Emergency Relief Appropriation Acts (1935-1943)

The Emergency Relief Appropriation (ERA) acts were yearly laws that provided funding for New Deal work agencies, especially the Works Progress Administration (WPA).  The first ERA act, signed into law on April 8, 1935, was the legislation that gave President Roosevelt authority to create the WPA with Executive Order No. 7034 on May 6, 1935 [1].

Throughout the New Deal, there was a constant struggle in Congress between those who wanted to increase spending on the general welfare and those who wanted to reduce it [2]. The resulting year-to-year ERA funding caused administrative problems for the WPA and local governments. Never knowing how much the next year’s funding would be, long-term planning became difficult or impossible.  In January 1940, Howard Hunter, the deputy administrator of the WPA (and soon-to-be head administrator) said: “It is flatly absurd to approach the problem of unemployment on an emergency basis… the Federal Government should write into its permanent statutory legislation a program for providing useful employment for the unemployed. Communities, States, and the Federal Government could then plan years ahead” [3].

Below is a list of the ERA laws from 1935 to 1943, along with the initial funding amounts for the WPA (in many cases, Congress would provide supplemental funding).  Some of these laws were independent and some were contained within larger pieces of legislation [4].  The source notes at the end of this summary provide detailed citations for the ERA acts and instructions on how to obtain copies of the original laws which, in some cases, provide valuable information about funding for New Deal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), National Youth Administration (NYA), and Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA).

ERA Act of 1935,” providing funds for fiscal year 1936: Signed into law April 8, 1935; $1,263,700,000 expended [5] by the WPA (about $22.5 billion in 2016 dollars) [6].

ERA Act of 1936,” providing funds for fiscal year 1937: Signed into law on June 22, 1936; $1,425,000,000 to the WPA for “useful projects” (about $24.7 billion in 2016 dollars) [7].

ERA Act of 1937,” providing funds for fiscal year 1938: Signed into law June 29, 1937; $1,500,000,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $25.5 billion in 2016 dollars) [8].

ERA Act of 1938,” providing funds for fiscal year 1939: Signed into law on June 21, 1938; $1,425,000,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $24.7 billion in 2016 dollars) [9].

ERA Act of 1939,” providing funds for fiscal year 1940: Signed into law on June 30, 1939; $1,477,000,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $26 billion in 2016 dollars) [10].

ERA Act, fiscal year 1941”: Signed into law on June 26, 1940; $975,650,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $17 billion in 2016 dollars) [11].

ERA Act, fiscal year 1942”: Signed into law on July 1, 1941; $875,000,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $15.5 billion in 2016 dollars) [12].

ERA Act, fiscal year 1943”: Signed into law on July 2, 1942; $280,000,000 to the WPA for “useful public projects” (about $4.2 billion in 2016 dollars) [13].

Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 7.  (2) For a discussion about this, in relation to the ERA acts, see James S. Olson (ed.), Historical Dictionary of the New Deal: From Inauguration to Preparation for War, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 147-149.  (3) Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, pp. 107-108, citing the Wilkes-Barre Record, February 1, 1940.  (4) Ibid., p. 106.  (5) Because the ERA Act of 1935 was signed into law before the creation of the WPA, it did not allot money to the WPA; however, the U.S. Treasury reported that $1,263,700,000 was ultimately spent by the WPA during fiscal year 1936. See Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937, p. 6.  (6) H. J. Res. 117, Pub. Res. No. 11, 49 Stat. 115, 74th Congress, 1935.  (7) H. R. 12624, Pub. No. 739, 49 Stat. 1608, 74th Congress, 1936.  (8) H. J. Res. 361, Pub. Res. No. 47, 50 Stat. 352, 75th Congress, 1st Session, 1937.  (9) H. J. Res. 679, Pub. Res. No. 122, 52 Stat. 809, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, 1938.  (10) H. J. Res. 326, Pub. Res. No. 24, 53 Stat. 927, 76th Congress, 1st Session, 1939.  (11) H. J. Res. 544, Pub. Res. No. 88, 54 Stat. 611, 76th Congress, 3rd Session, 1940.  (12) H. J. Res. 193, Public Law 143, 55 Stat. 396, 77th Congress, 1st Session, 1941.  (13) H. J. Res. 324, Public Law 651, 56 Stat. 634, 77th Congress, 2nd Session, 1942.

Special Note: To download and read the ERA laws, follow these steps: (a) go to Legis Works (last accessed May 6, 2018); (b) click on the year of the law from the list provided, e.g., “Volume 52 (1938)”; (c) click on the “stats/” file; (d) choose the statute you wish to view, e.g., STATUTE-52-Pg809.pdf.