The Nation discusses unemployment relief and the WPA.
Editorial, The Nation

November 20, 1935

Everything is going up. Stock-market quotations are at new highs. The business index is rapidly approaching "normal." The index of food prices has risen 14 per cent since the first of the year. The WPA has reached its goal in New York City.

Only the unemployment index in New York has remained stationary. Today, as two years ago, there are still a million unemployed in the city. But real wages, including relief income, have gone down. While the New York Times business index has risen from approximately 88 in August to nearly 93 on November 10, the number of families on the relief rolls (including work relief, now handled by WPA) rose from the peak of 338,000 to a new high of 363,000 during the same period. And the number continues to rise. Five weeks ago 1,600 new families were added to the home-relief rolls. During the past week 6,900 were added.

When the WPA was launched as the solution of the unemployment problem, the President announced that "the federal government must and will quit this business of relief." The new program was to give a job to every able-bodied man whom the new prosperity did not place in private industry. WPA in New York City has put 223,000 persons to work. This still leaves 750,000 unemployed who can hope for no help from WPA, since it has already reached its quota. Private industry cannot be depended upon to absorb any appreciable number of these, since business is now operating at nearly "normal" capacity without having made any great inroad on unemployment totals. In the face of these facts Victor Ridder, the Works Progress Administrator, promises a steady "deflation" of the WPA program. This will inevitably throw the released WPA workers back on the local home-relief rolls, repeating the cycle of home relief to local made work, to home relief, to federal CWA, back to home or work relief, back again to federal WPA, then on to home relief. And so round and round.

It was the purpose of WPA to absorb all employable persons on the home-relief rolls. But even with the WPA quota reached, there are still some 140,000 families left on home relief, of whom more than half have one or more employable members. And these numbers on home relief arc rapidly increasing. The increase comes from three sources: first, families who have reached the end of their savings; second, workers with seasonable jobs who formerly earned enough to carry them through the slack season, but who now because of low wages and depleted resources must apply for relief at each layoff; third, workers discharged by WPA as projects are completed.

Last spring the Mayor's Committee on Unemployment Relief reported that relief standards in the city were 40 per cent below those of private welfare agencies; that the relief budget included no allowance for household expenses to replace pots, dishes, bedding, and other home necessities; that it included no allowance for carfare to enable members of families to travel for medical attention or to look for work; that it made no adequate allowance for clothing; that it allowed so little for rent that families frequently had to use part of their food money of about eight cents a meal per person to make up their rent deficit.

These indecent standards are now threatened with further reduction by the growth of the relief rolls and the threatened withdrawal of the federal government from "this business of relief." The Controller of the city insists on keeping standards down on the ground that the city must keep its relief appropriation within its sales-tax income, estimated at $50,000,000 for the year. Improved business, however, has now increased sales-tax receipts to an estimated $66,000,000. The Controller refuses to use the additional millions, though earmarked for relief, to improve relief standards. Instead, he proposes to use them to pay off the bankers for their 1934 relief loan. Then, says the Controller, the city's relief budget will be "balanced." So the recipients of relief will have to be content with the knowledge that the budget is balanced and that they must keep on wearing the dresses, shoes, and coats they have already bought with their clothing allowance of twenty-seven cents a month each.

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?

  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • NEH