Harry Hopkins, The First and Final Task of Government

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946).

Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946) 
Hopkins oversaw the New Deal relief programs. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946) stood at the side of President Franklin Roosevelt through the two terrible crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the Second World War. Hopkins was the president’s trusted advisor, his close friend, his gatekeeper, and for three and a half years, his house guest.  He was never elected to any office, yet he occupied a position of power in Washington that has yet to be matched. 

Hopkins served as FDR’s federal relief administrator from 1933 to 1939, first as supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA); then heading the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which put four million unemployed people to work in four months, and later the Works Progress Administration (WPA),

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934.

FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934
Hopkins supervised the first emergency relief effort, FERA, superseded by the CWA and later, the WPA. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

which created jobs for 8.5 million Americans, and left a legacy on the American landscape that endures to this day.

He also served as Secretary of Commerce from 1938 to 1940. Hopkins’ upbringing in America’s heartland and his education at Iowa’s Grinnell College prepared him for his lifelong fight for social justice. As a social worker, his goal was social justice for all Americans. He began his public career with a deeply embedded belief that the government on all levels—but especially the federal government— has the constitutional responsibility to ensure the general welfare of all of its citizens. 

He firmly believed that this included the right to earn a decent living and, if private industry could not absorb all those who wanted to work, it rested with the federal government to be the employer of last resort. 

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936

Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936
Hopkins believed government must insure the well-being of all its citizens. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

During the dark years of the Depression, Hopkins stood out as the one who knew how to cut through red tape. He had the administrative skills to get things done and a sharp tongue for those who criticized the unemployed as lazy.

During the war years Hopkins deftly carried out power diplomacy, acting as the lynchpin for the Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—fighting a coalition war.  As Roosevelt’s envoy, he was constantly ill, often to the point of debilitation, but relentlessly served the president’s mission to defeat fascism.  For Hopkins, this was the goal of social justice writ large. 

For all his adult life, Hopkins worked as a public servant.  Human welfare was always his priority – for the welfare Americans suffering deprivation during the economic depression of the 1930s and then from 1940 through 1945, for people worldwide being terrorized by expansionist and militaristic dictators.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941.

Hopkins and Churchill, 1941
Hopkins was FDR’s emissary during during WWII. Courtesy, Brittanica.com.

At Hopkins memorial service in 1946, John Steinbeck described Hopkins’ legacy: “Human welfare is the first and final task of government. There is no other.”

That dictum—the Americans have the right to live in security and that government has the responsibility to provide for that security— is Hopkins greatest legacy. In the aftermath of Roosevelt’s administrations, Steinbeck wrote, the federal government can no longer deny its responsibility for human welfare.

President Roosevelt and Hopkins in a car

President Roosevelt and Hopkins
Rochester Minnesota, 1938 Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Today, my grandfather’s legacy remains largely unrecognized.  It would serve the nation well to remember that the task of government is to insure the general welfare of all Americans in peace and in war. Those who have the honor to serve in government must understand that this is their first and final responsibility.

Learn more about Harry Hopkins on the Living New Deal’s website.

June Hopkins is professor of history at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Georgia. Before becoming a historian, she, like her grandfather, was a social worker in New York City. She is the author of Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer (1999) and ‘Jewish First Wife, Divorced’: The Correspondence Between Ethel Gross and Harry Hopkins (2003). She serves on the Living New Deal’s Research Board.

“Here’s the Deal,” Joe Biden—We Need a Big Jobs Program Now

A WPA worker receives a paycheck, 1939.

A WPA worker receives a paycheck, 1939.
Priority employment in the WPA went to those in need of relief.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

In his first Inaugural Address in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt confronted the Great Depression with a promise of “action and action now.” Fast forward 88 years. In the face of a worsening pandemic and a sliding economy, Biden made the same pledge: “In this moment of crisis,” he said, “we have to act now…. we cannot afford inaction.”

Biden has moved quickly to propose a supplement to Unemployment Insurance (UI), bigger cash tax credits and an extra one-time payout of $1,400.  Many unemployed adults, however, don’t qualify for UI. Jobless workers without children will get little-to-no help from a larger Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit. The extra $1,400 will only stretch so far.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins

President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins
A close advisor to FDR, Hopkins was an architect of New Deal relief programs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

What Biden has not yet proposed is a large, federally subsidized jobs program. His “Build Back Better” plan calls for 18 million good paying jobs, mostly in infrastructure. But he has not yet presented Congress with specific legislation. The nation needs action and action now.

