A Radio Address by Harry Hopkins

Harry L. Hopkins was head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration when this address was made. Later he was head of the Works Progress Administration (WPA.) He was also one of FDR's closest and most trusted advisors and served as a personal emissary from FDR to leaders such as Churchill and Stalin during World War II.

Source: Vital Speeches of the Day, December 31, 1934, pp. 210-212. Reprinted in The Annals of America, Vol.15, pp. 261-263 (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968.)

It is a curious thing what a quantity of sickness, coldness, hunger, and bare-footedness we are willing to let other men suffer. It literally has no limit. You can hear it in the cautious tone of voice of a man who says, "We'd better be careful or we will have a major disaster." What, might we ask him, would he consider to be a major disaster? Obviously it has nothing to do with numbers. For 18 million persons is a large enough number used in any connection to satisfy most men. Eighteen million men in an army is a large army. Eighteen million sick men is an epidemic larger than any we have ever recorded. Eighteen million criminals would turn the country into a jail. Eighteen million madmen would keep us locked in our rooms in a state of dithering terror. It is a figure large enough so that even in dollars we have to count carefully to know their full purchasing power. For most people large figures are as unusable to their reasoning processes as the astronomer's light-years are to a man with a piece of smoked glass. Yet we can easily roll across our tongues, without a reaction setting up in the heart or mind, the simple statement that 18 million Americans are so poor of this world's goods that they are on relief. . . .

Many of you will say to me that these people like being on relief and that they are better off on relief than they have ever been before. We have heard that one very often. We are told they will not work any more. May I ask you one thing? When you know that a relief budget, for lack of funds, is placed at the very minimum of a family's needs and that in very few places it can take care of rent and that it can hope to do little more than keep body and soul together; and when you realize that this is a nominal budget only, and because we lack funds sometimes families are permitted to receive less than 50 percent of that so-called ideal budget, which is in itself inadequate to life, may I ask you if this is an indictment of relief, that it is said to offer more than life offered before, or is it an indictment of something else?

For myself, I do not call it an indictment of relief. I grant you that examples which you cite of chiseling, racketeering, politics, and laziness may be true, but I also say that we are in a position to know the proportions of these evils, and that it is a fact beyond contradiction that most men do not give up without a struggle that intangible thing they call their independence.

We have lately had a new kind of complaint from a very astute and humorous economist. He asks: "Why are you people in federal relief always apologizing for straight relief, always talking about its being so demoralizing, and such a shameful thing, why are you always saying that as soon as you can, you are going to have work relief for all these people?" (For you know that we harp upon that a good deal in the Relief Administration. We are aware that it costs more in the beginning so we have to fight pretty hard for it.) This economist says: "Of course, you should be apologetic for the amount you give out. The whole matter would be righted and men could hold up their heads again if you gave them $30 a week and called it independent income."

The only trouble with this is that the unemployed themselves want work. We do not have to tell them that not having a job spoils a man for work. They go soft, they lose skill, they lose work habits. But they know it before you and I know it and it is their lives that are being wrecked, not ours. . . .

There are those who tell us that we should not have work relief. They say that straight relief is cheaper. No one will deny this contention. It costs money to put a man to work. Apparently, to the advocates of direct relief, the primary object of relief is to save the government money. The ultimate humane cost to the government never occurs to them of a continued situation through which its citizens lose their sense of independence and strength and their sense of individual destiny. Work for the unemployed is something we have fought for since the beginning of the administration and we shall continue to insist upon it. It preserves a man's morale. It saves his skill. It gives him a chance to do something socially useful.

Let me say again that we should allow ourselves no smug feelings of charity at this holiday season to know that the federal government is attempting to take care of the actual physical wants of 18 million people. We are merely paying damages for not having had a thought about these things many years ago. We will have to do a great deal of thinking from here out.

I should like to say a word right here about the housing which we have been allowing to stand as the shelter of American citizens. It is evil. It is unnecessary. No civilized nation needs to stand for it. Something has got to be done about housing and something is going to be done. . . .

It is safe to say that poverty in any city is as old as that city and that it has grown in every city from little to big. It is part of its economic nature that poverty is infectious. It is like the old proverb of the shoemaker's children. The children of thousands of unemployed workers in the shoe district of New England are unshod. It would seem that the more you make the more you can't have. It is true that while we have thousands of unemployed-cotton textile workers, there are literally hundreds of thousands of beds in the United States that have no sheets and that people sleep on pieces of old carpet placed upon bare springs, or stretch burlap out upon sawdust and lay their babies to sleep on gunny sacks filled with old rags..

I have painted you a very bleak picture. There are the facts with which we have to contend, but even though we do not attempt to gloss them over, and it would be idle and even cruel to do so, there is in some ways a more hopeful color in it than any American Christmas has known before. In this country, for the first time, we have a President in the White House whose mind and heart are consecrated to the ending forever of such conditions. It has been one of the outstanding virtues of this administration that it has been willing to uncover the extent of the problem with which it has to deal. It is the motivating force behind the President and his aides to bring about a day when these men and women who have endured so much will come again, or even come, some of them, for the first time, into the inheritance which rightfully belongs to every citizen of the richest country in the world.

And this is not all still in the stage of hope. Much has been accomplished. It lacks some months of being two years since the President undertook a task which was years in preparing. Remember that already at least 3.5 million of unemployed persons have gone back to work. Remember that in spite of the natural seasonal rise of unemployment in winter, and the additional physical needs that people experience in cold weather, and in spite of the fact that depleted family resources have forced newcomers to list themselves upon the relief rolls, there are fewer families on relief at this moment than there were in March 1933. Besides this, new social movements have been begun that will protect and enrich our common life. These good effects are even now at the beginning of a longtime program, substantial enough to be felt. Not only have pledges been made but pledges have been fulfilled.

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