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Social Work Reacts

   Social work reacted to the early years of the depression by turning away from the individual approaches and re-embracing reform. Bertha Reynolds, director of the Smith College School of Psychiatric Social work, stated that it was absurd to focus on emotional problems when so many people were going hungry.

   Social workers realized the seriousness of the depression before most other professionals. Their work put them in a unique vantage point where they had an all too clear a picture of the people's plight. Social workers were also among the Great Depression’s earliest victims. Faced with the dual hardships of increased demand and decreased donations, a third of all private agencies were forced to close their doors.


   Predictably, social workers also engaged in self-flagellation, an enterprise that would recur during times of crisis. Some leaders lamented that the professions' focus on technique and that social casework had turned the profession away from more substantial issues related to reforming the system. More constructively, social work organizations began lobbying the national government for action.

   The American Association of Social Workers testified before the U.S. Senate on the gravity of the crisis. A number of social work leaders petitioned president Hoover to begin a federal unemployment program. Local organizations surveyed communities to gather data on the depth and breadth of the Great Depression's effects. The activities by social workers and their allies did have an impact. In 1931, the government passed several small programs that recognized the difficulties most Americans were now experiencing. Regrettably, the government’s halting attempts to do something were too little and too late.


The New Deal

   The nation was in crisis when FDR became president in 1933. Millions were unemployed. Farms were abandoned, banks were failing, industrial output was a trickle, and most public and private relief programs were out of money. The president wasted little time. In his first 100 days in office, he and the congress passed an unparalleled number of bills designed to do something about the depression.


   Taken as a whole, these programs became collectively known as the New Deal. The Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) was designed to pump new money into state welfare programs; the Civilian Conservation Corps(CCC) put thousands of young men to work in national forests and parks; the Public Works Administration(PWA) started public works such as schools, courthouses and bridges, employing thousands of construction workers. The National Recovery Administration (NRA) ,dubbed the BLUE EAGLE, created a network of policies and programs to help small businesses, and the Agriculture Adjustment ACT (AAA) promoted policies to help farmers.

The Second New Deal

   By 1935, the nation had regained some of its confidence and economic indicators were improved. However, for much of the nation the depression continued to be a grim reality. Payrolls were still less than half of 1925 levels. Millions of the unemployed continued their fruitless search for work.

   It became obvious that the depression was going to be more stubborn than many hoped. In this context, Roosevelt and his inside group of planners put together a set of programs designed to be more permanent than the prior emergency measures. Those programs,taken as a group, quickly became known as the Second New Deal.

   Arguably, the most prominent (and in some ways the most infamous) of the new programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), headed by the social worker Harry Hopkins. The WPA was a work-relief program designed to replace the FERA. It reflected the strong bias of both FDR and Hopkins that work programs were a much superior solution to the problems associated with poverty than did welfare.

   The WPA eventually employed more than 8 million Americans. Work was done on a plethora of activities that sometimes consisted of pseudo-work projects critics referred to as boondoggles. While the WPA built many fine buildings, stout bridges and even produced notable art, the heavy emphasis on putting people to work sometimes did result in poorly planned projects.


   Throughout the early years of the depression many in FDR's administration had advocated for a youth program. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was especially concerned about the plight of what she termed "America's unwanted youth". The CCC responded to this group in a small way but there were still millions of teens out of school, out of work, and out of luck. FDR issued the executive order creating a works program for these youths in the summer of 1935. The National Youth Administration (NYA) was headed by a young woman, Aubrey Williams, who was a protégé of Harry Hopkins and had been a staunch advocate for programs for women and children.

Poor but clean


Secretary of Labor-Francis Perkins, explains the NRA to workers

CCC boys working in the forest

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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