The New Deal’s jobs programs show the way. From the start, Roosevelt made clear that his “primary task” was getting unemployed Americans back to work.

In his First 100 Days, FDR created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and tapped Harry Hopkins to run it. He told the Washington newcomer: Get immediate and adequate relief to the unemployed, and pay no attention to politics or politicians. Three days later, Hopkins got to work and within an hour sent $5 million in cash relief to four million destitute American families.

Hopkins immediately recognized, however, that unemployed workers did not want a handout. They wanted jobs. FERA soon offered not just cash relief, but the opportunity to earn the same amount through work relief. Instead of a handout, it provided the dignity of employment.

Unemployment office, 1938

Unemployment office, 1938
“Jobless men lined up for the first time in California to file claims for Unemployment Compensation.”
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy, Social Security Administration

In November 1933, Roosevelt and Hopkins went much further. The experimental Civil Works Administration (CWA) offered the unemployed real jobs that paid the prevailing wage. Within a month, the CWA hired four million to carry out over 4,000 projects.

The program was temporary. Hopkins regretted its end in 1934. He saw the CWA as proof that unemployed Americans wanted to work and as the best model for providing them jobs until they could be absorbed into the regular labor market. With the CWA in mind, Hopkins lobbied for an Employment Assurance Corporation to serve as the employer of last resort.

The Social Security Act of 1935 lacked a permanent job assurance program. Nevertheless, FDR, who disfavored what he called “the dole,” told Congress: “Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”

Why Can't You Give my Dad a Job?

Why Can't You Give my Dad a Job?
1937 Photo by Daniel HagermanPublic Domain

The result was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which under Hopkins’ leadership provided millions of subsidized jobs over its seven-year run. The WPA ranks among the New Deal’s most successful programs. It might have lasted longer but for the nation’s shift to a wartime economy.

The New Deal’s history holds valuable lessons for the new Administration. “People don’t eat in the long run,” Hopkins said, “they eat every day.” The most powerful antidote to poverty is immediate employment and decent wages. With adequate earnings, most Americans can keep food in the refrigerator, avoid eviction or foreclosure and meet life’s other necessities.

So, here’s the deal, Mr. President. Just as FDR’s New Deal rested firmly on jobs programs like the CWA and WPA, your program to Build Back Better requires a large, permanent federal jobs program that will quickly put millions of Americans back to work—and by doing so, restore not only our economy but our faith in government as well.


Dr. June Hopkins is the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins, professor emerita at Georgia Southern University, Armstrong Campus, and author of “Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer.” David Riemer is a Senior Advisor on the Workforce for Social Security Works and author of “Putting Government In Its Place: The Case for a New Deal 3.0.”

A Better United States, c. 1937


Before television, newsreels were a source of current affairs and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.

In order to restore public confidence and hope during the Great Depression, the federal government created a short-lived agency, the U.S. Film Service. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, chief of the Works Progress Administration, invited commercial producers—“Hollywood,” in popular parlance—to make newsreels that would show mass audiences how workers formerly on relief were building a better United States.

In 1935, with an eye toward the 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on a contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé News won the contract with a bid of $4,280 a reel and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its national newsreel.

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)

Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park)
African American workers construct Colonial Park pool and bathhouse in Harlem in 1937. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

It was a challenge to keep to the grueling production schedule. And there was backlash from the Republican National Committee, which charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda . . . paid out of relief funds.” But Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”

(You can judge for yourself by watching these newsreels on the Living New Deal website. The trove of forty-seven films gleaned from the National Archives includes A Better West Virginia,  A Better Chicago, and A Better New Jersey. Some are longer, such as We Work Again, a film about African Americans, and Work Pays America, a survey of WPA accomplishments.)

School Lunch Program

School Lunch Program
A woman makes school lunches in an industrial kitchen. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archive

A Better New York City is in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. Instead of breadlines and beggars the newsreel opens with billowing clouds that part to reveal Manhattan Island; the music swells; the skyline glimmers in the sunshine; and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” The unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved with CWA and WPA funds and labor) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator explains the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.

Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York City film highlights work and workers—blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized.


