New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt

97 ([New York State Takes the Lead in the Relief of the Unemployed. A Message Recommending Creation of Relief Administration.

August 28,1931

To the Legislature (in Extraordinary Session):

What is the State? It is the duly constituted representative of an organized society of human beings, created by them for their mutual protection and well-belng. “The State“ or “The Government” is but the machinery through which such mutual aid and protection are achieved. The cave man fought for existence unaided or even opposed by his fellow man, but today the humblest citizen of our State stands protected by all the power and strength of his Government. Our Government is not the master but the creature of the people. The duty of the State toward the citizens is the duty of the servant to the master. The people have created it; the people, by common consent, permit its continual existence.

One of these duties of the State is that of caring for those of its citizens who find themselves the victims of such adverse circumstances as makes them unable to obtain even the necessities for mere existence without the aid of others. That responsibility is recognized by every civilized Nation.

For example, from the earliest days of our own country the consciousness of the proper relationship between the State and the citizen resulted in the establishment of those often crude and unscientific but wholly necessary institutions known as the county poor houses.

In many messages to your Honorable Bodies I have pointed out that this earlier exemplification of the State’s responsibility has been sustained and enlarged from year to year as we have grown to a better understanding of government functions. l have mentioned specifically the general agreements of today, that upon the State falls the duty of protecting and sustaining those of its citizens who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in their old age unable to maintain life.

But the same rule applies to other conditions.  ln broad terms I assert that modern society, acting through its Government, owes the definite obligation to prevent the starvation or the dire want of any of its fellow men and women who try to maintain themselves but cannot.

While it is true that we have hitherto principally considered those who through accident or old age were permanently incapacitated, the same responsibility of the State undoubtedly applies when widespread economic conditions render large numbers of men and women incapable of supporting either themselves or their families because of circumstances beyond their control which make it impossible for them to find remunerative labor. To these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by Government, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty.

It is true beyond question that aid must be and will be given in large measure through the agencies of private contributions; and in normal times these contributions should be regarded as sufficient to meet normal conditions. However, even here the appeal is not alone on the basis of charity, but is laid on the foundation of the civic duty of all good citizens.

I would not be appearing before you today if these were normal times.  When, however, a condition arises which calls for measures of relief over and beyond the ability of private and local assistance to meet — even with the usual aid added by the State – it is time for the State itself to do its additional share.

As my constitutional duty to communicate to your Honorable Bodies the condition of the State, I report to you what is a matter of common knowledge — that the economic depression of the last two years has created social conditions resulting in great physical suffering on the part of many hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Unless conditions immediately and greatly change, this will, we fear, be aggravated by cold and hunger during the coming winter.

The many reports which I have received from municipal officials, from the Governor’s Commission on the Stabilization of Employment, from the State Department of Social Welfare, and from many private organizations for relief and charity, agree that the number of our citizens who, this coming winter, will be in need will, so far as is possible to estimate, be nearly, if not quite, twice as many as during the winter of 1930-1931.

There are many causes. Many individuals and families because of prolonged unemployment, have exhausted their savings and their credit. Many who were at work last winter and were enabled to take care of their relatives and friends are now themselves out of work. In the same way, many employers who, up to recently, with fine public spirit have continued to use their resources to prevent the laying-off of workers, are finding that they can no longer do so.

Last winter, distress was to a great extent alleviated along three distinct lines; first, through the recommendations of the Commission on the Stabilization of Employment which pointed out the method of staggering employment in order to provide work for more people, and was largely instrumental in bringing about the coordination of relief work of the various municipalities and private agencies throughout the State; second, by the authorization and construction of large additions to public works on the part of the State and the political subdivisions thereof; third, by a generous response by private individuals in the form of contributions for relief.

We could proceed in accordance with the same program and policy used last winter were it not for two facts which, according to the best information obtainable, seem incontrovertible. The first is that the amount of relief needed will of necessity be vastly greater this coming winter; secondly, the resources hitherto used will not be adequate to meet additional needs.

