Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt Fights the Depression With Relief and Jobs

He insists “that all public works be pushed ahead as fast as possible to give employment...”.

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In 1930, with unemployment rising and jobs becoming increasingly scarce, Americans began to feel the effects of the economic downturn that began with the Stock Market Crash the previous October. The problem of unemployment in New York State and in its major cities grew increasingly critical, and it was obvious that neither...

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Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt Fights the Depression With Relief and Jobs

He insists “that all public works be pushed ahead as fast as possible to give employment...”.

In 1930, with unemployment rising and jobs becoming increasingly scarce, Americans began to feel the effects of the economic downturn that began with the Stock Market Crash the previous October. The problem of unemployment in New York State and in its major cities grew increasingly critical, and it was obvious that neither local funding nor privately-supported agencies could handle the crisis. New York, as the leading industrial state, had an especial need to maintain and develop the wage-earner market. With the support of both labor and business, Frances Perkins, the state industrial commissioner, told Governor Roosevelt that public works projects were “the greatest source of hope for the future,” and she recommended the immediate implementation of local public works programs along with public employment clearinghouses. He set up an emergency employment committee to review options but was soon convinced that more drastic measures were necessary than the committee proposed.

In January 1931, Roosevelt declared that in order to meet this unprecedented emergency the state had to look for new solutions to meet new problems. Deploring the “Pollyanna attitude” of the Hoover administration, he called for experimental programs, a innovative tactic that became a hallmark of his social policy during the New Deal years. He also called for legislation that would enable the state to give immediate aid to unemployed New Yorkers. On August 28, 1931, in a landmark speech to a special emergency session of the state legislature, FDR advocated creation of a government agency to undertake relief and public works. On September 23, the legislature authorized the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) which was the first agency of its kind in the nation. The Governor named Harry Hopkins, later his senior aide as president, to run the new agency. TERA immediately targeted emergency relief for the unemployed. Able-bodied workers without jobs would get aid from the state—first home (direct) relief and then the more desirable work relief. Roosevelt thus set a precedent by creating a new agency to meet a new problem, one he relied on during the New Deal years. Eventually, TERA provided unemployment assistance to 10 percent of New York’s families.

In the immediate wake of his address to the legislature, FDR wrote mayors of the state’s largest cities, to pledge that he would act to fight the Depression, to detail his plans to create jobs, to stimulate local and private aid, and to make sure that the cities were prepared for what he saw as an upcoming winter fraught with desperation for large numbers of people.

Typed Letter Signed on his State of New York, Executive Chamber letterhead, Albany, September 1, 1931, to John J. Fogerty, Mayor of Yonkers. “The present outlook is that next winter a great many families in the State will face serious privation unless they can be helped by substantial public and private relief. Unfortunately, the unemployment situation is not improving. On the contrary, latest reports received by the Department of Labor show that the number of employed persons in the State decreased 3% from May to June. Many persons who have been able to keep their heads above water during the past two years of employment shortage will have come to the end of their resources when winter sets in….From every responsible quarter, I am informed that we must prepare for greater relief demands next winter. The time to begin to prepare is now…For my part, as Governor of the State, I intend to help in every way in my power. As Governor, I shall join in a general appeal to the people of the State to continue their generous help to those whom unemployment is forcing to ask for relief to clothe, feed and shelter their families. As Governor of the State, I have insisted that all public works be pushed ahead as fast as possible to give employment…In New York City, the city government is spending about $1,000,000 a month for emergency employment…Special legislation was secured to enable the city to provide this emergency work for the unemployed. If other legislation is needed for next winter, we should know about it now and make plans for it…Now is the time to begin to make preparations…”

The success of the New York program catepulted FDR to national attention, and the innovative solutions and fresh thinking he brought to bear at a time of deep crisis appealed to the nation. He was easily nominated for president less than a year after TERA commenced operations; soon he would have the opportunity to try his hand at battling the Great Depression on a nationwide basis.

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