Harry Hopkins: Address at WPA Luncheon

Harry Hopkins, Address on federal relief delivered at a WPA luncheon (September 19, 1936). From “Address at WPA Luncheon,” Harry L. Hopkins Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Harry_Hopkins_FDR[Hopkins served as the first director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1933, the Civil Works Administration, and then the Works Progress Administration in 1935. This speech is a public defense of New Deal programs and a statement of Hopkins’s ideas about relief more broadly.]

…I gained six pounds this summer and am looking pretty well after all the things people have called me, and the reason is I don’t worry any more. A fellow told me the story about the eighteen year old girl that had her first date. Her father sent for her and told her there were certain things she should know. “This young fellow is very apt to hold your hand, and daughter, that is all right. Then he will want to put his arm around you, and that is all right. Then he will want you to put your head on his shoulder — you must not do that because your mother will worry.” So the young girl went out and the next morning her father asked her how the evening had gone. She replied, “Well, Dad, everything happened just as you said it would, he held my hand, then he put his arm around me, then he wanted me to put my head on his shoulder, but I said, ‘Hell no!’ — you put your head on my shoulder and let your mother worry.'”…

I am going to discuss with you very briefly some of the things that have happened to me in the last three or four years, and some of the things that would have happened to you if you had had this job. You didn’t have it — you could sit around your dinner table and discuss these things — about what you would and would not do. “What a terrible fellow this bird Hopkins is.” But if you had had my job you would have had to sign on a dotted line — you would have had to put it in writing. You would have had to say “yes” or “no” and you would have had to make a lot of decisions, and furthermore you would have had to make these decisions fast. You couldn’t have called a meeting of the board of directions or written an article to see how the public would react, or sent out trial balloons to find out what the people might think. People were hungry. Twenty-two million of them in the United States.

Now, a lot of people don’t realize there were more people on the relief rolls late in 1932 and early in 1933 than have ever been in America since, and there are fewer in America today than there have ever been. You would have bumped right into that, because we found these millions of people in the United States. Families — many of them getting two dollars a month relief, and you would have had to decide right off the bat whether you were going to go on giving them $2 or $4 or $8 a month. You would have had to decide who should and who should not get relief. Would you give relief to everybody that knocked on the door and asked for it, and would you make an investigation of their need, and what kind of an investigation? If a man had an insurance policy for $200 would you make him cash it in? You couldn’t be vague on that point. You couldn’t tell these State Administrators, “Do anything you please, make up your own minds.” You would have had to write a letter out here very specifically saying what you would do about it. If he had $100 in a savings bank — every dime he had — would he have to take it out and spent it before you gave him relief? You couldn’t have sat around the table at Washington and talked about it — you would have had to write a letter and decide it, the whole business about this investigation. What kind of people should make these investigations — how many there should be. Every time you had to spend any money for investigations it was charged up against administration — the people would yell — and if you didn’t make an investigation, an adequate one, then they would jump on you because you weren’t making an adequate investigation. And you would have had to decide this business with the millions of people involved. Investigators that these people had never seen in their lives would go in and ask whether they had a bank account or an insurance policy — how far behind they were in their rent, did they have any relatives. You would have had to decide this whole business about investigating needs and you would have had headaches about whether these people on relief were in need. I might as well say here and now, we have never worked out the technique of investigating people who asked for relief. Some way, somehow in America, we have got to find a technique that is dignified, that is an American way of determining who should and who should not get a benefit.

Now let me tell you about these investigations, because this gets into one of the major criticisms of this show. The public says these people on relief don’t need it. They say they are chiselers and cheats. All right, there isn’t a single person in this room, that if a hundred people walked up to the desk and you were going to put 50 on relief — nobody in this room would pick the same fifty — and any fifty picked out, I could go out three months later and find five percent of them that didn’t need relief and shouldn’t have it — just as you could find five percent that I had picked that didn’t need relief. Don’t fool yourself, there is no magic about this business of determining who does and who does not need relief — it is always a matter of opinion. I had to exercise my opinion — you didn’t. We have made many of hundreds of investigations as to whether these people were in need; we have made them by the Chambers of Commerce, by Rotary Clubs, by all kinds of people, and the results is always the same. They come back and they say 95% of these people need relief and the other 5% should be off. If I were any of you, I would be awfully careful if someone wants to appoint you on a committee to go out and visit some of these people in their homes. I would be awfully careful if I had to talk to the wives.