An African American caretaker and her young charges. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

They build airports, bulkheads, and highways, and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The film heralds public swimming pools and bathhouses the New Deal built in this city.

For all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series.

Another consistent message is how the New Deal benefited children. The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. In A Better New York City, youngsters are clean, heathy, and amply fed. They don’t work. Rather, they play in supervised sites such as play streets, parks, playgrounds, pools, day camps, nursery schools, and day care centers and enjoy a school lunch program, substantiating the narrator’s praise “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . .”  

Play Street

Play Street
Healthy children are shown playing in supervised areas. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.

As we look back to find a way forward, we should assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. African Americans were the hardest hit by the Depression, and yet they are underrepresented in A Better New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs.

Still, the WPA films remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.

Marta Gutman is professor at the City College of New York and a founding editor of PLATFORM, https://www.platformspace.net where a version of this article originally appeared. [email protected]

Marta Gutman teaches architectural and urban history at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on public architecture for city children.

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Susan Quinn recounts a fast-paced story about the Federal Theatre Project through the lives and times of those who conceived and led this unique New Deal relief program— Harry Hopkins, the driven director of the WPA, and the intrepid Hallie Flanagan whom Hopkins convinced to run the risky project. Both grew up in Iowa City and attended Grinnell College, after which Hopkins pursued social work in New York City and Flanagan headed an innovative performing arts program at Vassar College.

Quinn recounts a train ride in 1933 during which Hopkins and Flanagan envisioned the new federal program to employ thousands of starving artists—actors, directors, designers, writers, and tradesmen. “Hell!” the notoriously blunt Hopkins says. “They’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Federal Theater ProjectFlanagan was excited by the challenge of bringing live theater to millions of Americans for the first time and saw the potential of the FTP to take on the country’s deep-seated racism and social inequality. She sought Hopkins’ assurances that the government-subsidized FTP would be free from censorship—a difficult promise to keep. At times, she turned to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—an enthusiastic ally of the FTP—to overcome red tape and political opposition.

Though the FTP’s budget was a tiny percentage—one-tenth of one percent– of the WPA’s overall expenditures, it had been labeled a boondoggle by the press, politicians, banks, businessmen, and even theater owners and workers fearing low-quality, low-priced competition. Yet by the end of 1935, 9,245 people got jobs with the FTP in big cities, regional theaters, and small towns nationwide. Some FTP troupes performed for the Civilian Conservation Corps at remote camps.

The FTP produced dramas, comedies, musicals, and children’s theater, including The Revolt of the Beavers, which told the story of a cruel beaver chief who keeps the underling beavers busy processing bark but shares none of the proceeds from their labor. Many scripts were derived from news articles about the hardships of the Great Depression, a controversial genre Flanagan dubbed “The Living Newspaper.”

The FTP’s leading lights included T.S. Eliot, Arthur Miller, Sinclair Lewis, John Houseman, and Orson Welles. It was the Welles/Houseman production of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock that proved most dangerous for the FTP. Flanagan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to defend the program before its enemies.

Few government programs received or weathered such scrutiny as the FTP. Thanks to Quinn’s book, this creative and daring project remains in the spotlight.

Reviewed by Susan Ives

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Avalon Park – Chicago IL

Avalon Park was one of the last projects of the WPA that was approved by Harry Hopkins and Controller General J.R. McCarl in 1935 and was an example during the Great Depression of how the government was interested in giving pleasurable entertainment and culture to the community of the Chicago South Side. The park is located between 83rd and 85th streets, with South Kimbark Avenue on the east side and is approximately 28 acres . Pre-New Deal, in 1931 landscape architect Robert Moore created a plan for the park and Alderman Michael F. Mulcahy was also involved in jumpstarting plans for the park. Robert J. Dunham, who was president of the Chicago park district and WPA administrator for Illinois, played a large role in originally approving the request for the park before sending the file to Washington for final action . $445,000 was budgeted for Avalon Park – a high cost due to “the large ratio of hand labor insisted upon by WPA regulations and the amount of extra installations of sewers and lights.”

Avalon Park included several ambitious features for the time including a shelter house, shower and locker room, as well as an outdoor swimming pool 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, two outdoor gymnasiums and a running track, a baseball diamond, football field, tennis courts, and a wading pool. The park is used today and there is a track field, a swimming pool, basketball and tennis courts, and the baseball field.