left to right: Henry Morgenthau, Joseph Kennedy, Harry Hopkins, and Harold Ickes at the White House, 1935

Today marks the 85th anniversary of the passage of one of the most significant acts of legislation to come during the Roosevelt Administration, which is saying a lot: it was on April 8, 1935 that the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law. The act gave Franklin Roosevelt even wider latitude to distribute Depression emergency funds as he saw fit. Surprisingly there does not seem to be an image of the signing, which took place after Roosevelt returned from a spring fishing trip. FDR being the master politician he was that probably was not accidental, though I don’t know why. Perhaps he was trying to paper over the failures and miscues of some of the alphabet soup agencies that had come into being in the two years since his presidency began. Two central ideas of the bill were 1) that the money would be more decentralized, giving state and local leaders more input into how to spend New Deal funds, and 2) that the emphasis would shift from relief itself to public works. The biggest change that came out of the bill was the creation of the Works Progress Administration.

The WPA’s influence surrounds most Americans every day, even if they are unaware. A good many of our bridges, post offices, roads, and so much more came out of it over the next several years. Culturally it did a lot too. As I type these words I can see the WPA American Guides for New York and Washington D.C. on my bookshelf. In addition to writers they put painters such as the young Jacob Lawrence to work via the Federal Art Project. Politically the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act led to a power struggle between Harold Ickes and Harry Hopkins over who would become the czar distributing these billions of dollars. Hopkins, who hardly anyone knows anymore despite all he did during the Depression and Second World War, won the struggles. The New Deal was not perfect and had all sorts of unintended consequences but I do not have the confidence in anyone within a leadership position in the current federal administration that I would have had in Hopkins, or Harold Ickes for that matter. So much of that story began eighty-five years ago today.

(image/Library of Congress)