Between 1933 and 1937, Jacob Baker was an assistant administrator in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and also served as a board member and executive officer in the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation. He is credited with being one of the prime movers behind Federal Project Number One—the WPA program that hired writers, artists, theatre workers, and others —and once wrote: “It has been recognized that when an artist or musician is hungry he is just as hungry as a bricklayer and has the same right as a bricklayer has to be employed at his own trade. For the first time in our history, our government has become a patron of the arts, officially and quite unashamed” .
Jacob Baker was born in Colorado in 1895. He attended Colorado Teachers College and the University of California, but did not receive a degree. Baker’s early career was diverse; he worked as a mine and plantation manager, managed personnel at the San Joaquin Light and Power Corporation, and served as an engineer and consultant with private firms. In addition, he helped found the progressive publishing house, Vanguard Press, which operated from 1926 to 1988 (when it was sold to Random House). But Baker struggled, “I wasn’t making much money and life wasn’t too satisfactory;” and, he later confessed, “I wasn’t much of an engineer” .
With the onset of the Great Depression, Baker tried to assist self-help cooperatives by creating the Emergency Exchange Association with another future New Dealer, John Carmody, and others . Langdon Post, who had worked with Baker on the Emergency Exchange Association, was an acquaintance of President Roosevelt and went to work with Harry Hopkins in the FERA in 1933. Post asked Baker if he would be interested in traveling across the country to make a survey of self-help cooperatives for FERA. Baker recalled: “Well, I wasn’t very damn busy, so I was glad to go.” Shortly after the survey was completed, Post convinced Baker to join FERA as an assistant administrator .
As he had done for artists, writers, and theatre workers, Baker defended work-relief jobs for white-collar workers. Writing in the New York Times in 1935, he used examples such as housing surveys, archaeological projects, and the analysis of old weather reports to highlight the benefit of white collar work-relief projects: “The FERA has been the means through which the need of the white-collar worker for a suitable job and the need of the research agencies for more collectors of data have been brought together” . Three decades later, Baker’s belief in the work-relief concept was still strong: “I would have no hesitancy in seeing the City of New York devote part of its money, a substantial part, to a work-relief program. I think it would tend to reduce the number on relief in the course of a little while, and it would certainly lend to the dignity of those poor devils that are still on relief” .
In 1936, Baker led a group of researchers to Europe to study cooperatives. The commission’s work was summarized in Report of the Inquiry on Cooperative Enterprise in Europe 1937 , and Baker wrote a book that same year, Cooperative Enterprise, where he argued for government support of cooperatives in the United States . In 1937, Baker left the WPA, after which he served as president of the United Federal Workers of America (a short-lived union) until 1940. Following that, he worked as a consultant for the Federal Works Agency, c. 1941-1943. He then returned to private sector work. Baker died on September 19, 1967, at the age of 72. He was survived by his wife, Mildred Baker; a daughter, Mrs. Loren Carroll; and two grandsons .
Sources: (1) “Jacob Baker, 72, Economist, Dies,” New York Times, September 20, 1967. (2) Jacob Baker, “Work Relief: The Program Broadens,” New York Times, November 11, 1934. (3) “Oral history with Jacob Baker, 1963 September 25,” Smithsonian Archives of American Art, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-jacob-baker-11712, accessed April 22, 2016; also note 1. (4) Ibid; also Vanguard Press Records, Columbia University, https://findingaids.cul.columbia.edu/ead/nnc-rb/ldpd_4079730/summary, accessed April 23, 2016. (5) See note 3. (6) Jacob Baker, “New White Collar Tasks,” New York Times, August 4, 1935. (7) See note 3. (8) Report of the Inquiry on Cooperative Enterprise in Europe 1937, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937, available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015048901360;view=1up;seq=1 (accessed April 24, 2016). (9) Jacob Baker, Cooperative Enterprise, New York: Vanguard Press, 1937. Also see, “An Able Report on Cooperative Buying,” New York Times book review, December 5, 1937. (10) See notes 1 and 3.