“An old English judge once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Liberty requires opportunity to make a living—a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.” — Franklin Roosevelt, 1936 Democratic Convention.
In his speech to the Democratic Convention in 1936 presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt stated:
“Here, and in every community throughout the land, we are met at a time of great moment to the future of the Nation. It is an occasion to be dedicated to the simple and sincere expression of an attitude toward problems, the determination of which will profoundly affect America.
I come not only as a leader of a party, not only as a candidate for high office, but as one upon whom many critical hours have imposed and still impose a grave responsibility.
For the sympathy, help and confidence with which Americans have sustained me in my task I am grateful. For their loyalty I salute the members of our great party, in and out of political life in every part of the Union. I salute those of other parties, especially those in the Congress of the United
States who on so many occasions have put partisanship aside. I thank the Governors of the several
States, their Legislatures, their State and local officials who participated unselfishly and regardless of party in our efforts to achieve recovery and destroy abuses. Above all I thank the millions of Americans who have borne disaster bravely and have dared to smile through the storm.
America will not forget these recent years, will not forget that the rescue was not a mere party task. It was the concern of all of us. In our strength we rose together, rallied our energies together, applied the old rules of common sense, and together survived.”
Roosevelt made this speech in defense of the numerous policies he and Congress had instituted during his last four years in office. These policies were enacted as measures to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression and the Dust Storms that plagued the Great Plains and farmers.
In my last blog post, Reflections on the Dust Bowl, I made brief mention of the Works Progress Administration (renamed during 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Both of these programs were instituted during the early years of the Roosevelt Administration with the support of Congress as federal government funded and managed programs to mitigate the effects of the Great Depression.
Both Roosevelt and his powerful advisor Harry Hopkins did not believe in handouts without work and wanted programs that would not only provide money for the millions of unemployed, but that would provide dignity through useful work. Hopkins argued that although the work relief program was more costly than direct relief payments, it was worth it. He asserted, "Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit."
Before I get into the subject of the value of the CCC and WPA let me tell a personal story of my association with the CCC and how it may have affected my life.
Upon my graduation from high school I took a full time job as a surveyor’s assistant. After working for the firm that had allowed me part-time work while in high school I was induces to take on a position with a civil engineering and land surveying firm closer to my home. The firm was owned by three partners and had a staff of about 25 persons working in the office and field. The person who managed the field staff, Otto Slabe, was the professionally registered land surveyor in the State of Ohio.
Otto told in interesting story about his entry into the profession of land surveying. According to Otto he grew up in a very rough neighborhood on the southwest side of Cleveland and was in involved in gang activities. One day, in 1938, after a gang shooting Otto was arrested and charged as a member of the gang, but not a part of any shooting activity. Otto stated that his part of the crime was hiding the gun for the gang.
At his sentencing the judge gave Otto a choice to do jail time or enlist in the CCC. Of course Otto elected for the second choice. Within a few days Otto, with his suitcase, boarded a train at the Cleveland terminal and was headed west. In a few days he disembarked from the train in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he was assigned as a brush cutter for a survey crew doing surveys for telephone lines over the mountains to the state of Washington. According to Otto he enjoyed the work in the wide open spaces and took advantage of the opportunity to learn surveying. When World War Two broke out Otto joined the Navy and was assigned as a surveyor to the Navy’s Construction Battalion (Seabees) where he served out the duration of the war. After his discharge from the Navy he took a position with the Cuyahoga County’s surveyor’s office. After several years working for the county Otto and two other partners founded their own civil engineering and land surveying firm of Burden, Slabe, and McKay, a firm the is still in existence to this day.
Otto was not only my boss, but in many respects a mentor to me. He taught me much about the surveying profession, encouraged me to go to night school for the education I needed, and gave me the opportunity to grow in my profession.
After eight years I moved to California where I eventually, along with two partners, founded my own civil engineering and land surveying firm. Over the ensuing years my firm grew and was merged with another similar firm to where, when I retired several years ago we employed 850 persons on a global basis.
I tell this tale because in a way I am indebted to how Otto turned his life around by enlisting in the CCC and how what he did eventually affected my growth and career.
America was in the grip of the Great Depression when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in March of 1933. More than twenty-five percent of the population was unemployed, hungry, and without hope. The New Deal programs instituted bold changes in the federal government that energized the economy and created an equilibrium that helped to bolster the needs of citizens.
