Camera Rolls: 313:19-20; 318:01; 314:01-05
Sound Rolls: 313:10; 318:01
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Elizabeth Wickenden , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 23, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
My husband Tex Goldschmidt and I—
I was one of a group of young people who went to work for the New Deal in 1934. We were very gung-ho, very excited about our work. Many of us were lawyers. I was not, but they included the young lawyers. And we knew who we were. We, our whole life was centered in our work. When we had parties, we'd talk about our work. So we developed a kind of philosophy that has come to be called the New Deal philosophy, that government existed to help people, that we hoped we were creating institutions that would continue into the future beyond the immediate emergency. In the, in my case, it would've been a permanent, maybe, work program, relief programs, ultimate, what ultimately became the Social Security program. We, we were not compartmentalized in our thinking. We had jobs to do, but we exchanged our thoughts.
Can you tell me what the basis of that spirit, of that, of that feeling was? I mean, where did that come from?
Well, it was partly revolt against the Hoover philosophy, which was that the government should do the least possible, that people should look after their neighbors, private agencies should take care of everything. We had a totally different philosophy, and that was the theory that government was there to help people when they needed it, to protect them, to [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] if they were poor, generally a positive attitude toward the role of government.
Now, you came and you worked under Harry Hopkins in the FERA. What can you tell me about Mr. Hopkins in terms of the kind of man, the kind of administrator he was?
Well, Harry Hopkins was a very charismatic man. People responded to him with great loyalty, devotion, wanting to help carry out his ideas. He, he had a, a loose theory of administration. He, he would tell us what he wanted, and it was up to us to carry it out. His ideas were primarily, "Let's get this money out." He was very conscious that there were millions of people who'd lost their jobs, who had no income, whose children were hungry, and this really was our emotional mechanism. He, he wanted to have a minimum of constraints, but he had certain basic rules that had evolved in the first days of the system. One was our money was only to be spent by governmental agencies, federal, state, and local, that responded to the people, were accountable to the people. Hoover's idea had been you did it through private agencies, if any. Ours was that this was government money and it should be spent through public agencies. A second, he wanted an honest administration, but the least, people, the least constraints possible.
Mr. Hopkins was a very charismatic man. People responded to his directness, his leadership qualities, his warmth. And he had, but he had certain basic principles. One of them was that our money should only be spent by public agencies, federal, state, and local, that were responsive to the, to, to public bodies. It was tax money, and therefore we were answerable for it. On the other hand, he did not want a tight administration. He wanted everything done as correctly and simply as possible. He was very, he was, it was a basic rule that our money was given in currency, in cash or checks, but not in food or shelter or such, except for the Transient Program, which I was responsible for. He was generally motivated by a very strong sense of the compelling need and the great urgency of getting this program moving.
Now, there was criticism of Mr. Hopkins and the FERA and the CWA. How did he respond to that criticism?
Well, he, he recognized that it existed, but he took it very lightly, the, the criticism that came. It was mainly that this was a socialistic, that it was an invasion of, of freedom of people to give as they willed. There was some criticism that we were political or corrupt. Most of that was proven to be incorrect. He had a rather debonair attitude. He had a tremendous liking for pleasurable activities. He would go to the races, go sailing with some of his richer friends. But he made, he created an atmosphere of dedication to work. At some points in our history we would be working really literally around the clock. We would have people scheduled for all hours of the day and night.
As an administrator, you know, working in that office, what was the environment like, working for the FERA?
Well, we had very few people, so the atmosphere was one of each person taking responsibility for his own task. I think we were remarkably efficient, considering our lack of experience. This was a wholly new development. I was very young at the time. I was 24. We had things coming at us: mail, directives, requests for funds, questions of administrative policy. There was never a let up. I had two secretaries I kept busy all the time.
Now, Mr. Hopkins had occasion to deal with one Fiorello LaGuardia. Can you give me your first impressions of him, and what you thought of LaGuardia?
Well, our relations with LaGuardia in the first instance were rather indirect, because we work through the state to the locality, so we were dealing with then-Governor Lehman, through him to LaGuardia. But later it became obvious that New York City was such a special problem, presented so many difficulties and questions, that we developed a direct line to LaGuardia. And it was not an easy relationship. There were always tensions. He, he was very independent, self-willed, didn't want to take instructions from Washington. We had our rules that had to be followed. So there was a, a kind of tension all the time.
You had related to me a telephone conversation.
Oh yes. One time, he was talking with Aubrey Williams on the telephone, LaGuardia was talking to Aubrey Williams on the telephone. And I happened to be listening in, and it was a very direct confrontation with epithets and so forth floating back and forth. That was fairly characteristic of LaGuardia.
I need for you to tell me that again but also define who Aubrey Williams was.
Oh, I'm sorry.
My immediate boss was the deputy administrator of the FERA, Aubrey Williams. And much of our contact with the local and state administrators was handled by Aubrey Williams. I was his assistant, really his alter ego. And one time I happened to be listening into the telephone, which I often did when he was talking to LaGuardia, and it was a very spirited, to say the least, confrontation, with epithets back and forth. But in the end we got what we wanted.
In, in the middle of, of,
during the winter of '33, '34, it was agreed that we would undertake a very large work program.