A lot of people say that the people are getting too much, that the wages are too high. The average relief to the whole crowd has only been $27.00 per month. Today in the WPA $50.00 per month is the average wage. Try and live on $50.00 per month. See how far it goes.

I have never seen a person in my life since I have been in this game, I don’t care who they were, who didn’t know some particular person, some intimate friend of theirs, perhaps a relative, who would come to me and say, “Hopkins, I know this fellow is in need” — and they know five or six more. The answer is, you can sympathize with five or six, but you can’t sympathize with five or six million, and so you begin to generalize about things you hear often in clubs, about whether or not they are in need. I am getting sick and tired of these people on the WPA and local relief rolls being called chiselers and cheats. It doesn’t do any good to call these people names, because they are just like the rest of us. They don’t drink any more than the rest of us — they’re pretty much a cross section of the American people who can’t get a job….

We had a law known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, an alien institution. The idea was to make these people as uncomfortable as possible. If you give them relief, hand them out a niggardly amount to keep body and soul together. That is what went on in this country, except in a few cities. Of all the outrageous things that were done to American people, treating these people like outcasts. Behind that is a moral philosophy, if anyone is poor it’s because something is wrong with them. Give them just as little relief as possible so you won’t encourage them. They want these unemployed to walk up timidly and knock on the door, and why should they? They are American citizens like the rest of us. It is no fault of their own that they are out of work, and it is the business of society to take care of them. It shouldn’t be done as an act of degradation. I made up my mind early in this game that relief was a matter of right and not a matter of charity.

Then you would have had to decide, once you had made up your lasix water pills online mind to put them on relief, what kind of relief you were going to give them. When I got to Washington we had the soup kitchen, bread lines. SHould you feed the unemployed in a bread line or a soup kitchen and let them stand in line? Should you feed them in great commissaries? Should we buy our food wholesale and give these fellows a basket and let them walk out? These things were going on all over America. A lot of people believed in soup kitchens. A lot of people thought it was all right to let a fellow stand in line for hours. Well, that seemed terrible to me. It was cheaper — there’s no question about it. We did not have to do business with any wholesaler or middleman in the country. We could have bought things just as cheaply as Sears Roebuck. While we had an average of 15% of the population on relief, we had 80% of the people in some cities….

A lot of conservative business men were the people that were urging me to set up the commissaries, the cheapest way you possibly can, no matter what it does to the unemployed. You would have had to decide this business about grocery orders. When we threw the commissary over we printed millions of grocery orders. They would take these orders to the grocer for $3. They would walk in — usually they would have to wait because these pink and blue slips of ours became very familiar and the grocers would make them wait until the cash customers were taken care of. Often in buying groceries, a grocer would fill the order for $2.75 and give them 25¢ in cash. The reason they did this was that we never had a hair cut on these orders. They couldn’t buy safety razor blades and they couldn’t go to the movies. In America there are hundreds of thousands of families that went month on end and never saw a dime….

Work is a moral habit in America. I was taught very early in the game that you had to work to have any status in society. Did you ever see a rich man putting on a front about working, who didn’t say on Friday or Saturday that he had to go to the office to take care of something? And I don’t blame him a bit. And don’t you suppose the unemployed are in the same fix as the rest of us? These men, millions of them, going home every night, and they’re out of work. They lose their self respect in no time. I think the most outrageous suggestion that is running around in America today is the idea that we should take these unemployed people and let them sit at home and hand them a basket of groceries once a week. And you would have had to decide what kind of work you were going to give them, what kind of projects, and you finally would have jumped right into boondoggling….

