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Harry Hopkins and New Deal Policies

Harry Hopkins’ Influence on New Deal Policies

by Dr. June Hopkins, Armstrong Atlantic State University

The cultural and political currents that shaped American society during the early decades of the twentieth century had a decided effect on the configuration of the American welfare system as it appeared in the 1930s. Social workers, politicians, and reformers carried those currents into the maelstrom of the Great Depression to influence New Deal policy. New York City took the lead in many of the movements that influenced the way Franklin Roosevelt’s administration addressed problems arising out of economic crises during the Great Depression–the city’s innovative approach to unemployment became a prototype for work relief programs; the charities controversy conditioned much of the later policy surrounding public subsidies and child care; the city’s widows’ pension program laid the foundation for the Aid Dependent Children (ADC) program. There were, of course, many social and political leaders from New York who brought their ideas and attitudes to Washington in 1933, including Frances Perkins, Homer Folks, and Jane Hoey. Harry Hopkins was unique among them because he seemed to combine all of the experiences that contributed to America’s emergent welfare system. His proposed job assurance program was neither ameliorative nor preventive. Rather, it was meant to place economic agency in the hand of the worker because Roosevelt’s federal relief administrator believed that relief did not improve status of the worker; only the security of an assured wage could do this.

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins wrote Harry Hopkins a letter in 1940 when she thought (incorrectly, it turned out) that he was leaving the administration, recalling “that evening in March 1933 when you and I and Bill Hodson argued out the urgency of the relief situation and devised ways and means of bringing it to the attention of the President… It was through your leadership the whole country, including the Government, discovered a new human area.” Perkins praised Hopkins’ creativity in constructing “a decent, reasonable relief system” that she predicted would give rise to real reforms in the future. Despite the efforts of some of the nation’s best leaders, this never happened.

Hopkins did not intend to construct a permanent relief system. He wanted to employ the temporarily unemployed. Moreover, for a time at least, Hopkins was successful in overcoming Americans’ traditional aversion to direct, public relief. In 1933 the federal government, for the first time, accepted responsibility for the welfare of the people. This was innovative. Only the severity of the economic crisis allowed Hopkins’ relief programs to be initiated. People were starving, and any program that would help them out of their misery, even the dole, would have their grateful support. Both Roosevelt and Hopkins believed that direct relief was inappropriate for most Americans. The able-bodied unemployed should be given the opportunity to earn wages that would provide security for the family and stimulate the economy through consumer spending. If all workers could be guaranteed a job, either through private enterprise or through government projects, the economic health of the nation would be assured.

Hopkins’ work programs became the centerpiece of his plan for economic security. He first expressed this preference for work over relief in 1915 when he helped administer the Bronx Zoo project, which can be seen as a pilot program for New Deal work relief. During the 1930s the government spent billions to provide jobs for America’s idle workforce through the FERA, CWA, and WPA as well as through Harold Ickes’ PWA. The WPA, the culmination of Roosevelt’s program to get workers back on the job and to stimulate the economy, did provide work for millions. Although the program had its critics, it was enormously popular. The significance of the WPA to the story of the development of America’s welfare system lies in the ideals that led to its creation and the compromises that it demanded.

Hopkins believed that the nature of America’s economic system inevitably would lead to “reservoirs of unemployed knocking on the gates of our factories” because cyclical unemployment would become a permanent feature of the industrial system. Thus it was up to the government to provide sufficient benefits for those unable to find employment in private industry. Those temporarily in need because of involuntary unemployment should no longer have to rely on private charity but should be provided for out of the national income. Yet what Hopkins had hoped would become the third instrument of government relief policy never materialized. His proposed work program did not become a permanent part of the 1935 legislation. Loyalty to President Roosevelt as well as a practical turn of mind convinced Hopkins to accept the WPA as a compromise. At a time when most people believed that the nation was on its way to economic recovery, Hopkins could not have been surprised that the administration hesitated to take such a radical step. Government jobs had a socialistic tinge, might compete unfairly with private business, and could prove to be outrageously expensive.

The 1935 Social Security Act thus led America on a different path to becoming a welfare state from what Hopkins had envisioned. Workers would be protected by federally-mandated, time-limited, and state-administered unemployment insurance and, when they retired, by old-age insurance. There would be no government-assured job when unemployment insurance ran out. Means-tested public assistance would help those whose poverty did not result from unemployment due to the economic crisis, mainly mothers with dependent children and the elderly. Hopkins recognized that poor children probably comprised the largest single group of needy. Furthermore, while the Social Security measures might well be extended to many poor children, many others would remain beyond help. Those children would be reliant on ADC, whose benefits, Hopkins knew, were “far too meager in many states.”