** And in order to finance that work program money would be transferred from the PWA to the FERA in order to create a new emergency work program called the Civil Works Administration
** or the CWA. That was a program that employed four million people
** in four weeks, a really fantastic job of administration. It was all federal. They got federal checks. They didn't have enough checks to pay four million people. They had to go out and construct them somehow. Then these checks would pass around in the community. And there wasn't enough for the signature, so they had to append extra paper to get all the, to get all the endorsements. So it was obviously serving the purpose, which was to create a large impact of, of consumer spending power that would help to get the economy moving again. Naturally, this helped to strengthen a well known conflict between Ickes and Hopkins, one of the famous confrontations of the New Deal. That was originally and deeply based in the different attitude toward employing people in the public programs. The P, PWA, the Public Works Administration, carried on very large works, like bridges, dams, and so forth, that required a long lead-in time, because there had to be engineering times, and other time consuming preliminaries. The W, the FERA and later the WPA had labor-intensive projects. Our whole purpose was to employ people. We had a limited amount of money for supervision and non-labor costs, but our big goal was to get money into the hands of the working people. Well, that created a natural confrontation, if you will, between the two of them, and a constant effort to get Roosevelt's support for a bigger program of one or the other. It also is reflected in Congress. I, I was a part, party to a time when the appropriation bill was before Congress, which it was about every three months, because we had only limited money. And to some, Mr. Beiter, Congressman Beiter of Buffalo had moved to transfer money from the WPA to the PWA.
One of the great natural conflicts occurred in the New Deal period was the differences between Ickes, who was the head of the Public Works Administration, and Hopkins, who was head of the FERA. The FERA also had a work program, but the great emphasis in our program was on getting people to work, paying the money out to the workers whose families needed it, whereas Ickes had big projects like bridges, dams, so forth, that required intensive preparation by engineers and the like. So in, the fall of 1933, and into 1934, Hopkins persuaded Roosevelt to take some of the money that had been appropriated for PWA, which was also available for transfer to other federal agencies, and transfer some of that money to the FERA for a crash work program, which did take place under the name of the Civil Works Administration or CWA. And that program, which was one of the miracles of the New Deal, put four million people to work in 4 weeks, and was, exemplified the difference of philosophy between Ickes and Hopkins.
Now, you gave me a little, a little at it before, but I like for you to give me a little more regarding criticisms of Harry Hopkins as a socialist and his programs being socialist and communist and going beyond the bounds of government.
You don't want anything on political criticism?
Yes, political criticism.
You want that too?
All right. I, I can't tell you about what I did on that, because I did it in 1938. That would be too late. I'll just talk about in general.
Are we ready?
There were many criticisms of Hopkins and the FERA as being socialistic, upsetting the standards of wages, relation of the sexes and of the races, actual cheating, though there was very little of that. But political opponents would naturally pick on this large expenditure as a natural place for corruption. We didn't have any corruption, really, but that was common criticism. He, he didn't take it very seriously. He, he would laugh it off.
Now, when you first came to the administration, you were involved in the results of that first Hundred Days legislation. How did that feel, and, and being part of that whole New Deal administration? I mean, did you feel like, that Roosevelt and his programs could actually solve the ills of the country?
Well, as I said earlier,
we were a group of young people.
** Most, for most of us, this, this was our first job. And we were terribly wrapped up in what we were doing, very excited about it, felt that the future of the world depended upon us.
** We also hoped that we were creating a new kind of government, that these institutions with which were associated might go on to form permanent programs. The FERA especially was a, a birthing place, as it were, for many programs like the Social Security Act. That, that, the group that planned that was financed by the FERA. The Economic Security Committee, food stamp programs were begun under FERA. Many innovative programs started under the FERA.
Final question. When you think about the New Deal, what makes you most proud?
Well, I was proud of everything, but particularly that we were able to do so much with so little staff and so little time, and how we moved in with enthusiasm, dedication. We worked day and night to get our program established, running in good order.
What did Harry Hopkins look like? What was he—?
Harry Hopkins was a very charismatic man. He was very loose in his appearance, maybe a little sloppy, very relaxed, debonair. His office was very meagre. He wouldn't have good office furniture because he said that would make the Congress think he was wasting the relief money. His whole attitude was one of a concentration on the job, lack of self-consciousness.
So we're going to [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] '37, the WPA's getting cut, it's the middle of the recession—
I assume they know what the WPA is by this point.
I don't have to say it?
Right. OK, so can you tell me about the WPA cuts and your opposition to them?
Yes. In 1937, the Depression, the Recession was hurting, and Congress—
I'm sorry, can you start it again by instead of saying Depression—
Yeah, all right. In 1937, the Recession was taking over, and Congress was very anxious that everything should be cut. So Roosevelt decided that we would have to reduce our roles by a substantial number of people. We allocated by, in terms of people, so each of the five regional directors were given a quota of people they had to cut. And they did it in different ways. I remember one region where the social worker in charge said, "Well, we just pull every eighth card. We think that's the fairest way to do it."
And were you opposed to the cuts?
Well, all of us in the WPA, including Hopkins, were basically terrible opposed, but he, of course, had to follow the president's wishes. And we had to follow his decision. We had no choice in the matter.
Why were you opposed?
Because the need was still. People were being cut off arbitrarily who were still very much in need of the income it represented.
Could you say that again? I kind of interrupted you as you were speaking. Tell me again why, you know, what the WPA still represented to people, and why it was a problem that it was being cut.