Out of this economic chaos emerged the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Its purpose was two-fold — conservation of our natural resources and the salvage of our young men. The CCC is recognized as the single greatest conservation program in America and it served as a catalyst to develop the very tenets of modern conservation. The work of America's young men dramatically changed the future and today we still enjoy a legacy of natural resource treasures that dot the American landscape.
Eighty years ago the nation was plunged into the Depression when the excesses of the 1920s caught up with society. Like the current recession, the economic bubble and collapse was the result of excessive debt spending by consumers and excessive risk taken on by investors. At the worst depths of the Depression 25% of the workforce was unemployed.
With such high unemployment and people with jobs suffering major pay cuts, many across the country suffered. Out in the Plains States years of poor farming practices, coupled with a severe drought, led to massive soil erosion and the Dust Bowl, leaving millions of fertile acres a wasteland.
The depression hurt young men especially. They had the fewest skills and the lowest earnings and savings, and many found themselves coming of age in a decade with high unemployment. They were at the greatest risk for poverty and starvation. Any sociologist will tell you that restless young men without a purpose will usually lead to social instability and skyrocketing crime rates.
President Franklin Roosevelt saw all these problems and sought ways to fix them. One of his “100 Days” programs he passed was the Emergency Conservation Work Act (ECW), a temporary program that would become the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Roosevelt described the goals of the CCC when he introduced the legislation:
“I propose to create a civilian conservation corps to be used in simple work, not interfering with normal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control, and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also a means of creating future national wealth…More important, however, than the material gains will be the moral and spiritual value of such work. The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work. We can take a vast army of these unemployed out into healthful surroundings.”
Formed in March 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, was one of the first New Deal programs. It was a public works project intended to promote environmental conservation and to build good citizens through vigorous, disciplined outdoor labor. Close to the heart of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the CCC combined his interests in conservation and universal service for youth. He believed that this civilian “tree army” would relieve the rural unemployed and keep youth “off the city street corners.”
The American public made the CCC the most popular of all the New Deal programs. Principal benefits of an individual's enrollment in the CCC included improved physical condition, heightened morale, and increased employability. Of their pay of $30 a month, $25 went to their parents. Implicitly, the CCC also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors and the nation's natural resources; and the continued need for a carefully planned, comprehensive national program for the protection and development of natural resources’
During the time of the CCC, volunteers planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods, and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas.
CCC camps in Michigan; the tents were soon replaced by barracks built by Army contractors for the enrollees.
The CCC operated separate programs for veterans and Native Americans.
Despite its popular support, the CCC was never a permanent agency. It depended on emergency and temporary Congressional legislation for its existence. By 1942, with the war industries booming and the draft in operation, need declined and Congress voted to close the program.
The CCC operated under the army's control. Camp commanders had disciplinary powers and corpsmen were required to address superiors as “sir.” By September 1935 over 500,000 young men had lived in CCC camps, most staying from six months to a year. The work focused on soil conservation and reforestation. Most important, the men planted millions of trees on land made barren from fires, natural erosion, or lumbering—in fact, the CCC was responsible for over half the reforestation, public and private, done in the nation's history. Corpsmen also dug canals and ditches, built over thirty thousand wildlife shelters, stocked rivers and lakes with nearly a billion fish, restored historic battlefields, and cleared beaches and campgrounds.
Although professing a nondiscriminatory policy, the CCC failed to give a fair share of work to blacks, especially in the South where local selection agents held sway. But in spite of rigid segregation and hiring quotas, black participation reached 10 percent by 1936.
In all, nearly 3 million young men participated in the CCC The army's experience in managing such large numbers and the paramilitary discipline learned by corpsmen provided unexpected preparation for the massive call-up of civilians in World War II.
A few of the notable alumni of the CCC are:
- Hyman G. Rickover, 4-star Admiral, former Corps Area Commander
- Raymond Burr, actor, former enrollee
- Archie Moore, the Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, former enrollee
- Robert Mitchum, actor, former enrollee
- Edward R. Roybal, politician, former enrollee
- Chuck Yeager, test pilot (first human to break the sound barrier), former enrollee
- Stan Musial, baseball player, former enrollee
- Walter Matthau, actor, former enrollee
- Red Schoendienst, baseball player/manager, former enrollee
- Conrad L. Wirth, U.S. administrator, National Park Service supervisor of CCC Program.