There is no escaping the simple conclusion that very large additional funds must be looked for this winter to supplement the lines of assistance given last year.

I am confident that every county, every city and every town will continue its program of public works and add to it wherever possible. Nevertheless, there are many communities in the State which, because they have approached or are approaching their constitutional debt limit or for other equally good reasons, will find themselves unable greatly to add to employment on public works. It is worth while remembering, too, that where these public works are not paid for out of current receipts from taxes, the issuing of notes or bonds by municipalities calls for their subsequent payment out of taxes derived almost wholly from real estate — a form of property which today already bears a heavy load. It is therefore probably correct to estimate that the total of public works giving direct employment to labor will not and cannot be greatly increased during the coming year in the average of the municipalities of the State.

We now come to the source of relief provided by private charity. Even though the generous contributions in previous years of those who appreciate their civic responsibility in this matter should equal the previous sum, it will still fall short of the total needed. Let me make it clear that no individual who can afford it has the right to give one dollar less in private relief work than he has given in the past.

The net result of this survey is that we must recognize these facts; that the local subdivisions of government can in most cases not greatly increase their direct employment of labor and that private charity will prove inadequate to meet the added burden of the next few months.

By a process of elimination, if by nothing else, the responsibility also rests upon the State. It is idle for us to speculate upon actions which may be taken by the Federal Government, just as it is idle for the purpose for which we are here gathered to speculate about the causes of national depression. It is true that times may get better; it is true that the Federal Government may take action to eradicate some of the basic causes of our present troubles; it is true that the Federal Government may come forward with a definite construction program on a truly large scale; it is true that the Federal Government may adopt a well-thought-out concrete policy which will start the wheels of industry moving and give to the farmer at least the cost of making his crop. The State of New York cannot wait for that. I face and you face and thirteen million people face the problem or providing immediate relief.

To supplement and in no way to cut down the existing sources of relief, the State must itself make available at once a large sum of public moneys to provide work for its residents this winter where useful public work can be found; and where such work cannot be found, to provide them with food against starvation and with clothing and shelter against suffering. To wait until the regular session of the next Legislature would mean that half of the winter would be gone before the necessary legislation was passed and the work or organization set up. This answers the suggestion of waiting until it has been definitely established that local endeavor and private charity have failed to meet the needs of the various communities. It is only by using the next two months for the gathering of the necessary facts, the setting up of the machinery, and the collection of the money, that the needs of the winter months can, beyond a doubt, be met. With my deepest sincerity I believe that the State has an immediate duty and that further delay is impossible and wrong.

No Government is infallible; no Government can guarantee that every case of suffering or distress will be taken care or by it or by its agents. All that Government can do is to act with reasonable foresight and so far as its resources allow, to plan for the fullest measure of relief. At best there will be many individual cases of suffering, but the State should take such reasonable steps as lie within its power to make the number of cases of suffering as small as possible.

To carry out with the greatest possible effectiveness the high duty which is the State’s, l recommend the following program to care for the relief of distress and the alleviation of unemployment:

1. I suggest that the administration of unemployment and distress relief within the State be placed in the hands of a temporary emergency commission of three persons to be appointed by the Governor to serve without pay. This commission, to be known as the “Temporary Emergency Relief Administration,” should be empowered to recommend to the Governor the appointment of local subsidiary commissions of three or more men and women in such cities and counties as it deems advisable. The sum of twenty million dollars, which I am reliably informed is the estimated amount required to meet the needs of the coming year, should be appropriated, and should be apportioned by this commission among the various counties and cities of the State. The distribution should be based in amount on several factors, such as: (1) The number of people and families unemployed in the locality, requiring assistance; and (2) the amount of local effort and initiative as shown by the money raised in the municipality by public and private means, consistent with the financial ability of the municipality and its people.

Based on the theory that the distribution of relief of the poor is essentially a local function, I believe that the State in supplementing the amounts locally raised should seek so far as possible to encourage local initiative by matching local effort; so that the larger the amount raised locally, the larger the contribution by the State.