All right. The WPA was still the main source of income for those people who were receiving, and cutting it meant that they were once more adrift and had to go on direct relief of some other form of income.
Do you feel it was kind of undermining, I mean, in a way, that you had gotten so far, and now you were going backwards again?
Well, many of us had hopes that it might become permanent. And this of course was really a sign that it was coming to an end.
I'm going to ask you to say that again, instead of saying it, say "Many of us hoped that the WPA..."
All right. Many of us hoped that the WPA might become a permanent institution for taking care of unemployed people, so we saw this as the beginning of the end, really.
Can you tell me about Hopkins' role in the 1938 elections?
Yes. Hopkins was blamed by, charged by many people for playing politics with the WPA, particularly in relationship to two senatorial campaigns, that of Senator Guffey in Pennsylvania and Senator Barkley in Kentucky. I was asked as the person who did most of the writing of that kind to write a letter which could be inserted in, with the payroll check of every WPA worker. I happened to be in the hospital at the time, having my first child, but I wrote this, and I was very, very careful. You, the WPA worker, have the right to vote for anyone you want, don't let the boss or anyone tell you anything different. And this went out to every worker. After a while, we began getting many, many letters, some of them from blacks: "Oh, a great day a'coming. Now we can vote. I took your letter to the courthouse, but he said it wasn't so." And then we also had complaints from politicians that we had not considered the laws of the state. It was a case of complete binders. I was thinking about only one thing and not thinking about discrimination.
I would actually like you to tell me part of that story again by telling me, by reminding of the fact that, if I did not know this, that blacks, that there was problems with blacks being able to vote. You know, at, at that time.
Yes, I'd better tell that after I tell about the letters, or before—
Yeah, well, you can tell it after. Just explain it a little bit more.
OK. Mr. Hopkins asked me, though I was in the hospital having my first child, to write a letter that could go with the paycheck of every WPA worker. So I thought very carefully, and I wrote something like this: "Dear WPA worker, you have the absolute right to vote for any candidate of your choice. Don't let your boss or anyone else tell you anything different." It was a very clear letter, but I had forgotten that most blacks were prevented from voting in the South, and we began getting letters: "Dear Mr. Hopkins, great day a'coming! Now us blacks can vote. I took your letter to the county courthouse and showed it to them, and they said it wasn't true at all."
What did Hopkins think about that when that happened?
I don't know what he thought, because I was in the hospital, or I, I didn't hear about it until later, until—I, I felt very guilty that I had forgotten this important fact.
Now, why was it necessary to have even written that letter?
Because he was trying to allay—
Who was trying to allay?
Because, it was necessary because Mr. Hopkins was trying to counteract the charges that we were playing politics with the election.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Federal Theater Project?
The Federal Theater Project was very important as a symbol. Many people knew about it who knew nothing else about the WPA. Many people were under the impression that this was going to be a new national theater such as they have in France, other places. But actually we thought of it as simply a means of employing unemployed actors. In any event, when the reductions in WPA came about, there was strong pressure in Congress to eliminate the project altogether, and they eventually did. I happened to be in the gallery of the House of Representative when that vote took place. I was sitting with Hallie Flanagan whom I had known at Vassar, and had recommended for her job, and she was shaking so, with such anger at the debate that the whole balcony seemed to shake with her horror.
Tell me a little bit about this again, about being, sitting next to Hallie Flanagan. What was the debate about?
It was about the WPA Theater Project.
Do you remember any of the issues at all, or why she was so angry about it?
Where do I go back to?
Just say, "I was sitting next to..."
I was sitting next to Hallie Flanagan, the director of the program, whom I had know at Vassar and recommended for the job, and she was so angry at this debate, which centered in such madness as who was and was not a communist or otherwise unacceptable, that she was shaking, and the whole balcony seemed to shake with her anger.
And this, so, the, the Federal Theater Project was affected by the red-baiting, and the Red—
Yes. Very. It was strongly affected by the general wave of red-baiting that took over particularly in—
I'm sorry, could you tell me again, by saying "The Federal Theater Project—" Begin as a sentence.
The Federal Theater Project was especially affected by the wave of red-baiting that took over in many public programs, especially in New York City.
And, you know, why, why was this considered so controversial. Why was the Federal Theater Project...?
Well, in, in the beginning, the Theater Project was considered controversial because it was so innovative. It went down new paths, particularly the living newspapers, which dealt with current issues. And that, together with the general fear of communism which was put forward in this context, created a great agitation against it.
Was Hopkins able to save the Federal Theater Project, or was it, was it beyond...?
I don't believe that Hopkins could've saved the Federal Theater Project. It was too conspicuous, too controversial. But basically, it was part of the general attack on the WPA and the desire to reduce the whole program. There were two different conceptions of the Theater Project. Some people thought it was going to be a national theater, and other people realized that it was really just a part of a program of making jobs for the unemployed.
Did you feel like, with these cuts happening and the, and the elimination of the Federal Theater Project, that the WPA was kind of getting out of, out of your control, that you were, kind of, so much that you all had worked for was all of a sudden being taken out by Congress, or...?
There was a general feeling in the WPA that it was going to, it was nearing its end and that the things that we had worked for and our hopes that it might become permanent were obviously going to be finished.