A sample of the accomplishments CCC are:
- Between 2 and 3 billion Trees Planted,
- 800 State Parks Developed,
- 52,000 acres of Public Campground Developed,
- 125,000 of Miles of Roads Built,
- 89,000 miles of Telephone Lines Strung,
- 13,100 Miles of Foot Trails Built,
- 40 Million Acres of Farmlands Benefited from Erosion Control Projects,
- 154 Million Square Yards Stream and Lake Bank Protection,
- 814,000 Acres of Range Re-vegetation
- More than 8 million Firefighting Days
For its brief period of existence the CCC not only served the nation by providing conservation and public works, it also served those who took advantage of the opportunities it offered. Unlike today, where everyone believes they have a right to go to college and accumulate thousands of dollars in debt for an education that in many cases is not worth the money spent the youth who enrolled in the CCC were given the opportunity to learn through working and develop habits and skills that would last the rest of their lives.
The CCC taught discipline and personal responsibility, and generated the type of camaraderie that is only found in the military today. It is estimated that the CCC was responsible for a 55% decline in crime during this period. When Pearl Harbor happened, most of the workers of the CCC joined up and found that they already had most of the training they needed.
On May 6, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was just one of many Great Depression relief programs created under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, which Roosevelt had signed the month before. The WPA, the Public Works Administration (PWA) and other federal assistance programs put unemployed Americans to work in return for temporary financial assistance. Out of the 10 million jobless men in the United States in 1935, 3 million were helped by WPA jobs alone.
The Great Depression stands as an event unique in American history due to both its length and severity. With the unprecedented economic collapse, the nation faced an emergency some said more serious than war. The Depression was a time of tremendous suffering and at its worst, left a quarter of the workforce unemployed. During the twentieth century, the annual unemployment rate averaged double-digit levels in just eleven years. Ten of these occurred during the Great Depression.
A confused and hungry nation turned to the government for assistance. With the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, the federal government’s response to the economic emergency was swift and massive. The explosion of legislation — which came to be collectively called the “New Deal” — was designed, at least in theory, to bring a halt to the human suffering and put the country on the road to recovery. The president promised relief, recovery and reform.
Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.
Although the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) were all begun two years earlier, the Works Progress Administration (latter renamed the Work Projects Administration) became the best known of the administration’s alphabet soup agencies. Although the CWA provided much employment there were many taxpayers who saw leaves being raked but nothing of permanent value. Roosevelt told his cabinet that this criticism moved him to end the program and replace it with the WPA which would have long-term value for the society, in addition to short-term benefits for the unemployed.
Indeed, for many the works program is synonymous with the entire New Deal. Roosevelt devoted more energy and more money to the WPA than to any other agency. The WPA would provide public employment for people who were out of work. The administration felt that the creation of make-work jobs for the jobless would restore the human spirit, but dignity came with a price tag — an appropriation of almost $5 billion was requested. From 1936 to 1939 expenditures totaled nearly $7 billion ($124 billion in today’s dollars). Annual figures are shown below:
- 1936 $1,295,459,010
- 1937 $1,879,493,595
- 1938 $1,463,694,664
- 1939 $2,125,009,386
The legislation that created the WPA, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 sailed through the House, passing by a margin of 329 to 78 but bogged down in the Senate where a vocal minority argued against the measure. Despite the opposition, the legislation passed in April of 1935.
Harry Hopkins headed the new organization. Hopkins became, after Roosevelt, the most powerful man in the administration. All WPA administrators, whether assigned to Washington or to the agency’s state and local district offices, were employees of the federal government and all WPA workers’ wages were distributed directly from the U.S. Treasury. The WPA required the states to provide some of their own resources to finance projects but a specific match was never stipulated — a fact that would later become a source of contentious debate.
The agency prepared a “Guide to Eligibility of WPA Projects” which was made available to the states. Nineteen types of potentially fundable activities were described ranging from malaria control to recreational programs to street building.
Hopkins and Roosevelt proposed that WPA compensation be based on a “security wage” which would be an hourly amount greater than the typical relief payment but less than that offered by private employers. The administration contended that it was misleading to evaluate the programs’ effects solely on the basis of wages paid — more important were earnings through continuous employment. Thus, wages were reported in monthly amounts.
Wages differed widely from region to region and state-to-state. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia explained, “In the State of Tennessee the man who is working with a pick and shovel at 18 cents an hour is limited to $26 a month, and he must work 144 hours to earn $26. Whereas the man who is working in Pennsylvania has to work only 30 hours to earn $94, out of funds which are being paid out of the common Treasury of the United States”. Recurring complaints of this nature led to adjustments in the wage rate that narrowed regional differentials to more closely reflect the cost of living in the state.
