The Make-Work Programs in the New Deal Era: An Assessment

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

25 Pages, Grade: 1,5



1. Introduction

2. The Situation of the Americans before Roosevelt’s Presidency: Unemployment as a Result of the Great Depression
2.1 Roosevelt’s Encouragement of the Nation

3. New Deal – A General Definition
3.1 First New Deal – First Hundred Days
3.1.1 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
3.1.2 Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA)
3.1.3 Tennessee Valley Authority Act (TVA)
3.1.4 Public Works Administration (PWA)
3.1.5 Civil Works Administration (CWA)

4. Second New Deal – The Second Hundred Days
4.1 Works Progress Administration (WPA)
4.2 National Youth Administration (NYA)

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In the beginning, Roosevelt had to face a widespread economic disaster which covered all sectors: the banking had collapsed so that most people lost all their money and lifetime savings; the agriculture, more than the other sectors, suffered from the depression by overproduction and falling prices; and the industry urgently required recovery. First of all, Roosevelt proclaimed “a three-day ‘bank holiday’” and shortly after that the Emergency Banking Relief Act (EBRA) to restore the collapsed banking (Parmet 2002: 8). The Agricultural Adjustment Act(AAA) was an attempt to solve the agricultural difficulties, and the recovery of the industry should be achieved by the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).

The resulting most predominant and urgent problem in all sectors was increasing unemployment and impoverishment which Roosevelt attacked by varying make-work programs. He was aware of the alarming dimensions of this problem. Regarding this fact, taking the jobless to work was Roosevelt’s most important concern and as it was the basis of the well-being and prosperity of the nation it had priority over all other problems. What sets Roosevelt apart from the other presidents was his faith in the future and his ability to convince the American people that they must also believe in the future to regain a normal way of life.

Roosevelt’s work relief programs, especially during the First Hundred Days, have repeatedly been debated up to this day. There have always been controversial discussions about the effects and failures. Questions raised whether Roosevelt’s programs met the expectations of the American people, or whether the measures could alleviate the sufferings on a long term basis.

For all that reasons, in my paper I will concentrate on the make-work programs and examine its positive and also negative effects. In the first part I will shortly outline the situation before Roosevelt’s presidency and his election pledge, and I will generally define the term. Further, I will have a closer look on the chronologically ordered programs of the First New Deal. I am going to define each measure, demonstrate the effects, achievements, and also the negative side effects respectively criticism. The second part focused the make-work measures of the Second New Deal in a similar way. I will give an overview of the regular earnings in contrast to the earnings under work relief and WPA in a table. My intention is to give an assessment of the positive and negative results and achievements. I will examine to what extent Roosevelt was able to fulfil his promise and whether the programs were successful on a long term basis.

2. The Situation of the Americans before Roosevelt’s Presidency: Unemployment as a Result of the Great Depression

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office on March 4th , 1933, the United States was gripped by the recession. The economic system had broken down and the economy was involved in its longest and deepest depression. Degler (1970: 380, 383 in Herson) describes impressively the lightening fast development of unemployment and the situation of the American people:

The rolling wave of job loss and unemployment swept on, and by 1931, 12 million (some said 13 million) were without jobs and Fortune magazine calculated that 25 million (workers and their families) were without any source of income. […]

The suffering in those years was elemental and direct: hunger and cold, lack of medical attention, loss of housing, deprivation of dignity. “[…] in February 1933 […] something like 200,000 young men and boys were traveling around the country on railroad trains for lack of anything better to do.