OK. Do you remember the, back to the, the hearings and the Federal Theater Project, did—
Again, place me back in 1934 and what, then, people, they've had their hopes raised a little bit by CWA and now their hopes are shattered again. What are they, what was the conditions like?
In 1934, unemployment was still widespread. Millions were still unemployed. The FERA was still giving relief, but CWA, the big work program that it employed four million people, had come to an end, and there was a sense of despair that this hopeful program existed no longer. But at the same time, there was planning for a new work program which became the WPA, or Works Projects Administration. Other projects were also going forward for new and more permanent programs, particularly the planning for the Social Security Act, which went on in 1934. That program, as you know, provided insurance against long-term unemployment, old age insecurity, and—
If you don't mind, I'm going to ask you again to tell me what Social Security encompassed, because you referred to "as you know," and you're speaking to me for the first—you could actually be speaking to me like you're talking to me.
Well, I'm trying to get into that, but I'll do it again. Where, where do you want me to start?
What Social Security encompassed.
The Social Security Act, in its original form, covered three general types of protection: social insurance against long-term unemployment, against old age needs, and against people who were in actual need, immediate need, because of old age, death of the family breadwinner, really life insurance, and blindness.
What's the concept of Security, the Social Security, social insurance? Was that a new concept at that time?
It was, the concept of social insurance was new for the United States, but had actually been initiated in Germany by Bismarck in around 1875, and had also been started in England and many other countries, but for us it was a new concept. The concept was that during your working years you contributed to a fund out of which you were paid benefits in your—
We'll begin again with the concept of social insurance.
The concept of social insurance is that during your working life you and your employer contribute into a fund, out of which you are paid on retirement because of old age. Well, the original act was only for old age. So it was a kind of deferred wage. The program was small in the beginning, because it only covered industrial workers. It was later to undergo a great enlargement. But it, the principle of insurance was established in 1935. There was also a related program of assistance for needy people who were in aid because of old age, widowhood, or blindness.
Place me back, though, in 1934, and, and, I mean, was this really like significant? Was this something that was never done before that, in the United States, about social insurance? Was this like a revolutionary, almost, new [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] ?
Oh, I didn't mention unemployment insurance, did I?
You can mention it when you [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
All right. Should I go?
The insurance program also included a program of unemployment insurance which had started in Wisconsin, and therefore the Wisconsin program had a considerable influence on the long-term program of unemployment insurance.
Let me just go back to what I was asking about, what it may have felt like to have this programs in 1934. Was it a, just a complete change in the united states from what had happened before? Were people, did, did ordinary people really feel that this was going to make a difference in their lives?
Yes. You want me to start as if I had not mentioned social insurance before, all right?
You have to address the impact, the importance of, of the, the concept again.
In 1934, when the big Civil Works Administration program, employing four million people, came to an end. There was a rather despairing discouragement what was going to follow. However, at the same time, there was the beginning of planning for a new program of social insurance which we had hitherto had on a national level. We had had a small program in Wisconsin for unemployment insurance, but otherwise it was new to the United States. It had existed in Germany under Bismarck and forward from about 1875, so it was not new to the world, and it had also been developed in England. But people in this country did not know much about it, since it was a brand new idea to us, so there had to be a considerable period of education, reassurance. Another problem about insurance was, since it was based on contributions from one's working years into a fund out of which payments would be made when your work was interrupted, it involved a period, it was a future thing and not an immediate thing. People were worried about their immediate needs, which continued to be met by the FERA, but they had to learn about what was going to come to them in the form of social insurance after this fund had had time to build up.
I'm going to ask you still, in a slightly different way, if, if I am, you know, a, a person of, you know, 40 years old, in 1934, and so, so, and, I start hearing Roosevelt talking, giving speeches about the idea of social, you know, insurance, does this, the, does it impact me? Do I think that maybe I'm going to have a new future? That, is there a feeling that, that it removes some of the insecurity, you know, in life?
There is this problem of delay that I tried to refer to. Should I just assume I'm going on from there?
Well, at the same, at the same time that there was this looking forward to the future, people did begin to feel some, some reassurance. But here was a permanent program of the federal government that would protect their old age when they retired or would give them benefits when they became unemployed.
We talked a little bit about some of the goals of the FERA, but what, what I want to know is what was your, what, what, when you were working for the FERA, and when you were, you know, thinking about the ideas of Social Security and for the Committee on Economic Security, what vision did that give you of a new, of a society? Did you, could you at that time see a different kind of society than you were living in at that point? Did you have a vision of what it would look like.
Well, during the early years that I was working for the FERA, are whole attention was centered on the fact that people were hungry, didn't have a place to live. We had to get the money out to get them over the hurdle, [clears throat] but at that time—
So, I was asking you about in your own personal vision.
