Federal Emergency Relief Act (1933)

The FERA was created on May 12, 1933, by the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933, and President Roosevelt chose Harry Hopkins to be the administrator [1].

As part of the First Hundred Days of legislation of the New Deal, it was aimed at responding to the fiscal crisis of state and local governments created by the Great Depression – both the collapse of tax revenues and the mounting costs of emergency relief.  On the latter front, FERA “was the beginning of a form of partnership arrangement between the Federal government and the States and local governments in meeting the unemployment relief problem, a partnership which was later to continue in somewhat different forms through the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration” [2].

The FERA was a granting agency to the states.  Governors applied to FERA and, upon approval, federal grants were given to the applicant state to be combined with other state and local funds to provide assistance to those in need.  Such assistance included: General work relief programs; education programs designed to employ jobless teachers; part-time work programs for college students; special work programs for transients; direct cash relief for those unable to work; and rural relief programs. Through its funding requirements, the FERA attempted to customize relief efforts so that the particular needs of different groups were met [3].

The final report of the FERA describes its value to the nation: “Through the FERA, Federal funds totaling $3,068,000,000 were granted to the states; these grants financed a major part of the total cost of relief given to unemployed persons and their families from May 1933 when the agency was created until the end of 1935 when its liquidation began. More than 20,000,000 persons, or about 16 percent of the total population of the United States, received relief under the programs conducted by emergency relief administrations when these programs reached their peak in January 1935” [4].

The FERA was not directly involved in the administration and oversight of work projects, but its funds were used in part by the states for infrastructure.  FERA funds helped construct 40,000 miles of new roads, 200,000 miles of repaired roads, and 5,000 public buildings [5].  A direct works project, the Civil Works Administration, was created under the FERA in November 1933 and lasted through July 1934 (although most employment ended on March 31, 1934) [6].

The termination of the FERA was an extended process.  It began with the creation of the WPA in May 1935, yet the agency continued to operate through December of that year.  Formal liquidation, “…originally provided for by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1936, was postponed by the ERA Act of 1937, which made the liquidation the responsibility of the WPA Administrator and provided funds for this purpose until June 30, 1938” [7].

Sources: (1) Frances T. Bourne, Administrative History of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Civil Works Administration, and the Work Projects Administration, Department of Interior Archives (prepared with the assistance of Betty Herscher), March 1946. This works program summary is located on the second floor of National Archives II (College Park, Md.), in the finding aid, “Work Projects Administration: General Administrative and Operational Correspondence, 1934-1944,” Appendix D, pp. 47-65.  (2) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, p. 2.  (3) Ibid. at pp. 2-7.  (4) Federal Works Agency, Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942, p. iii.  (5) See note 2 at p. 5.  (6) Works Progress Administration, Analysis of Civil Works Program Statistics, Washington, DC, 1939, pp. 5-6.  (7) See note 1 at pp. 53-54.