Leuchtenberg’s (1963: 2) description completes the previous illustration: “At least a million, perhaps as many as two million were wandering the country in a fruitless quest for work or adventure or just a sense of movement.” In addition, Leuchtenberg (1963: 118 p.) also illustrates the mental effects of unemployment:

In the early months of the depression, jobless men made the rounds of factory gates in search of work only to be faced by hastily scrawled signs with the legend “NO HELP WANTED.” By the spring of 1934, the legends were painted in gilt letters, as if to make the words more enduring.[…] Men who had once felt certain they could find a job the next day, the next week, the next month, had lost their self-assurance. One worker remarked: “There is something about the anniversary of your layoff which makes you feel more hopeless.” Where once they had been confident of their own powers, they now felt impotent. […] The unemployed worker almost always experienced feelings of guilt and self-depreciation. Although he knew millions had been thrown out of work through no fault of their own, he knew too that millions more were still employed. He could not smother the conviction that his joblessness was the result of his own inadequacy. To be unemployed in an industrial society is the equivalent of banishment and excommunication. A job established a man’s identity – not only what other men thought of him but how he viewed himself; the loss of his job shattered his self-esteem and severed one of his most important ties to other men. […]

Without work, without hope of work, he spent his days in purposeless inactivity. “These are dead men,” observed one writer. “They are ghosts that walk the streets by day. They are ghosts sleeping with yesterday’s newspapers thrown around them for covers at night.”

The people had realized that businessmen could no longer guarantee “ […] the economic […] well-being of Americans, and that limited private and local charity […] could not serve “as a substitute for public social provision in times of economic downturn” (Orloff 1988: 65).

In contrast, Patterson (1994: 56) reports the desperate situation which the government was faced with:

Total government expenditures for welfare-federal, state, and local-increased from less than $100 million a year in the 1920s to only $208 million in 1932. That was $1.67 per inhabitant in 1932, 1.5 percent of all governmental expenditures, and 0.5 percent of the nation income. This spending, almost all of it by local governments, fell far short of the need. The situation in Philadelphia, which developed what one historian called the “most imaginative and effective” municipal relief operation in the country, showed how much remained to be done. That city enlisted cooperation between private agencies and municipal resources, to the tune of $1 million per month in 1931. Nothing like such sums had ever been spent in the city, yet so many people turned out for help that needy families could get but $1.50 to $2 per person per week in grocery orders. Families of six received $5 worth of food per week plus a bit of coal, secondhand clothes, and shoes. The demands persisted, and the United Fund chipped in $5 million, which was used up in three month. By June 1932 there was no more local money for relief, and neither the state nor the federal government acted resolutely to fill the vacuum, so 57,000 families were abandoned to their own resources.

Caused by the enormous sufferings of the population, Roosevelt was confronted by a variety of problems. He must have been a person of extraordinary optimism even to make an attempt of easing the devastating circumstances. As Hoover was not able to change the desolate situation during his presidency, “Americans turned to Roosevelt with desperate expectations” (Moss 2000: 188). In fact, most of the American people regarded Roosevelt as rescuer.

2.1 Roosevelt’s Encouragement of the Nation

“ First of all, “ declared the new president in his inaugural address, “let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” (ibid: 186). This speech, promising the fight against the depression by a daring program, electrified and encouraged the American people; right from the start the president convinced the Americans that a leader with an unshakeable faith in the future had taken command and that he would do everything which was necessary to regain the confidence of the population and to restore prosperity. Regarding the desperate situation of the American people, Roosevelt’s first step was to encourage the nation. This encouragement became his guiding principle. Leuchtenberg (1963: 42) explains Roosevelt’s principle and the impact of his address:

[…] the instillation of hope and courage in the people. He made clear that the time of waiting was over, that he had the people’s interests at heart, and that he would mobilize the power of the government to help them. In the next week, nearly half a million Americans wrote their new President.

The president used all available mass media to motivate every single person. His successful leadership depended decisively on his extraordinary rhetoric talent which he used to communicate with average citizens (see Moss: 188). The “fireside chat”, developed by Roosevelt early in his presidency, was a radio address which he spoke to 60 million Americans assembled around their radios. (ibid: 189; see ibid: 188 p.).The president used these fireside chats “for explaining complex socioeconomic policies in simple language intelligible to ordinary citizens” (ibid: 188).