The actual disbursement of this money should be in the hands of the local welfare officer of the municipality, subject however, to the approval of the local Temporary Emergency Relief Commission, if one be appointed. The local commission should act in an advisory capacity to the local welfare officer as well as to the State Administration. Such a local commission should act can do a great deal, not only by coordinating local private relief, but also by inducing people to have as much work done in and about their houses, businesses and farms as is possible in order to provide many additional odd jobs. Much of the strain of the present situation could be relieved if everybody were to engage in an individual, personal, job-furnishing campaign, doing now the work which they might ordinarily postpone for a year or so. The local commission could accomplish much by stimulating this kind of activity. I also contemplate organizing committees throughout the State to encourage this kind of endeavor.

It should be provided by statute that the money be expended as follows: If any form of employment can be found for the public use, prevailing rates of wages should be paid for such work; if, however, it is impossible to locate or provide work of this kind, then the local welfare officer may purchase and give to the unemployed within his jurisdiction necessary food, clothing, fuel and shelter for them and their families. Certain definite restrictions should be embodied within this statute, viz.:

1. That under no circumstances shall any actual money be paid in the form of a dole or in any other form by the local welfare officer to any unemployed or his family.

2. That this relief should he restricted to persons who have resided in New York state for at least two years prior to the enactment of the statute.

3. That no employment or relief be undertaken except in accordance with rules and regulations laid down by the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration.

The administration should he given the widest latitude and discretion in the apportionment of this money and in its distribution. It should be permitted to retain out of the twenty million dollars a million dollars or more within its discretion to be expended by the State on such work as the State itself may do in the winter months, such as the grading of State lands, construction and maintenance of roads and parkways in such sections of the State as this is possible.

I have so far considered only the proper organization and the prompt distribution of work and supplies where they will be of the greatest assistance. There is another requirement for a scientific and proper system of relief which experience has shown us has not been hitherto properly recognized or organized. Experience has shown that many of the most deserving cases not only refuse to apply for relief until actual starvation has set in, but allow the future health of their children to become permanently undermined by undernourishment rather than seek community help. Any proper relief system must have a thoroughly organized, enthusiastic and tireless department of investigation, constantly seeking out those individuals or families who will not of their own accord come forward. This work must be undertaken by those who are enthusiastic and are sympathetic as well.

I would suggest that this phase of our relief work be laid as a primary duty upon the women of our State; and I shall work in close cooperation with the proposed emergency relief administration to assist in the organization of women as individuals and as groups to carry out this purpose.

2. The necessary money for this unemployment and distress relief should be raised by a tax on personal incomes. It seems logical that those of our residents who are fortunate enough to have taxable incomes should bear the burden of supplementing the local governmental and private philanthropic work of assistance. I believe that this tax should fall proportionately on all incomes, over and above existing exemptions. If each person paying an income tax were required to pay merely half again as much, I am informed by the State Tax Commission, the necessary twenty million dollars will be raised. I have had prepared a computation of what these increases will amount to. You will observe that the burden placed upon the man with a small income is slight indeed; the single man with an income of $3,000, for example, will pay an additional tax of only $2.50; the married man with a family earning $10,000 a year will pay an additional tax of only $26.

The following table shows for typical cases the amount of additional tax for individuals having incomes of certain sizes according to family responsibilities:

……………………………………………………………………Married persons
……………………………….Single……………………… and heads of families
Net income …………….persons ………………….(two children or other dependents)
..$2,500 ………………………$0.00 …………………………………….. $0.00
3,000 ………………………  2.50 ………………………………………. 0.00
4,000 ………………………. 7.50 ………………………………………. 0.00
5,000 …………………….. 12.50 ……………………………………….. 1.00
..10,000 …………………….. 37.50 ……………………………………… 26.00
..30,000 …………………… 125.00 ……………………………………. 102.00
..50,000 …………………… 425.00 ……………………………………. 402.00
100,000 ………………… 1,162.50 ………………………………….. 1,128.00

There were approximately 300,000 personal income tax payers this year. By spreading this burden among those people, few of them will feel it to an appreciable extent and the whole body of our income-making machinery will be sustaining its fair share of the burden. It is clear to me that it is the duty of those who have benefitted by our industrial and economic system to come to the front in such a grave emergency and assist in relieving those who under the same industrial and economic order are the losers and sufferers. I believe their contribution should be in proportion to the benefits they receive and the prosperity they enjoy.