In 1935 relief became a state-level responsibility. When the Social Security Act passed, Hopkins declared: “We are going to quit Federal relief on November 1st.” He called upon the states to assume responsibility for those unable to work, insisting that they had the resources. “There is no state in the Union that hasn’t the power and wealth to take care of the unemployables if they want to. . . . And the Federal government isn’t leaving them high and dry.” However, Hopkins regarded federal monies for these programs and the federal mandate as a legitimizing element for this assistance, pointing out that the states received 50 percent of the cost of Old Age Assistance and one-third of the cost of ADC from the federal government. Thus, according to Hopkins’ plan, every family with an employable member would be supported by his or her earnings, and families with no employable member would be cared for by the state.

Hopkins never gave up his commitment to a permanent program of countercyclical government projects to absorb unemployed industrial workers. For him unemployment was no longer just a temporary effect of the Great Depression. It would always be a pressing social problem, the result of technological advances, of normal business cycles, or of the market economy. The Social Security Act, Hopkins declared, is only the beginning; employment assurance must be added to public assistance and social insurance in order to complete the package. At the end of 1936, he wrote an article for the New Republic in which he stated: “If it becomes evident that private enterprise cannot make the most efficient use of all available manpower and all available resources, people will look to public services as a means of supplementing private employment.” The federal government, he wrote, should augment unemployment insurance with public works not only to employ idle workers but “also to release the productive energies of persons who would otherwise be unemployed.” He insisted that if industry was unable to employ enough workers, then it must be prepared to pay its share of the cost of employing workers on public projects as well as the cost of unemployment insurance. For years he had vigorously defended his program of government jobs for the able-bodied unemployed as the American way to welfare. Government work projects would stimulate the economy through public money, which would be spent for materials to support these projects and then respent by newly confident, wage-earning workers. Government jobs would prime the economic pump. And this, Hopkins declared, “is as American as corn on the cob.”

Hopkins knew what he was talking about, being from Iowa. The nature of the programs that he directed during the 1930s reflected much of his rural background and education as well as his early social work experiences. The commitment to public service, to democracy, and to capitalism that he took from his Grinnell experience never wavered. Neither did his belief that social justice was attainable. He rejected the formal religion of his mother and the religious impulse that had been so strong at Grinnell College and Christodora House for a more personal ethic. His moral standards simplified into a do-unto-others ideology and he discarded any notion that relief should be used as a lever for adjusting the behavior of its recipients. Practicality took root during Hopkins’ early career when he realized that he needed a platform of power from which to implement his ideas. His belief that prevention of poverty was just as important as amelioration but that the security of a job paying a living wage was more important than either remained with him throughout the New Deal years.

Hopkins’ administration of work-relief and widows’ pensions programs in New York City during the Progressive Era carried over into the New Deal with particular significance. Like many progressive reformers in the New Deal, he jockeyed for position within the Roosevelt administration in order to implement his policies and programs. However, unlike most, by 1935 Hopkins had an extremely close relationship with the president, which allowed him latitude and influence. Thus the programs he administered and the attitudes he imparted had an enormous impact on the nature of American social policy.

Harry Hopkins’ ideal welfare state has never been realized. He clearly recognized the shortcomings of the Social Security Act of 1935. Yet although the act did not include a permanent job assurance or a national health program, programs he had campaigned for, it still established federal responsibility for the welfare of Americans. For this reason, Hopkins felt the act was an important step along the American way to welfare.

A belief in the pauperizing effect of relief in any form and a tendency to judge relief recipients in moral instead of economic terms always has been an integral part of the national mind. This prevented America’s welfare system from maturing into its complete form, with a work-assurance component. Although Hopkins recognized this, he could not change it. Several months before his death in late January 1946, Harry Hopkins expressed his disdain of the paralyzing fear of doing harm by doing good. He challenged the fear that many of his critics expressed, the fear that if the government ensured its citizens of the opportunity to work, “it would destroy the incentive for hard work which is so characteristic of our American tradition.” Hopkins did not believe in moralizing; he did not worry that people’s character would be destroyed if they got old-age benefits or government jobs. In a democracy, the government had a responsibility to ensure the welfare of its citizens. He argued that “full employment must and can be attained within the framework of our traditional democratic processes” and that it was “a contradiction in terms” to fight for democracy abroad while admitting “that the system may not be able and certainly should not attempt to assure every man able and willing to work a right to an opportunity to secure the reasonable necessities of life that make up what we know as the American standard of living.”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hopkins, J. (2009). Harry Hopkins: Sudden hero, brash reformer. New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan. Retrieved [date accessed] from /eras/harry-hopkins-influence-new-deal/.

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