Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) By the winter of 1932–33, at the depths of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate had soared to at least one-fourth of the labor force. Chief among the priorities of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal administration upon talking office in March 1933 was the provision of financial assistance—or relief—to unemployed Americans. On May 12, 1933, Congress created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and authorized it to distribute $500 million to state and local governments. A week later Roosevelt named Harry Hopkins to head the new agency. The FERA was an important part of the First New Deal enacted during the first Hundred Days of the Roosevelt administration and of the New Deal's efforts to support unemployed and impoverished Americans until economic recovery could provide jobs.
Unlike the relief funds authorized by the 1932 Relief and Reconstruction Act of the Hoover presidency, the FERA granted rather than lent money to states and localities. Of the $500 million authorized by Congress, half would be granted directly on the basis of need and half would be spent on a matching basis of one federal dollar for every three state dollars. Hopkins, who had headed New York's Temporary Emergency Relief Administration when Roosevelt was governor of New York, was from the beginning a key adviser and policy maker in Roosevelt's administration and the central figure in New Deal relief policy.
Hopkins implemented the FERA with dispatch, spending some $5 million in his first two hours on the job and hundreds of millions more in the next weeks and months. Dispensing the money as quickly and flexibly as possible and having to rely upon an underdeveloped and inexperienced organizational structure, FERA invited criticism from opponents for inefficiency—and for the inevitable political use, especially by local officials, of relief spending. Hopkins and the FERA encountered additional difficulties in the reluctance of state officials to provide the money for matching grants. Sometimes that was because state constitutions forbade such spending or because poorer states simply lacked the fiscal capacity; but it was also because of fiscal conservatism and a disinclination to provide money to what some officials thought were the "undeserving" poor who were supposedly responsible for their plight despite the collapse of the economy. Racial and ethnic biases, not only in the South, also shaped distribution of FERA funds at the local level. To circumvent such resistance, to avoid inequity, and to reduce local political use of FERA funds, Hopkins increasingly relied on direct grants—and then often encountered criticism that the federal government was interfering with state policymaking and subverting the American federal system.
At first, the FERA emphasized payments directly to the poor (the "dole"), which seemed essential to getting it to the unemployed needy as quickly as possible. But the process often seemed demeaning or degrading in a number of ways. After presenting themselves at a public "intake" room for screening, potential recipients had to undergo a "means" test whereby officials would closely examine income and spending habits prior to certifying applicants for aid. Many FERA clients received only food or clothing or specific food orders instead of cash to spend as they desired. But while such direct relief disbursements in cash or kind continued for otherwise unemployable recipients (the aged, handicapped, and dependent children, for example), FERA funds increasingly went for work relief projects, which would hire the unemployed for such projects as constructing roads and buildings, and sometimes hired middle-class professionals as well. In this way, the FERA continued projects begun by the Civil Works Administration in the winter of 1933–34 and anticipated the efforts of the New Deal's major work relief program, the Works Progress Administration, begun in 1935.
FERA projects erected some 5,000 public buildings and 7,000 bridges, built nearly a quarter million miles of new roads, and taught an estimated 1.5 million adults how to read. Project workers had to be on relief rolls and undergo the means test, and received on average only some $6.50 per week. Despite its limitations and difficulties, and the criticisms of politics, inefficiency, and useless but expensive "boondoggle" projects, the FERA was an important agency that helped hundreds of thousands of Americans and marked the federal government's acceptance of direct relief to the unemployed. It was phased out after the WPA, the Social Security Act, and other programs of the Second New Deal of 1935 further defined the emerging American welfare state.
Text Citation: Jeffries, John W. "Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)." In Jeffries, John W., Katherine Liapis Segrue, and Gary B. Nash, eds. Encyclopedia of American History: The Great Depression and World War II, 1929 to 1945, vol. 8. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003. American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com (accessed July 11, 2007).