249 THE DEPRESSION, THE NEW DEAL, AND FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
poured in at a rate of four to seven thousand letters per day. The White House mail-room, staffed by a single employee in Hoover’s day, had to hire seventy people to handle the flood of correspondence. Roosevelt had touched the hearts and imaginations of his countrymen like no predecessor in memory….
Meanwhile, the steady legislative drumbeat of the Hundred Days continued. Relishing power and wielding it with gusto, Roosevelt next sent to Congress, on March 21, a request for legislation aimed at unemployment relief. Here he departed most dramatically from Hoover’s pettifogging timidity, and here he harvested the greatest political rewards. He proposed a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to employ a quarter of a million men on forestry, flood control, and beautification projects. Over the next decade, the CCC became one of the most popular of all the New Deal’s innovations. By the time it expired in 1942, it had put more than three million idle youngsters to work at a wage of thirty dollars a month, twenty-five of which they were required to send home to their families. CCC workers built firebreaks and lookouts in the national forests and bridges, campgrounds, trails, and museums in the national parks. Roosevelt also called for a new agency, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to coordinate and eventually increase direct federal unemployment assistance to the states. And he served notice, a bit halfheartedly, that he would soon be making recommendations about a “broad public works labor-creating program.”
The first two of these measures—CCC and FERA—constituted important steps along the road to direct federal involvement in unemployment relief, some- thing that Hoover had consistently and self-punishingly resisted. Roosevelt showed no such squeamishness, just as he had not hesitated as governor of New York to embrace relief as a “social duty” of government in the face of evident human suffering. As yet, Roosevelt did not think of relief payments or public works employment as means of significantly increasing purchasing power. He proposed them for charitable reasons, and for political purposes as well, but not principally for economic ones….
These first modest steps at a direct federal role in welfare services also carried into prominence another of Roosevelt’s associates from New York, Harry Hopkins, whom Roosevelt would soon name as federal relief administrator. A chain-smoking, hollow-eyed, pauper-thin social worker, a tough-talking, big- hearted blend of the sardonic and sentimental, Hopkins represented an impor- tant and durable component of what might be called the emerging political culture of the New Deal. In common with Brain Truster Adolf Berle, future treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Hopkins was steeped in the Social Gospel tradition. Ernest, high-minded, and sometimes condescending, the Social Gospelers were middle-class missionaries to America’s industrial proletariat. Inspired originally by late nineteenth- century Protestant clergymen like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden, they were committed to the moral and material uplift of the poor, and they had both the courage and the prejudices of their convictions. Berle and Morgenthau had worked for a time at Lillian Wald’s Henry Street settle- ment house in New York, Perkins at Jane Addams’s Hull House in Chicago, and Hopkins himself at New York’s Christadora House. Amid the din and
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250 MAJOR PROBLEMS IN AMERICAN HISTORY
squalor of thronged immigrant neighborhoods, they had all learned at first hand that poverty could be an exitless way of life, that the idea of “opportunity” was often a mockery in the precarious, threadbare existence of the working class. Together with Franklin Roosevelt, they meant to do something about it….
“What I want you to do,” said Harry Hopkins to Lorena Hickok in July 1933, “is to go out around the country and look this thing over. I don’t want statistics from you. I don’t want the social-worker angle. I just want your own reaction, as an ordinary citizen.
“Go talk with preachers and teachers, businessmen, workers, farmers. Go talk with the unemployed, those who are on relief and those who aren’t. And when you talk with them don’t ever forget that but for the grace of God you, I, any of our friends might be in their shoes. Tell me what you see and hear. All of it. Don’t ever pull your punches.”
The Depression was now in its fourth year. In the neighborhoods and ham- lets of a stricken nation millions of men and women languished in sullen gloom and looked to Washington with guarded hope. Still they struggled to compre- hend the nature of the calamity that had engulfed them. Across Hopkins’s desk at the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration flowed rivers of data that measured the Depression’s impact in cool numbers. But Hopkins wanted more—to touch the human face of the catastrophe, taste in his mouth the metallic smack of the fear and hunger of the unemployed, as he had when he worked among the immigrant poor at New York’s Christadora settlement house in 1912. Tied to his desk in Washington, he dispatched Lorena Hickok in his stead. In her he chose a uniquely gutsy and perceptive observer who could be counted on to see without illusion and to report with candor, insight, and moxie….
From the charts and tables accumulating on his desk even before Hickok’s letters began to arrive, Hopkins could already sketch the grim outlines of that history. Stockholders, his figures confirmed, had watched as three-quarters of the value of their assets had simply evaporated since 1929, a colossal financial meltdown that blighted not only the notoriously idle rich but struggling neigh- borhood banks, hard-earned retirement nest eggs, and college and university endowments as well. The more than five thousand bank failures between the Crash and the New Deal’s rescue operation in March 1933 wiped out some $7 billion in depositors’ money. Accelerating foreclosures on defaulted home mortgages—150,000 homeowners lost their property in 1930, 200,000 in 1931, 250,000 in 1932—stripped millions of people of both shelter and life savings at a single stroke and menaced the balance sheets of thousands of surviving banks. Several states and some thirteen hundred municipalities, crushed by sinking real estate prices and consequently shrinking tax revenues, defaulted on their obliga- tions to creditors, pinched their already scant social services, cut payrolls, and slashed paychecks. Chicago was reduced to paying its teachers in tax warrants and then, in the winter of 1932–33, to paying them nothing at all.