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Saturday, October 1, 2016

FDR’s Alphabet Soup

Records from the Great Depression
Cath Madden Trindle

CWA-Civil Works Administration

1933-1934   NARA RG 69.2

“Four million men now out of employment will be put to work under a plan  announced today by the President. .. Two million of these will become self-sustaining employees on Federal, State and local public projects on November 16th, and will be taken completely off the relief rolls. An additional two million will be put back to work as soon thereafter as possible.” Remarks by FDR on signing Executive Order creating Civil Works Administration on 8 Nov 1933.  


Authorized under the National Industrial Recovery act of June 1933, the CWA was created to provide more immediate relief as the PWA got off to a slow start. Building up self-esteem by working rather than living on the “dole” was deemed essential by the Administration for the well being of the citizens and the country as a whole. In all about 3% of the population was employed by the CWA during it’s short existence.
Workers tutored the illiterate, built parks, repaired schools, and constructed athletic fields and swimming pools. A forerunner to the WPA the CWA employed over three thousand writers and artists. Jobs such as raking leaves and shoveling snow led some to scoff at the “make-work” tasks some were assigned.
CWA ” Six hundred men and a scenic boulevard” San Francisco, CA circa 1934 – National Archives ARC Identifier 196525
All those employed by the CWA were Federal employees. The provisions called for one-half of the jobs to go to those who were on relief, and the other half to anyone else who needed work. For those who had been receiving relief this was an increase from $6.50 to the minimum wage of $15.00 a week. Those not on relief were not required to submit to a “means test,” (proving you have absolutely no assets) in order to get an income.
By the winter of 1933-1934 counties and cities were running out of money and resources to keep their citizens going. During it’s short lifetime the CWA, run by Harry Hopkins, built or repaired 800 airports and over 250,000 miles of roads. It built or modernized over 4000 school building, hired some 50,000 teachers for rural schools and constructed over 3000 athletic fields. The CWA helped the country through the winter.
However, the cost of the program exceeded expectations and more emphasis was placed on higher paying construction jobs. The effort was unsustainable and the CWA was liquidated in March of 1934 and all functions transferred to the Emergency Relief Program of FERA. By 1935 the successor WPA was established.
NARA has 888 rolls of CWA field office records, 59 rolls pertain to California. These include final state reports, engineering records, easements and rights of way, progress reports, CWA and state reporting forms, correspondence, and other project records. Over 600 rolls of general records also include information on projects, arranged by state, administrative records, employment records and more.
UC Berkeley has various collections that include California CWA records. Search the Online Archive of California (Federal “Civil Works Administration” 1933-1934 California) for listings there as well as at the Hoover Institute, Huntington Library, University of Pacific Library and the California State Archives.

Suggested Reading:
  • United States. Federal Civil Works Administration (in California). Summary report, Civil Works Administration activities, State of California, November 27, 1933-March 29, 1934
  • Schwartz, Bonnie Fox. The Civil Works Administration 1933-1934. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. 1984
  • New Deal Civil Works Project Remembered in Berkeley Berkeley Daily Planet, 11 Feb 2009
Originally published in the CSGA Newsletter – Aug-Sep 2013

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