Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

John West

Where Is Roosevelt’s Relief Program Going?

Direct Relief Remains Central Issue for Unemployed;
Workers’ Organizations Must Demand Large-Scale Public Works

(21 December 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 51, 21 December 1935, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The new stage in the Roosevelt relief program began daring the first weeks of the last session of Congress, and has now reached its culmination. The publicity agents of the Administration explained their idea as follows:

At the beginning of 1935 there were approximately 5,000,000 persons receiving direct relief (the dole), at least part of which came from the Federal Treasury. Direct Federal relief was to be eliminated. 1,500,000 of these 5,000,000 could be classified as “unemployable” because of illness, old age, or some similar reason. These were to be transferred entirely to the relief rolls of the states and municipalities, and cut off from Federal relief. The remaining 3,500,000 were to be given temporary work at a “security wage” by the Works Progress Administration. This temporary work was to continue for the most part until some time during 1936. By then, the majority of the “employables” would be re-employed by reviving private industry. The rest would be transferred to “heavy” and more permanent public-works projects along the lines of the FWA.

Program Not Fulfilled

To accomplish this program $4,880,000,000 was appropriated by Congress. $880,000,000 was to be used to continue direct relief until the WPA program was fully running, and the unemployables sent back to the states and cities. The original announcements promised that the WPA would be .at maximum operation by July 1, and that at that time the full 3,500,000 would be on its payroll.

Naturally, none of this program has been fulfilled. The July 1 date was successively advanced until it became December 1. The $880,000,000 for direct relief grew into a billion and a half. The WPA was to “put 3,500,000 to work”; but actually more than 500,000 were merely transferred to it from the already operating COC, and even with these the December 1 figure is considerably below the full 3,500,000. How much below it is not yet possible to say, since the publicity from Administrator Hopkins’ office is not noted for accuracy.

Nevertheless, Hopkins has announced that the program is “essentially completed,” without, of .course, offering any explanation of what happened to delay completion from July to December. He has “officially” cut off direct Federal relief grants to the States and through them to the cities. Meanwhile, however, he made some additional allocations to the states, to aid them in “completing the transition to the new program” – though this is a little confusing when we remember that he has also at the same time announced that the transition to the new program is completed.

What are we to make of all this?

And what is the prospect for next year? Is this program going to be fulfilled? It is necessary to answer these questions.

Unemployment Permanent

In the first place, we must always bear in mind that unemployment, and wide-spread unemployment, is not a temporary but a permanent feature of the remaining years of capitalism. “Private” industry is not going to reabsorb the great body of the unemployed. According to the most favorable estimates (in all probability, much too favorable to be true), a maximum of 5,000,000 workers have been re-employed since the low point of employment in March, 1933. This leaves a minimum of 11,000,000 unemployed at the present time. Moreover, these figures take no account of workers on part-time who are not making during a year even a bare subsistence wage, or of the “new” workers coming from the schools, high schools and colleges. It also leaves out of account the highly seasonal character of employment in many of the great industries such as auto mobiles and textiles. The unemployment figures may be reduced still further by the continuation of the present upcurve in the business cycle; but they will remain at an enormous figure.

Many of these unemployed still manage to live from savings, assistance from relatives, charity, or odd dollars that they pick up here and there. But these sources have been drying up, and “prosperity” is not returning to an extent sufficient to revive them. Of the rest of the unemployed, it is and will continue to be impossible that they can all or even a major part be taken care of by any “made work” or “relief work” or “public works” plan.

Direct Relief Still Primary

Direct relief – the dole – will continue as a permanent feature of declining capitalism. In the chaotic, anarchic conditions of capitalism in its death throes, no rational social planning is possible. It is a futile illusion of middle class image-makers to suppose that the dole can be eliminated, an illusion similar to the older dream that a “cooperative commonwealth” can be built up alongside of and within capitalist society.

Important conclusions follow from these facts. Above all, they demonstrate that the problem of direct relief remains and will remain a central issue for the organized unemployed. The programs of the unemployed organizations must continue to have direct relief demands as a primary focus, and must avoid any perspective in terms of the illusory dream that the dole will shortly be eliminated. Moreover, it must be understood by the unemployed organizations that direct relief will continue to be in large part a Federal institution. Mass pressure against Congress and the Administration must be built up to demand not merely a continuation but an increase in direct Federal relief; and these demands must be coupled with the demand to finance the appropriations out of direct taxes in the form of inheritance, corporation, and income levies directed at the higher brackets.

But direct relief is likewise a problem for the “relief workers” themselves, in a double sense. In the first place, the low wage level of relief work (e.g., the WPA) makes supplementary relief in many cases imperative. Secondly, such institutions as the WPA are temporary in character. The projects extend over comparatively short periods of time, and when they are completed the relief workers are again thrown out of. jobs. Thus the unemployed organizations proper must take the lead in promoting the organization of the relief workers, and must closely integrate the relief work demands with the unemployed demands in general.

WPA – Attack on Relief Standards

In fact, one of the primary purposes of the WPA must be- understood as an indirect attack on relief standards. This must be resisted at every point: by fighting against the wage levels of the WPA itself, by preventing lowering of direct relief in shifting the unemployed from one roll to another, by demanding supplementary relief, by insisting on immediate transference to adequate relief when a project ends, etc.

However, from another point of view, not less important, the WPA program constitutes a major attack on general wage levels, particularly the union levels in the building trades. And in this direction, the WPA, and relief work generally, become a direct problem for the trade unions, as, from the other direction, the WPA is a problem for the unemployed organizations. Thus the trade unions must be brought’ into the struggle for the organizing arid strengthening of the relief workers, and. for the lifting of WPA and other relief wages to union levels.

As has already been pointed out, however, the WPA, like any other given form of relief work, is temporary by its very nature. The struggles centering around the WPA, the present feature-point of the Administration unemployed program, must therefore be made part of the broader struggle for the advancement of the position of the unemployed, for higher direct relief, for unemployment and social insurance, and for large scale public works. This last point is of especial importance in looking forward to the next period, and has been seriously neglected by the labor movement generally. It is true that genuine public works cannot be handled in a scientific and large-scale manner by a capitalist state. But sufficient pressure can accomplish at least something in this field. At present, the public works program of the government has receded into the background along with the advance of WPA. The housing program, about which there has been such constant ballyhoo, still remains almost entirely on paper, scattered in confusion among more than a dozen governmental agencies.

The demand for a large scale public works program must be brought forward sharply and forced upon the next Congress. This demand must distinguish public works clearly from temporary relief work, and above all must fight against the conception of “security wages.” Its central feature should be low-rental housing directly subsidized by the Federal government. Such a demand, supported primarily by independent class action, will do much to expose the demagogy, hollowness and wholly reactionary character of the Roosevelt relief program, and can play a prominent part in a genuine advance for the entire unemployed movement, and through it for the working class as a whole.

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 3 February 2018