Roosevelt became one of the most dominant and powerful as well as popular American presidents. He was re-elected for three times which was unique in the history of the United States (see Junker 1992: 168 in Adams/Czempiel/Ostendorf/Shell/Spahn/Zöller). Even the overwhelming re-election in 1936 “demonstrated that the New Deal accorded with the hopes and dreams of most Americans” (Moss 2000: 186).

3. New Deal – A General Defination

Herson (1984: 208) defines the term as

[…] the metaphor of a card game. It suggests that some unkind spirit, some bad luck, has dealt the society a poor hand of cards. It suggests that a new round of cards dealt by a new leader (i. e., a new dealer) will bring fortune back into the game. […] A new deal is a call to optimism. And optimism is of the greatest importance in setting capitalism’s down cycle on an upward swing: Any attempt to restore productivity requires that those who make today’s decisions have faith that the future will bring a demand for goods and services that are not needed today.

Further, Herson (1984: 208) termed the New Deal as the “Third American Revolution” because “the transformations of government and the presidency” were “so great in scale.”

In addition, Coukin (1992: 52) regards the “New Deal, as a vast and complex whole, denied the idea of experimentation – clear hypotheses and controlled verification.”

The following chapters will show that both definitions are correct.

3.1 First New Deal - First Hundred Days

The First New Deal became also known as the First Hundred Days which began in March 1933. These First Hundred Days had a significant role as Roosevelt fixed his eyes “on the immediate need for economic relief” and recovery (Parmet 2002: 6). In contrast to Hoover, Roosevelt realized that the Great Depression was not caused by foreign countries. For that reason he focused on domestic politics which had priority over foreign politics. According to Parmet (2002: 6 p.) Roosevelt “compared himself to a football coach who experimented until he had the right play. […] The exact pattern of how that could all happen, or what should happen, was not at all clear when he and his cabinet […] started the search for ways to prop up the country.” The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, added “if only someone would tell them what to do” (ibid: 6).Roosevelt told the nation in his inaugural address “This nation asks for action, and action now” (ibid: 5). He realized his promise “to fight the depression with a bold program” by the enactment of a variety of measures which was unique in the history of the United States (Moss 2000: 188).

For the first time in history, the government had taken the responsibility for “managing the economy” and “controlling […] of all law and the public policy” (Herson 1984: 205 p.). The problem of relief had no longer to be compensated by private charity and local authorities but rather had to be solved largely by the government. According to Herson (1984: 205), up to Roosevelt’s presidency the “states and national government each had an independent domain of authority […].” Further, Herson (1984: 210) explains the progress of such a concept: the idea of government “([…] national government, not the states or the cities)” as employer for “all those out of work” was simple, but it was surprising and experimentally for the 1930s. […] “Nothing like it had ever been done before nor on so vast a scale” (ibid: 210; see ibid: 210). Logically, the concept raised various questions: “Not least […] of what the newly hired would do. Where would they work? What would they work with? The government owned no factories, raised no crops, manufactured next to nothing” (ibid: 210). Despite all this, Roosevelt had the answer which should temporarily bring alleviation:

Put them to work doing jobs that did not require that government own the “means of production.” Put them to work at jobs that did not require advanced technology, or machinery, or assembly lines, or factories.[…] put the jobless to work doing labour-intensive production, output requiring a high ratio of human labor: essential public works, maintenance, and construction (ibid: 210).

All programs of the First New Deal were work relief programs which Roosevelt never regarded to be a substitute for regular work.


Excerpt out of 25 pages


The Make-Work Programs in the New Deal Era: An Assessment
Technical University of Chemnitz
Hauptseminar: Comparative Studies - the Interwar Period in Britain and the USA
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
411 KB
Anmerkungen: well researched, zu häufig zitiert, Gliederung: Anzahl der Untergliederungen sollte gleich sein (z. B. 1-1.1-1.2, 2.-2.1-2.2, 3.-3.1-3.2 usw.)
Make-Work, Programs, Deal, Assessment, Hauptseminar, Comparative, Studies, Interwar, Period, Britain
Quote paper
Corinna Roth (Author), 2006, The Make-Work Programs in the New Deal Era: An Assessment, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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