You would have had to decide about 560,000 white collar men. Would you make them suffer? Would you put them out in a ditch with a pick axe and make them like it, musicians, actors? We decided to take the skills of these people wherever we found them and put them to work to save their skills when the public wanted them. Sure we put musicians into orchestras. Sure we let artists paint. It was all right for the great foundations to give fellowships to artists, but when the United States Government did it because these fellows were busted and broke, then it becomes boondoggling, a waste of money. A great many rich men in America maintain their whole standing in the community by doing boondoggling, and some of the finest things in America are of that character. There must have been some men or women in this town who have put up money for a great orchestra. Now we have been doing the same things when the arts no longer have a patron. We have artists, writers, doctors, lawyers and nurses. Why we even have sunk so low as to put blind people to work on projects for the blind. I think these projects are good. I think they are getting better all the time. I think the unit of production is better. They are better supervised than they were. Any contractor knows that it depends on the man who is actually in charge of a crew of men. And one foreman will get more performance than another. One of the difficulties we get into is because of this question of skills. Sometimes a project comes to us that is an excellent project, but they haven’t got the kind of skilled workmen in that community that it takes to develop that project. We have some skilled workers here but not many. We have to develop a project around the skills of the people. Otherwise we are going to be competing with private business for our workers….

I want to finish by saying two things. I have never liked poverty. I have never believed that with our capitalistic system people have to be poor. I think it is an outrage that we should permit hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people to be ill clad, to live in miserable homes, not to have enough to eat; not to be able to send their children to school for the only treason that they are poor. I don’t believe ever again in America are we going to permit the things to happen that have happened in the past to people. We are never going back again, in my opinion, to the days of putting the old people in the alms houses, when a decent dignified pension at home will keep them there. We are coming to the day when we are going to have decent houses for the poor, when there is genuine and real security for everybody. I have gone all over the moral hurdles that people are poor because they are bad. I don’t believe it. A system of government on that basis is fallacious. I think further than that, that this economic system of ours is an ideal instrument to increase this national income of ours, not back to 80 billion where it was, but up to 100 billion or 120 billion. The capitalistic system lends itself to providing a national incomes that will give real security for all.

Now I want to say this, I have been at this thing for three and a half years. I have never been a public official before. I was brought up in that school of thought that believed that no one went on the public payroll except for political purposes or because he was incompetent or unless he had a job that he didn’t work at. One of the most insidious things is the propaganda that something is wrong about one that works for the people. I have learned something in these three and a half years. I have taken a look at a lot of these public servants….

I have come to resent an attitude on the part of some people in America that you should never be part of this business of public service. I am proud of having worked for the Government. I had been a great experience for me. I have signed my name to about $6,000,000,000 in the last three and a half years. None of it has stuck to the fingers of our administrators. You might think some of it has been wasted. If it has been wasted it was in the interest of the unemployed. You might say we have made mistakes. I haven’t a thing to apologize for about our so-called mistakes. If we have made mistakes we have made them in the interests of the people that were broke.

When this thing is all over and I am out of the Government the things I am going to regret are the things I have failed to do for the unemployed. I don’t know whether you would have liked the job. Every night when you went home and after you got home and remembered there was a telegram you didn’t answer, the fact that you failed to answer the telegram and the telephone call may have resulted in somebody not eating. That is the kind of a job I have had for the last three and a half years, and still have. When it is all over, the thing I am going to be proudest of are the people all over America, public officials, volunteers, paid workers, thousands of people of all political and religious faiths who joined in this enterprise of taking care of people in need. It has been a great thing I am not ashamed of one of them and I hope when I am through they are not going to be ashamed of me, and as I go around this country and see the unemployment and see the people who are running this show of ours, I am tremendously proud of this country of ours and I am tremendously that I am a citizen of it. Thank you very much.


Source: MIT