President Roosevelt signed the Federal Emergency Relief Act (hereafter, Emergency Relief Act) into law on May 12, 1933. The law created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) to carry out its provisions, and Harry Hopkins was soon appointed administrator .
As the preface to the act put it, the Great Depression had “created a serious emergency, due to widespread unemployment and increasing inadequacy of State and local relief funds, resulting in the existing or threatened deprivation of a considerable number of families and individuals of the necessities of life, and making it imperative that the Federal Government cooperate more effectively with the several States and Territories and the District of Columbia in furnishing relief to their needy and distressed people” .
To help with relief for “needy and distressed” Americans, FERA was authorized to grant money to the states for their overburdened and often inadequate relief efforts. Many cities and states were on the brink of bankruptcy from trying to cope with the suffering engendered by mass unemployment. FERA funds went towards cash relief programs, rural relief programs, and various work projects. Ultimately, FERA would grant $3 billion to the states, or about $51 billion in today’s dollars .
The Emergency Relief Act was one of the major policy initiatives of the New Deal that changed the relationship between the federal government, the states and the American people. No longer would the federal government stand on the sidelines during an economic crisis, leaving matters to the discretion of state governments. Instead, it took an active role in funding relief. Furthermore, “One of the most significant FERA policies was to grant relief without discrimination. Blacks, especially in the South, who had never before gotten anything from government, suddenly found themselves eligible for federal relief…” .
Just as important, with passage of the Emergency Relief Act and creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the federal government moved to create jobs for the millions of unemployed. FERA would take up the jobs challenge directly in the Winter of 1933-34 through the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and that would lead to the largest of all New Deal employment programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), enacted in 1935 (see our summaries of FERA, CWA, CCC and WPA for more details).
The Emergency Relief Act helped breathe life into the “general welfare” sections of the U.S. Constitution (the Preamble and Article I, Section 8); helped over 20 million Americans struggling to make it through the Great Depression ; and embodied Franklin Roosevelt’s sentiment, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference” . To get beyond ad hoc relief efforts in hard times, the New Deal would create the greatest of all social welfare programs, the Social Security Act of 1935, which systematically provided for aid to the unemployed and pensions for the elderly (see our summary of the Social Security Act).
Sources: (1) Irving Bernstein, “Americans in Depression and War,” U.S. Department of Labor, http://www.dol.gov/dol/aboutdol/history/chapter5.htm, accessed May 7, 2015. (2) “Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933,” Social Welfare History Project, http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/eras/federal-emergency-relief-act-of-1933/, accessed May 7, 2015. (3) Federal Works Agency, Work Projects Administration, Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942, p. III. (4) See note 1. (5) See note 3. (6) Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA; When FDR Put the Nation to Work,” New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (p. 229, 2009 paperback edition).