relief would result in an irreparable loss of human and social values, and further, a loss of permanent and worth-while community benefits.

Our country, we must remember, was settled by builders and workers; what has been made of it in the past few hundred years is the result of vision, determination, and unrelenting toil. Still a young country, it is today the richest in the world, with resources and a productive capacity equaled by none, and noted above all for the energy and resourcefulness of its people. Are we to deny the quality and character of this country and of its people? Is the flow of energy of millions of American workers to be deflected into the stagnant, idle pool of dole?

The answer to these questions lies in the demand for work expressed by the unemployed themselves. They, the unemployed, have not yet given up belief in this country’s future. To them it is still a land of promise, and they demand a hand in building that future.

The philosophy of the work relief program, therefore, is based upon an appreciation of the true character of the American people.

Building Across America

Perhaps you would be interested to know something about the projects that have been carried on in your past program, now continuing under the Works Progress Administration. I will refer here to the record: Approximately 600,000 miles of roads have been built or repaired — mostly farm-to-market roads, which will enable the farmer to bring his products to market or mill at all seasons and at the most advantageous time, when prices are best. There are still some two million miles of dirt roads in poor condition upon which 65% of the farmers of America have to depend. Not only the farmers, but the mail carriers, school children, and farmers’ wives will all benefit by the road-building program. Over 20,000 school buildings have been repaired or rebuilt. In the State of Wisconsin alone,1,089 schools were overhauled and put into conditions. More than 8,000 other public buildings have been built or repaired. Miles and miles of sewers have been laid and repaired. Practically all the State capitols have been rehabilitated, and there is scarcely a county court-house in the country that has not been improved by our relief labor. Hundreds of parks and playgrounds, swimming pools, bath houses — all types of recreational facilities have been built. Approximately 2,000 miles of drainage ditches were dug, and 400 miles of streams were cleared, which resulted in drainage of hundreds of thousands of acres, in the campaign against malaria.

On January 1 [1936], there were 334 airport projects in operation in places where the relief loads are heavy and where large numbers of unskilled men must be put to work. This program is especially valuable, because the enormous increase in air traffic and the development of new fast planes make it doubly important from the standpoint of safety that there be more and better airports in America.

Several thousand tuberculosis patients were supplied with new hospitalization facilities. In Arizona an up-to-date tuberculosis sanitarium was built, and in many States additional cottages for patients were made possible through the work program Approximately 1,000,000 bushels of seed oysters were planted along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Over 12,000,000 garments were made in our 6,000 women’s sewing rooms, all of which were distributed to the unemployable on relief rolls. These sewing rooms gave employment to more than 150,000 women. More than 4,000,000 public library books were repaired last year and put back into use, giving employment to over 12,300 women and services to hundreds of thousands. Our library extension project carried on last year served over 1,000,000 persons and reached into the farthest rural sections of this country. Over 10,882 hot lunch projects in 41 States served warm food daily to 1,930,945 undernourished, needy children which gave employment to 10,078 women from relief rolls, Other health projects in 45 States gave employment to 6,351 nurses who visited 3,532,841 homes and examined 2,015,993 children. A total of 89,410 physical defects were corrected for children.

I could go on for hours telling you about the worth-while accomplishments of the Federal Work Program, for there have been and are now thousands of excellent projects. Now you have probably heard a lot of unfavorable comments about the programs we have carried on, but despite the jibes about “boon-doggling,” relief work in tangible, physical results, in cement, in steel and stone, in increased public health, educational, library and recreational facilities and resources, has added immeasurably to our national wealth. There is hardly a community in the country which does not bear the mark of improvement because of our work relief activities.

The Women’s Division

But I must hurry along and talk more specifically about the women’s program, since it is that program about which you and I are most concerned. There are two major functions of the Women’s Division. The first is to develop and carry on in the various States work projects for eligible women on relief rolls — projects which are useful to the community and to the individuals as well.

If a woman has a profession or trade, we endeavor to place her on a project in her own field. If she is untrained but must make her own living, we try to give her training which will prepare her for some useful work.

The second function of the Women’s Division is to see that employable women on relief rolls who are eligible for work receive equal consideration with men in this program.

I wonder whether the women in this country, and men too, realize just what the creation of the Women’s Division in such a program signifies. It means the administration is determined that women shall receive their fair share of work and that it has made special provision for the enforcement of that policy. When the President said that no able-bodied citizens were to be allowed to deteriorate on relief but must be given jobs, he meant women as well as men. Harry L. Hopkins, or Federal Administrator, has repeatedly stated that “needy women shall receive equal consideration with needy men.” As evidence that this policy is being carried out, there was a study made about six or eight months ago, and it was found that at that time 53% of all the men who were eligible for work were working, and that 53% of all the women eligible for e work were also working. At this particular time in the new program, approximately 65% of the employable women are now at work, and new projects are rapidly being put into operation to take care of the additional number who are eligible.