There are two alternative ways in which this tax could be levied. First, it could be imposed upon the 1930 incomes. The advantage of this method is that the exact same amount or this tax is known because of the fact that the tax returns are now actually on file. The objection to it is that people having already paid their 1930 income tax will feel reluctant to pay a further tax additional thereto. Second, the tax can be levied next April on the 1931 incomes and the money can be provided immediately by the Comptroller through the issuance and sale of short term certificates. This method would obviate the objections of those who have already paid their income tax for 1930, but interposes another fairly important objection that the exact total of the tax is unknown and is therefore speculative. In this connection, I desire to inform you that the present estimate of the Tax Commission, made, however, more than seven months before the receipt of the actual returns next April, is that the amount of the net personal returns for the year 1931 will be about the same as for the year 1930.

3. Legislation should be enacted giving to the various cities and counties of the State authority to borrow money and expend it for the employment of their residents on public works. You will recall that Chapter 284 of the Laws of 1931 extended this authority to the City of New York. I am informed that it has been used in that with great benefit in the amelioration of the unemployment situation; and I commend it to your consideration for enactment for such other municipalities as may desire to have this power. I believe that municipal obligations for this purpose should be for no greater period than three years.

4. I recommend that for all future contracts on public works by the State or in a municipality thereof, to be let between October 1, 1931 and June 30, 1932, there be inserted a clause providing for a five-day week for all labor, exclusive of supervisory force, under rules and regulations to be established by the Department of Labor. In this way the benefits of employment on public works may be spread somewhat more thinly, but certainly more widely.

5. One of the by-products of the economic depression has been the recent application for the State bonus by a great many World War veterans — a bonus to which they were entitled by legislation passed in 1924 after approval by the people. These veterans, not needing the money originally voted to them by the State at that time, failed to make claim therefor. Now the exigencies of the present situation force them to seek assistance where they can find it. This is no new bonus but is the bonus already voted for and approved, but not paid out merely because of the failure to make claim therefor. I am informed by the Adjutant-General that these tardy claims will total about $548,000 more than the present fund contains. I therefore suggest that there be allocated out of the twenty million dollar fund hereinabove provided the sum oi $548,000 to be turned over to the Adjutant-General for this purpose.

This program is the result of many months of study and reflection on my part. I am convinced that the time for platitudes as to the necessities of the situation has passed. The time for immediate action is at hand and I trust that your Honorable Bodies will act.

Therefore, in compliance with Article IV, Section 4, of the Constitution, I recommend for your consideration the following:

I. The creation of a temporary State agency to carry on the expenditure this winter of State moneys on public State work for the employment of residents of the State.

II. Authorizing such agency to apportion State moneys among the counties and cities of the State to be disbursed by them this winter for employment on local work useful to the public, and for giving necessary food, clothing, shelter and warmth to residents of the State where useful public work cannot be found for them.

III. The appropriation of money out of current revenues to be immediately available for the relief of distress and the amelioration of unemployment, and the laying of a tax on personal incomes to provide the necessary moneys.

IV. Authorizing cities and counties in the State for the period of one year to borrow money for a term not exceeding three years, to be used by them for the employment of local residents on local public works.

V. Legislation providing for a five-day week in all future contracts for labor on State and municipal public work other than supervisory labor.

VI. Providing State money to pay soldiers‘ bonuses due to World War veterans under the provisions of Chapter 19 of the Laws of 1924 but which have not yet been paid because of delay in filing applications therefor.


The Public Papers And Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt
(pages 457-468)