The WPA employed far many more men than women, with only 13.5 percent of WPA employees being women in the peak year of 1938. Although the decision had been made early on to pay women the same wages as men, in practice they were consigned to the lower-paying activities of sewing, bookbinding, caring for the elderly, school lunch programs, nursery school, and recreational work. Ellen Woodward, director of the women’s programs at the WPA, successfully pushed for women’s inclusion in the Professional Projects Division. In this division, professional women were treated more equally to men, especially in the federal art, music, theater, and writers’ projects.
While FDR believed in the elementary principles of justice and fairness, he also expressed disdain for doling out welfare to otherwise able workers. So, in return for monetary aid, WPA workers built highways, schools, hospitals, airports and playgrounds. They restored theaters — such as the Dock Street Theater in Charleston, S.C. — and built the ski lodge at Oregon's Mt. Hood. The WPA also put actors, writers and other creative arts professionals back to work by sponsoring federally funded plays, art projects, such as murals on public buildings, and literary publications. FDR safeguarded private enterprise from competition with WPA projects by including a provision in the act that placed wage and price controls on federally funded products or services.
When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since. The WPA program in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Opponents of the New Deal in Congress gradually pared back WPA appropriations in the years leading up to World War II. By 1940, the economy was roaring back to life with a surge in defense-industry production and, in 1943, Congress suspended many of the programs under the ERA Act, including the WPA.
On 27 May 1935, in the court case of Schechter Poultry Corp. v. United States, the Supreme Court held the mandatory codes section of NIRA unconstitutional, because it attempted to regulate commerce that was not interstate in character, and that the codes represented an unacceptable delegation of power from the legislature to the executive. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for a unanimous Court in invalidating the industrial "codes of fair competition" which the NIRA enabled the President to issue. The Court held that the codes violated the United States Constitution's separation of powers as an impermissible delegation of legislative power to the executive branch. The Court also held that the NIRA provisions were in excess of congressional power under the Commerce Clause.
The Court distinguished between direct effects on interstate commerce, which Congress could lawfully regulate, and indirect, which were purely matters of state law. Though the raising and sale of poultry was an interstate industry, the Court found that the "stream of interstate commerce" had stopped in this case: Schechter's slaughterhouses bought chickens only from intrastate wholesalers and sold to intrastate buyers. Any interstate effect of Schechter was indirect, and therefore beyond federal reach.
Specifically, the Court invalidated regulations of the poultry industry promulgated under the authority of the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, including price and wage fixing, as well as requirements regarding a whole shipment of chickens, including unhealthy ones, which has led to the case becoming known as "the sick chicken case." The ruling was one of a series which overturned some New Deal legislation between January 1935 and January 1936, and which ultimately caused Roosevelt to attempt to pack the Court with judges that were in favor of the New Deal.
As an aside; in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1933, DeBenneville "Bert" Bell formed a new National Football League franchise to replace the defunct Frankford Yellow Jackets, naming this team the Eagles in recognition of the NRA (a name the team retains to the present).
Liquidated on June 30, 1943 as a result of high employment due to the industry boom of World War Two, the WPA had provided millions of Americans with jobs for 8 years.
The WPA should not be confused with the Public Works Administration (PWA). While similar in its nature to put people back to work the PWA was focused on large projects built by private contractors with government financing in a more traditional manner.
The Public Works Administration, part of the New Deal of 1933, was a large-scale public works construction agency in the United States headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. It was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933 in response to the Great Depression. It built large-scale public works such as dams, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Its goals were to spend $3.3 billion in the first year, and $6 billion in all, to provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, and help revive the economy. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933-35, and again in 1938. Originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, it was renamed the Public Works Administration in 1939 and shut down in 1943.
The PWA spent over $6 billion in contracts to private construction firms that did the actual work. It created an infrastructure that generated national and local pride in the 1930s and remains vital seven decades later. The PWA was much less controversial than its rival agency with a confusingly similar name, the Works Progress Administration, headed by Harry Hopkins, which focused on smaller projects and hired unemployed unskilled workers.
In essence the PWA should not be confused with its great rival the Works Progress Administration (WPA), though both were part of the New Deal. The WPA, headed by Harry Hopkins, engaged in smaller projects in close cooperation with local governments — such as building a city hall or sewers or sidewalks. The PWA projects were much larger in scope, such as giant dams. The WPA hired only people on relief who were paid directly by the federal government. The PWA gave contracts to private firms who did all the hiring on the private sector job market just as governmental contracting is done to this day. The WPA also had youth programs (the NYA), projects for women, and arts projects that the PWA did not have.