In the early days of the FERA, we were so aware, so constantly besieged by the needs of people for food and clothing and shelter. I was personally responsible for, among other things, for supervision of the mail room. We received 3,000 letters a day, and many of them, most of them were extremely pitiful. I used to read through a cross-section of them, pick out samples of letters that were vivid, and pass them on to Aubrey Williams and Harry Hopkins and to Mrs. Roosevelt and to President Roosevelt, because I felt that gave the, the real flavor of what was actually happening. After the remarkable program of CWA, Civil Works Administration, when four million people had been given work with wages for a short period of time in an effort to stimulate the economy, there was a feeling of great discouragement, that this program on which we put so much hope had come to an end. But at the same time, we were beginning planning for a new work program which became the WPA and for permanent measures that were incorporated ultimately in the Social Security Act. A committee on economic security was established with funding from the FERA. Frances Perkins was the chairman, Harry Hopkins was a member, and it was there assignment to plan a permanent social insurance program. Social insurance had existed in Germany from Bismarck's time in 1875 and in England and other countries, but it was a new idea for the United States. We really had had only a small program for unemployment insurance in Wisconsin, but no national program. The idea of social insurance is that workers during their working years and their employers make contributions into a fund and out of that fund payments are made when they become unemployed or retire in old age or the family breadwinner dies, and it becomes a kind of insurance like life insurance. This program was enacted in 1935, but it was relatively small in the beginning, and people had to think into the future. So a big educational effort was undertaken, but I do think they began to feel that this was permanent, it was part of the federal structure, that it was something on which to build, as indeed it has been.
That's great. Tell me, what, did you, did you have an idea like what you thought the United States would look like in five years from then, ten years, twenty years.
Well now I know what happened on the Social Security, so it's very hard to say.
I mean, did you have, I mean, could you formulate a picture in your mind of what you were striving for personally?
Well, during all this period,
I was personally hoping that we would achieve a nation in which there was no insecurity, where people would have a dependable source of support in times of unemployment.
** Of course, we also hoped there wouldn't be unemployment on the scale we'd had it, that the economy would be regularized, and that we would have only intermittent, transitional unemployment, or employment, unemployment due to old age, disability, and so forth. That was our hope for the Social Security program, that that would take care of that, as indeed it has.
Great. You mentioned Frances Perkins. And I think that I asked you, well, I'd like to ask you, sometimes they say that, that, sometimes you hear that, that Roosevelt didn't necessarily to enact the Social Security program, that he had to be pushed into it. What do you, what do you feel about that, and, and, and please, if you can, mention Frances Perkins in your answer?
Well, Frances Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor, and who became chairman of the Committee on Economic Security, had worked for Roosevelt in New York, and he knew her, and she knew him, and she certainly had this vision of a permanent Social Security Act in her mind during the whole emergency period from the 30s forward. So she must've discussed with him, with Mr. Roosevelt, and he must've been aware of it. I don't of my own knowledge know the details of that, but I'm sure he did know.
So, so you believe, and then can you refer to "he" as, as Roosevelt or FDR.
Right. I'm sorry.
—in your answer. So you believe that, that in appointing Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, that he understood that part of her agenda would've been [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
Yeah, that's right. You want me to just go over and do it all over again.
Well, Frances Perkins, who had been appointed Secretary of Labor by Roosevelt, had worked for him in the state of New York as a labor commissioner, and she had this idea of a permanent Social Security Act in her mind. She must've discussed it with him and with Mrs. Roosevelt, and therefore I'm sure that he was ready when it was proposed by the Committee on Economic Security, which planned the, came into being, that he was prepared for that. Certainly, his speeches were very supportive of the concept.
Do you think that FDR was influenced by the national election in 1934 to pass Social Security? Did that have any impact?
In 1934, and again in 1936, we were very nervous about the elections. We didn't realize the extent of the support that the New Deal had achieved. So—
I'm going to ask you to start, start that again, and just refer, in this case, just refer just to '34, because—
Well, '36 was the more important elections. That was the, '34 was just congressional, but I'll—
Yeah, just because in my show I end before '36.
[laughs] OK, well, all right. In 1934, in the congressional elections of that year,
we were very nervous that we might lose our majority, though it seems ridiculous to think so now. But we were unaware, really, of the extent to which the New Deal had seized the imagination and hopes of the people.
** Whether that, once we knew that we had a continuing majority, we were more ready to begin on long-term planning, which we did through the Committee on Economic Security.
So, you felt, did you feel that, that kind of gave life, that, that gave the, the, that when the, the elections, when, when the Democrats, the New Deal Democrats, received the majority in the 1934 election that, that Social Security was going to be right around the corner, that it was near being enacted?
All right. It's hard for me now to recall how terribly insecure we were. We were very fearful we would not win the elections for Congress in 1934. When the elections went in support of Roosevelt and the New Deal, we faced the future with more sense of confidence. Does that fit in?
Very good. Can you tell me about, do you think the Townsend Plan influenced, had any influence on the pass of Social Security?
The, the Townsend movement was a very widespread and strong movement that proposed that old people be paid $200 a month, and the only condition was that they had to spend it within the month. Petitions were circulated in Congress to bring the Townsend proposal before Congress for enactment, and they often got up to the necessary number of signatures, then somebody would withdraw. It was a very popular political idea, and in that sense I think it had a great deal of influence on the passage of the Social Security Act, even though the act did not follow in the pattern of the Townsend proposal.
You said to me the other day that you felt that—
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Back on Townsend.
I think Townsend deserves considerable credit for the interest he aroused in the country, the support he garnered. But this was also somewhat of a threat to Roosevelt that maybe he would take over. So this fear of Townsend and his proposal did contribute to the passage of the Social Security provisions that were considered sounder and more feasible and more financeable.
Was Townsend considered a little bit crazy?
Well, some of us certainly thought he, he, he was. He, he was very persuasive.
Can you start again by, who's "he"?
