The Coming of the New Deal by Arthur Schlesinger was the second book of the trilogy The Age of Roosevelt (1957). In this passage Harry Hopkins was just appointed to oversee the new relief agency. FDR had passed significant farm relief, economic and trade measures but he understood that it would take time to have an effect and urgent conditions needed to be met. This was the first time we encountered wide federal relief efforts and it is interesting to note the concerns of FDR’s most liberal lieutenants.
The Federal Emergency Relief Administration did not deal directly with relief applicants. It made grants to local public agencies. Half of its $500 million was to be assigned on a matching basis—one dollar of federal funds for every three dollars of state money spent for relief during the three months preceding. The other half was to go where need was urgent and the matching requirement could not be met. Exhorting, cajoling, scolding, threatening, Hopkins and a small field staff used their power to pump new life into the faltering state agencies. Where a local organization seemed hopelessly incompetent, Hopkins asked the governor to make the necessary changes. Most of the time, his evident disinterestedness won cooperation. In a few cases, FERA had to go into the state and appoint its own administration. Hopkins remained profoundly convinced of the values of decentralization. He kept his Washington staff small and gave great responsibility to state administrators, while at the same time holding them as well as he could to the national mark.
The critical problem of relief, as he (Harry Hopkins) saw it, was preserving the morale of people forced to live by government handouts. Men and women who lacked jobs for reasons far beyond their own control should not, Hopkins believed, be made to feel like paupers; it was necessary not just to feed them but to maintain their self-respect. “I don’t think anybody can go year after year, month after month, accepting relief without affecting his character in some way unfavorably,” he wrote in June 1933. “It is probably going to undermine the independence of hundreds of thousands of families. . . . I look upon this as a great disaster and wish to handle it as such.”
A measure of degradation in relief seemed inescapable. Since limited funds had to go as far as possible, it was essential that no one obtain relief who could get along without it. Thus FERA could not escape the means test. Investigation was left to local case workers, who could presumably conduct it with least humiliation to the applicant. Once need was established, the problem became the form in which relief was to be granted. Some states had set up special commissaries where reliefers could go for food. This was a cheap enough form of relief; but Hopkins, feeling that it portended a ghetto for the unemployed, liquidated the commissary system as fast as he could. The grocery order removed those on relief less from normal society. Still, it placed the family under a paternalism, compelling them to buy what the nutritionists decided they needed. Hopkins much preferred giving straight cash, even if the reliefer used it for tobacco or liquor; on the whole, he felt, more damage was done to the human spirit by loss of choice than by loss of vitamins.3
Schlesinger, Arthur M.. The Coming of the New Deal: The Age of Roosevelt, 1933–1935 (pp. 267-268). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
Hopkins preferred public works project which came soon after. His concern for the dignity of the unemployed and the destitute was a reflected in the form of relief.