To fully appreciate the progress we are making, let’s go back for a moment to the fall of 1933, when the Work Program for women started. There was no precedent to follow, for no program of the kind had ever been carried out in any country on a national basis. We had to carve out without chart our plans.

We have come a long way since then are are no longer novices at this business of putting women to work. Under the past program we were able to give employment to some 350,000 women. Under the present program the number is more than 100,000. The knowledge we gained from the last two years’ experience has been of immeasurable value to us in planning for the present Work Program. We know who these people are now, where they live and in general what they can do or what they can be trained to do. We have learned that they represent some 250 different occupational classifications. We have learned to design projects which not only give women employment, but which increase their skill and keep them employable — so they will be ready to take advantage of the first opportunities for jobs in private industry.

The Problem of the Unskilled Woman

One of our greatest problems is the unskilled woman. Approximately 80% of the eligible women are untrained. My experience in this work for over two years makes me feel that we cannot stress to much the value and importance of training. On our own work relief projects the value of training has been proved.

The need has been so obvious and urgent that in every State, more or less spontaneously and simultaneously, training programs have bene devised in conjunction with work projects. I know it will be pleasing to you to hear that though these courses differ in method and content, in every instance their underlying aim is that same education for living we all know to be fundamental to a bearable existence.

One especially well-worked-out training plan of this kind is in operation in Minneapolis, where a program of “Vocational Guidance” has been worked out, with the help of the Vocational Guidance Bureau at the University of Minnesota, for the benefit of 400 women, at work in a sewing room where sewing, garment making, dyeing, rug weaving, furniture repairing, etc., are carried on.

Three teachers are in charge of this training program; one being responsible for the subject of home-making, another for child care, and the third for all phases of self-improvement. Each teacher has one thirty-minute period a week for her subject; she may vary the program in any way she chooses, by outside speakers, by demonstrations, motion pictures, or dramatizations.

An additional hour every week is devoted to singing, games, and individual conferences in which the women may discuss their problems, their work records, and job possibilities.

The program has aroused the interest and support of the community and the women themselves are especially enthusiastic. Initiative and creative ability have been stimulated; home life and personal life have been enriched.

Re-Employment as a Result of Training

Since there has been such a decided up-turn in business, we have been receiving letters showing that many women who have improved their skills or learned new skills on our projects have recently gotten jobs. This is one of the most encouraging notes in our work relief situation. I have in my office a thick file of material labeled “Re-employment as the result of training.” What it contains is a long list of names and addresses of women who have been employed on work relief projects. It tells what kind of work they did and describes the jobs they now hold in private industry.

The Women’s Program, you must understand, is an integral part of the whole Work Program of the WPA. Throughout the history of its operation, a satisfying ratio has been maintained between the proportions of men and women employed, in relation to their numbers on the relief rolls. There has been no discrimination one way or the other. Probably the only distinction to be found is that training forms a more important part of our projects for women than is the case in projects for men. As I have already mentioned, a large proportion of our unemployed women are without skills of any kind. We hope, by training, to equip them for the jobs which are arising with ever-increasing frequency these days in private industry.

It is disheartening to many to realize that even in the face of our large expenditures for relief and the tangible signs of business recovery, unemployment itself continues [to be] a major problem. The financial pages of the papers are full of reports of increased earnings, increased dividends, increased orders, car loadings, and other unmistakable signs of a reviving economy. Yet in spite of these improvements, the latest reports on unemployment show the number to be still in excess of 10,000,000 people.

Critics of our program have used this fact to indicated a fundamental failure in our whole philosophy of relief. In so doing, however, they exhibit a sad lack of understanding. For there is a distinct difference between the problems of unemployment relief and unemployment itself. To state it more simply, unemployment tis the condition which makes unemployment relief necessary. Obviously, to remove the necessity for unemployment relief we must first cure unemployment.

We in the Administration have been so absorbed in ministering to the imperative and insistent demands of a stricken people that we have not been able to give all the attention we would like to the causes of the ailment. Today, that has to some extent been ameliorated. There has been set up within the WPA a National Research Program, adequately staffed and financed, which is carrying on the most exhaustive study into the causes and effects of unemployment ever undertaken. When its findings are completed, I think we will have established some very definite signposts along the way to a solution of the problem.

Naturally, neither the WPA nor any other governmental department can effect the reforms that will be necessary to root this evil out. That is a problem for Congress. Such action undoubtedly will mean the revamping of our systems of production and consumption so as to ring them in closer relation; a more equitable distribution of the national wealth and purchasing power; and a spreading out of work opportunities to reach a greater number of our people.

These are reforms which all agree must come in time if suffering and poverty are not to remain with us. But until the time arrives — in the interim ,while we seek the easiest and best means of effecting the change — there can be no let-down in our responsivity to those who suffer. Relief for the unemployed is a Government function which must continue for many years to come.

It is an obligation which will be met in a fearless and humane manner as long as Franklin Roosevelt occupies the White House.



Source: The Great Depression: Great Speeches in History, ed. Louise I. Gerdes (San Diego: Greenhaven Press) 2002, pp. 78-90.