Oh, I'm sorry. Townsend was enormously persuasive with people, had a big following, and while some of us thought his ideas were crazy, we recognized there strength. So there was fear that he might actually get his bill passed and not the Social Security Act. So in a sense that contributed negatively to the passage of the Social Security Act.
Do you feel that the passage of, well, do you remember what you felt on, on August 14, 1935, when Social Security was passed? What, was that a significant date in your life?
The passage of the Social Security Act was very significant, but I was so wrapped up in the immediate—
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I was naturally very elated when the Social Security Act passed, though my own work was with people who were my immediate responsibility and my, I had a tendency to look on the Social Security Act as something very much in the future. Later, it became a major preoccupation of mine, so this is sort of embarrassing to look back at, but I had 375,000 people I was responsible for, and that weighed in more heavily with me at the time.
You said that at the time that, you were concerned that Social Security would be declared unconstitutional.
Oh, yes. Another problem that surround Social Security was that we had a very unfriendly Supreme Court, and we were afraid the Social Security might be found unconstitutional. So the social insurance provisions were wrapped around the power of the federal government to tax, rather than to take care of people, and it was ultimately challenged and it was upheld.
You were telling me before that one of the things you were sorry about was the fact that health insurance was eliminated.
Yes. Most of the components of Social Security were in the original act and could be built upon as they were in 1938 and later years. But the one thing that the President himself said, "Let's put it off," was health insurance. He said we'll do that another time. Well, the time has still not arrived, but I hope it will.
Do you feel then the act was somewhat incomplete without health insurance?
Yes. I think that the absence of health insurance was a real deficiency in the original act, and I regret that. There was this, this pressure to put the program in place, and if health insurance had been included, I think it very well might have been started at that time.
Do you feel that Social Security and WPA were programs that, that went hand in hand, you know, as part of the new programs in 1935?
In 1935, the president put a great deal of emphasis on dealing with employables in one way and unemployables in another. WPA was intended to take on the relief of the employables, and the Social Security act was looking to provide through assistance and insurance for those who were outside the labor market. That was a very clear demarcation in the minds of Roosevelt, Hopkins, Williams, et cetera.
OK. Can you explain to me again if, if, a little bit clearer, like if you were talking to a, a high school student or something, and what that meant, what it meant to be the employables versus the unemployable?
"The unemployables" meant the people who—
Can you just, start the, help pair it up again by saying that 1935 was significant in the—
1935 was a significant dividing place, because Roosevelt, Hopkins, Williams, et cetera, put a great deal of, put a heavy distinction between unemployables and employables. The employables that we expected to work or to go back to work; the unemployables were those who were outside the labor market. We had a different attitude then toward women, particularly working wives, and they were included in the unemployables in the thinking of the time. I later came to feel that there was no such thing as an unemployable, because in World War II, there were people sitting in hospital beds putting parts together. So it really was a term of the time that the unemployables were not expected to work.
OK, and let's try this one more time in terms of explaining it, and maybe explaining it in more, the importance of the two acts being, the importance of Social Security being passed and WPA being passed, and who they, and how they intended to get at the problems of unemployment.
All right. In 1935, we came to a really sharp dividing of the ways between those people that were not expected to work, whom we called unemployables, and those who were, we hoped, going to return to the labor market and work in regular jobs. The WPA had been for the employables, but the FERA covered unemployable people as well. The Social Security Act and the WPA in tandem because the WPA was supposed to provide employment for the, those regarded as employable on a more temporary basis, and Social Security was to be the permanent program for people who were not expected to work: the old, the blind, and, later, all disabled, the widows, and the wives of, of the, of these people.
OK. And how did unemployment compensation insurance fit into this?
Well, unemployment insurance was—
One sec. Let me ask you in a different way. When we think of Social Security, sometimes we think of it only being old age pensions.
Yes, that's true.
—and, and how when Social Security was conceived, it included—
Yes. Well, in Social, when the Social Security Act was being framed, primary was on unemployment insurance, which was intended ultimately to pay people who were working and who lost their jobs for a limited period of time a benefit to carry them over until they could go back to work in the regular labor market. It never, it was a little different from the other social insurances which dealt with people who were not expected to return to work: the old, the blind, and the, some other people.
OK. I want you to tell me that again with just one sentence, much shorter, that Social Security, that, you know, Social Security included unemployment compensation as well as, you know, the coverage.
You don't want me to—
Could you just describe—you don't have to describe it again, and, like, you know. Just reduce it to its simplest explanation.
The Social Security Act also included and at the time emphasized unemployment insurance, which it was hoped would take over paying benefits to people who lost their jobs from the WPA as, because it would be a more permanent program.
Well, that's just, let's try this one more time, because it was a little unclear that, that because of the Depression people were losing their jobs, right? So Social Security covered unemployment compensation as well as for old age and disabilities.
During the Depression, millions of people lost their jobs, and the FERA provided immediate relief. The WPA was conceived as an emergency program to provide work for those people who were expected to go back to work, and the Social Security Act included unemployment insurance which was intended to take over after the WPA ceased to exist by paying benefits to the unemployed.