When President Roosevelt moved industry toward war production, the PWA was abolished and its functions were transferred to the Federal Works Agency in June 1943.
During the Great Depression (1929-1942) the nation had an unemployment rate that averaged around 18%. In 1929 it was 3.2% and the rate peaked in 1933 at 25%. By 1939 it had it had dropped to 17% and at the onset of WWII the rate had plummeted to less than 6% due to shift to defense spending and the induction of millions into the military.
During this period the nation had major programs to provide work for the millions of unemployed. The PWA was a traditional program to provide “stimulus” dollars for major infrastructure projects. It infused money into the private sector for the construction of large-scale public works such as dams, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Of all the New Deal programs it was the least controversial. It’s the way federal, state, and local projects are funded and constructed today.
The CCC was a program to restore and protect or natural environment, build minor civil works projects such as irrigation lines, trails, and wind-breaks. They planted 3 billion tress, built trails and roadways in our national parks, and constructed telephone and power lines in rural America. The program was designed to get unskilled (and in many cases uneducated) youth off the streets and into military-like camps where they would earn some money for their families, learn a work ethic, and provide some lasting benefit to the nation, especially in the Dust Bowl region. While having critics, such as the unions and those fearing it to become a Fascist type of government controlled organization similar to what was happening on Italy and Nazi Germany, the CCC did a great deal of good for the monies spent. Otto Slabe was the perfect example of a CCC success story.
The WPA was the most controversial of Roosevelt’s alphabet soup. While putting unskilled workers (like my uncle) to work building civil works projects such as roads and sewers the program, in many cases, put too many people working on make-work projects. When the WPA began to hire artists, actors, and writers the controversy became intense. (Click here for a gallery of images of the WPA)
The strongest attacks were that it was the prelude for a national political machine on behalf of Roosevelt. Reformers secured the Hatch Act of 1939 that largely depoliticized the WPA.
Others complained that far Left elements played a major role, especially in the New York City unit (which was independent of the New York State unit). Representative Martin Dies, Jr. went so far as to call the WPA a “seedbed for communists”. Exaggeration was rife—such as a false report circulating in 1936 that the cost of killing a single rat in one extermination endeavor was $2.97 (over $49 in current dollars).
Much of the criticism of the distribution of projects and funding allotment is a result of the view that the decisions were politically motivated. The South, as the poorest region of the United States, received 75 percent less in federal relief and public works funds per capita than the West. Critics would point to the fact that Roosevelt’s Democrats could be sure of voting support from the South, whereas the West was less of a sure thing; investing in the West was a way of swaying voters.
There was a perception that WPA employees were not diligent workers. Employers said the "WPA is bad for people since it gives them poor work habits. They believe that even if a man is not an inefficient worker to begin with, he gets that way from being on WPA." Having been on the WPA made it harder for alumni to get a job because employers said they had "formed poor work habits" on the WPA.
A Senate committee reported that:
"To some extent the complaint that WPA workers do poor work is not without foundation. Poor work habits and incorrect techniques are not remedied. Occasionally a supervisor or a foreman demands good work."
The WPA and its workers were ridiculed as lazy. The organization's initials were said to stand for "We Poke Along", "We Piddle Around", "We Putter Along", "Working Piss Ants", or the "Whistle, Piss and Argue gang". These were sarcastic references to WPA projects that sometimes slowed down deliberately because foremen had an incentive to keep going, rather than finish a project. My uncle along with a supervisor at my first full-time job as a surveyor’s assistant, both having worked for the WPA, stated that for the most part it was an organization more intent on prolonging the work than completing an a well-constructed, efficient project.
There are those today who argue for the return of some form of the CCC and WPA. Programs like the Job Corps have demonstrated the failures of these programs. With today’s governmental regulations regarding the workplace and the involvement of unions it would be near impossible to take unemployed, unskilled, and uneducated youth of the streets and put them to work planting trees, cleaning up oil spills, or picking up the trash off the highways.
These programs worked at the time they were instituted because the culture of the nation was much different than it is today. Every youth did not believe they had a right to a college education and looked down on those who worked with their hands. People were more comfortable with work than with government handouts. They wanted a job, not a free TV, cell phone, or a vacation. Governmental relief without work was a sign of failure to most Americans. If you watch any “man on the street” interviews with today’s college students you might believe it would be much better for them and our country if they were planting trees and building trails than running up thousands of dollars in debt for a college education with dubious benefits.