In 1934, a movement developed in California under Upton Sinclair, which was called EPIC, End Poverty in California, which proposed to employ the unemployed in producing goods and services for exchange among themselves. That was part of our act. We had a program for cooperatives, and therefore when Upton Sinclair declared for governor, Harry Hopkins endorsed him. This caused quite a lot of interest, and I had not too much to do with that, but at one point Harry Hopkins summoned me to his office, and he said, "I want your figures on transients in California because the charge is being made that Upton Sinclair is attracting unemployed people to California." I got up my figures on a large sheet and said, "Well that, really, I can't disprove that by my figures, because there was an increase in transient relief." He said to me, "Let me look at those figures. You haven't learned the first thing about statistics. It all depends on what you compare with what. If you take this month and compare it with that month, it doesn't show an increase, and that's what we'll use." And I, I learned a lesson in statistics from EPIC.
And why do you think Harry Hopkins did that? Was it because of his support of Sinclair? Was it because if you did say that it was an increase that that would discredit—
Yes. It was being used by the enemies of EPIC as an argument against it, that it was attracting transients and unemployed people to California.
But, and, and, and Hopkins' motivation.
Was to see if we could disprove it, which I didn't think we could, but he—
OK. Can you tell me again in a sentence what, what, what, what Hopkins' motivation was in, in looking at the statistics, playing with the statistics?
Well, the EPIC pressure was going on, there was a lot of criticism of it, and at one time Harry Hopkins called me to his office, and he said, "EPIC is being charged with attracting many transients and unemployed to California. Can we disprove that?" So I got out my chart, which showed the months and the changing transient population, and said, "Our figures cannot disprove that." He said, "Let me look at that sheet," and he did. And he said, "You just don't know the first lesson of economics, of statistics. It all depends on what you compare with what. If you take this month and another month, you can show that there was no increase, so that's what we will do."
Do, do you, you said earlier when we talked, you said there was a lot of—was there a lot of discussion about Upton Sinclair and his EPIC campaign in Washington? Did people talk about it, think about it?
My own impression is that the people in Washington did not think he was going to win and did not take it so seriously, but that's just my own memory. I, I have no other memories.
And EPIC was considered a very radical plan at the time, yet the concept of production for use is very close to what FERA was doing.
Well, we had a, we had a cooperative program, but it didn't ever really amount to a very large part of our work. It, why, I can't really say. Perhaps it required more imagination than we had. But it was not a major part of our activity.
Again, when, you said that, that you felt that Hopkins was supportive of, of, of the ideas of, of Sinclair, and, but at the same time, Roosevelt was very, I'm telling you this, and if you don't, have any comment on it, that's OK, that Roosevelt was very pulled in different directions in what he should. Should he support, you know, should he support Sinclair or should he not support Sinclair? Do you have any sense of why Roosevelt may have been afraid or concerned that the ideas of Sinclair were too radical, that they may taint the administration?
Roosevelt's attitude toward Upton Sinclair's candidacy was obviously mixed, because he was the Democratic candidate, and Roosevelt's inclination was to support Democrats whenever he could. On the other hand, I think he found Upton Sinclair's ideas too radical, too socialist,
** for his own taste.
But, Harry Hopkins, they were aligned with his [Upton Sinclair's] ideas, you know?
He never expressed opposition to Hopkins' support. I think Hopkins became a little lukewarm toward the end and did not give it his full energetic, active support.
But I know that right in the beginning he endorsed him [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
Yes he did, and we were very surprised.
Can you tell me that?
Yes. I don't know how to fit it back in.
Oh, just the part of the beginning, that, that when Upton Sinclair won the primary.
OK. When Upton Sinclair won the primary, the Democratic primary in California in 1934, we were very surprised.
Hopkins actually endorsed Sinclair, which
** also surprised us, because it seemed to go beyond his own ideas of what work, kind of work, the unemployed should be doing.
** I have the impression that his support for Sinclair diminished as the campaign went forward, but my recollections are unclear.
OK. What, the ideas of the cooperative movement and production for use as it manifested itself in FERA, was that considered radical at the time? Not Sinclair, but I mean just the same kind of—
Well, we carried out the provisions of the act to support cooperatives, but I think generally speaking that people thought that that was too close to socialism for the mainstream of American thought. At least it never really took hold. There was a movement in Ohio, I think, and in California, but it was not widespread.
We're now going to change to your direct work [laughs].
My particular work was with the transients and homeless, what we today call the homeless. But at that time, there was the tradition of going West, young man, and people moved toward the West from the East, toward the North from the South. There was a tremendous movement of people. They traveled by freight cars, usually, and therefore there had been a special pressure for a trenchant program. And the act, when it was passed, provided that that should be 100$ federal for non-residents. So we paid the whole bill. We, it operated through the states, but we had rather definite regulations, and—
But, but the transient law was part of the FERA?
It was part of FERA, it was actually administered by the state relief administrations, but because it was paid for 100% federal, we had more to say about it than most programs. By the time we were finished we had 375 different installations. Some of them were urban transient centers. They were generally short-term shelters. If people want to stay put, we had camps where they could do all kinds of things. Our largest camp was in Fort Eustis. It happened that at that point in time the Army was at [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] .
I'm actually going to stop you on this because I'm, you told me this story before and I can't use it in, in, in the film. But let me ask you, why was there so much concern about transients?
Well, the same concern there is about the homeless today. There seems to be something about that are rootless, that are moving around, that is very threatening to people. So every time we opened a shelter or a camp, the neighborhood was up in arms and said they didn't want it. We had to make special efforts to get our places established. I think there's a natural fear of the uprooted person. We did not have the problem of drugs in that period. There were some alcoholics. There were some old time traditional hobos. But the majority of the people were just unemployed people looking for work.
OK, because the image, I mean, when you start hearing about—
California had a long-standing fear of migrants coming into the state. They had actually had a program of keeping them out, of putting their marshals on the border and turning them back. That was appealed to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court said that was unconstitutional. So when EPIC came along, they were very worried that this would attract criminals, bums, other undesirables. But in actual fact, the people that were going to California in that period were chiefly dislocated farmers who had been forced out by the drought, as well as the usual unemployed person looking for work that were drawn to California partly by the old tradition of American homesteaders that if you moved west you'd find some way to support yourself.
Is this, was this frustrating for you when you worked at all, to be encountering these kinds of negative images?
Oh, sure. It was a, it was a part of the job. It was constant.
Want to tell me that again? Instead of just answering me.
OK, I'll try. This kind of fear, which was aggravated in California, was really a part of the whole Transient job. We never opened any camp or any center that we did not have "Not in my backyard"-kind of reaction, just as we do today for the homeless. There was a basic fear.
OK. And were the, were the, were the transients mostly single men, or were there families? Can you tell me?
The transients who traveled on the trains were mostly single men, and young men. They'd have to be. They'd hop on and off the trains because there were guards that tried to keep them off. The families came generally in old jalopies that they had managed to put together to make the trip. Those were the chief means of travel.
OK. When you saw the amount of transients that were, you know, roaming the country, did that affect your vision of what America was at that time? Were you disappointed?
There were never as many transients as people had predicted there were going to be, but those that moved really tended to extol their traditional virtues of seeking of work, that this was the American way, you went west to look for work. And we praised that.
Did you have to develop an educational campaign for the communities as well as helping the transients, or was it just not enough resources?
We, we didn't, we did not have resources to develop an educational campaign. Whenever we were asked to speak or write, we always said these were just unemployed people looking for work.
OK. Great. OK. And the other question of—did you feel that this was, was, was important, this part of your work, did you feel you were making a difference in people's lives?
Our chief satisfaction was in feeding and keeping people alive. Because these were the most despairing people, the most displaced, it was frustrating, because we might train people for something, we had projects that did, but there were no jobs for them to go to. So without a permanent source of employment it was frustrating. When the defense project came along later we could place people, and then it was more rewarding.
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The Depression of the 30s was such a cataclysmic event with millions displaced from work, millions of students getting out of school, families with no source of relief, empty iceboxes, crying children. It created an atmosphere of emergency which affected the whole New Deal operation. All of us there were constantly aware of this vast cataclysmic in the country with which we were trying to deal, in my case on an emergency basis, in others, my young colleagues, for more permanent institutional arrangements. But we never lost sight of the fact that these were people. We didn't have very good figures on unemployment in those days. People figured anywhere up to 20 million unemployed.
Great. And then again, you, you were young and energetic and you were—
OK. I was very young. Many of my colleagues were very young. Most of these young people who today are corporation lawyers and so forth were on their first job. We were filled with zeal, enthusiasm, drive, anxiety, all of the emotions in one great turmoil of activity. We talked, talked, talked. We never though of anything else but our jobs. That was just the way life was. Washington at that time was like a small town. It hadn't grown as it is now. So we all knew each other. A lot of us lived in Georgetown, would go to each other's houses, again always talking about our work.
Great. You were very good at, at that, at being this. OK, one other question. When, in your own personal view, was there a, was there, as the nation moved away from the social programs of the '30s and shifted to the war effort, do you feel that there was unfinished business left, and that the promise of the New Deal maybe hadn't been fulfilled?
I'm just trying to think how to say that. When the Defense Program came into effect, it relieved us of much of the pressure on our program, but at the same time it left us feeling that we had not fulfilled all our wishes as to a permanent program. Of course, we transferred our energies to the Defense Program and became absorbed in it, but still there was a nostalgic harking back to the days of hope and the New Deal, when we thought we were going to construct a new society.
So are you saying that you felt like there was unfinished business still [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] in this society, that the new society wasn't yet—
No, I think "the new society" was somebody's phrase, but I, I'll use New Deal. The Defense Program was itself enormously difficult, preoccupying for people who worked in it. But many of them who came out of the New Deal had a feeling of nostalgia of, of the New Deal period when we thought we would create new institutions that would prevent this from happening again.
Again, do you feel that, that, that—
That I [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ]
I'm sorry—still unfinished business. Do you feel that most of the, that you achieved many of your goals, or that the war came and kind of stopped mid-term in achieving them, brought out different, you know, issues? But do you think that the goals and social program that you worked on were achieved or not?
Let me just say to you that the Social Security Act, Social Security program was sort of fixated. It didn't grow during the war years. Should I say that kind of thing?
Yeah, just kind of the whole, and the whole social program of that New Deal.
The Defense Program was enormously demanding of the country, but many of us felt that unfinished business remained from the New Deal to make and adequate the institutions that we started. OK?
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The Defense Program was an enormous venture, and many of the New Dealers, most of them, in fact, moved over either to the military or to the defense production programs. But at the same time, they had a great nostalgia for the early days of the New Deal, when their hopes and dreams were centered on creating new institutions which were begun in the New Deal but not fully completed according to these dreamers and had to remain in quiescence during the war years, until a new generation could pick them up and carry them forward.