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Federal Emergency Relief Administration

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA)
Agency overview
Formed May 1933
  • Emergency Relief Administration (ERA)
Dissolved Dec. 1935
Superseding agency
Employees Provided work for over 20 million people
Child agency
FERA camps for unemployed women in Arcola, Pennsylvania; "Second Camp", ca. 07/1934.

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was the new name given by the Roosevelt Administration to the Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) which President Herbert Hoover had created in 1932. FERA was established as a result of the Federal Emergency Relief Act and was replaced in 1935 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

FERA under Hoover gave loans to the states to operate relief programs. One of these, the New York state program TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration), was set up in 1931 and headed by Harry Hopkins, a close adviser to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked Congress to set up FERA—which gave grants to the states for the same purpose—in May 1933, and appointed Hopkins to head it. Along with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) it was the first relief operation under the New Deal. Basically, it gave grants and loans to states.

FERA's main goal was alleviating household unemployment by creating new unskilled jobs in local and state government. Jobs were more expensive than direct cash payments (called "the dole"), but were psychologically more beneficial to the unemployed, who wanted any sort of job, for self-esteem, to play the role of male breadwinner. From May 1933 until it closed in December, 1935, FERA gave states and localities $3.1 billion. FERA provided work for over 20 million people and developed facilities on public lands across the country.

Faced with continued high unemployment and concerns for public welfare during the coming winter of 1933-34, FERA instituted the Civil Works Administration (CWA) as a $400 million short-term measure to get people to work. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration was terminated in 1935 and its work taken over by two entirely new federal agencies, the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Administration.


  • Projects 1
    • Workers' education 1.1
    • Women 1.2
    • Food 1.3
  • State and local studies 2
    • Oklahoma 2.1
    • Nebraska 2.2
    • Tenant farmers 2.3
    • Key West 2.4
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • Further reading 5
  • External links 6


FERA operated a wide variety of work relief projects, including construction, projects for professionals (e.g., writers, artists, actors, and musicians), and production of consumer goods. The construction and professional projects elicited criticisms of "make-work," i.e., that little of value was produced.

Ojibwe women stuffing mattresses, c. 1935
Cheyenne women with stack of mattresses they made, 1940

In contrast, the output of the consumer goods production projects was clearly useful, as canned food, garments, mattresses, bedding, and other goods were produced and then distributed to relief recipients. But these projects, termed production-for-use by FERA administrators, came under fire from capitalists for competing with the private sector. As a result, production-for-use projects that capitalists found offensive were terminated by the time the WPA began in late 1935, and no such government production of consumer goods has been repeated since.[1]

Workers' education

Workers' education, a form of adult education, emphasized the study of economic and social problems from the workers' perspective. When the FERA created its adult education program in 1933, workers' education classes were included. Between 1933 and 1943 thirty-six experiment programs in workers' education were launched, 17 of them lasting over ten years. With as many as two thousand teachers employed at one time, officials conservatively estimated that the program reached at least one million workers nationwide until it was ended in World War II. Three distinct phases of a federal workers' education program existed: FERA (1933–1935), CIO unions. Federal workers' education activities also encouraged union-university cooperation and laid the foundation for labor education at Indiana University. New Dealers designed the WPA Workers' Service Program as the model for a Federal Labor Extension Service, similar to the existing federal agricultural extension program, but it was never implemented.[2]


Ellen S. Woodward was director of women's work for FERA and CWA. During the short lifespan of the CWA, Woodward placed women in such civil works projects as sanitation surveys, highway and park beautification, public building renovation, public records surveys, and museum development. Most were unemployed white collar clerical workers. In July 1934, the FERA established a separate division for professional and nonconstruction projects. Project designers in the division for professional projects faced an enormous challenge in creating effective and meaningful work for unskilled women. In 1935 she became assistant administrator of the WPA, where she directed the income-earning projects of some 500,000 women.[3]


Soup line in Washington, DC, 1936
School lunch project, Fresno City, CA 1940

Poor people lacked enough food in the Depression, and farmers had too much. The mismatch was solved by the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC), FERA, and WPA programs which aimed to reduce farm surpluses by government purchase and then redistribution of food to the needy.Three methods of distribution were employed with varying success: direct distribution, food stamps, and school lunches.[4]

State and local studies


Mullins (1999) examines the hesitant relief efforts of Oklahoma City residents during the early years of the Depression, 1930–35, under Governor William H. Murray, emphasizing the community's reluctance to comply with FERA rules. Fearing that aid recipients would become dependent on their assistance, Oklahoma City administrators sparingly doled out federal and local relief funds; city leaders initiated a campaign to discourage migration into the city; local newspapers failed to print the location of soup lines; voters rejected a bond issue to bolster relief funds; and the city council declined to increase taxes to boost its depression relief budget. At issue was the control over FERA distribution imposed by Governor Murray, and lawmakers' reluctance to meet federal funding match assessments, despite a budget surplus in Oklahoma City and sufficient state funds to reduce property taxes. Although he criticized the welfare bureaucracy, Murray championed the state's yeoman farmers and took credit for the food, seed, and books that they received from federal funds. New Deal administrators ultimately removed Murray from his oversight role, charging corruption in aid distribution, failure to meet employment quotas, and the inability to determine local funding needs.[5]


In Nebraska, Democratic Governor Charles W. Bryan (brother of William Jennings Bryan and the party's Vice President nominee in 1924) was at first unwilling to request aid from the Hoover administration. When Roosevelt's FERA became law in 1933 Nebraska took part. Rowland Haynes, the state's emergency relief director, was the major force in implementing such national programs as the FERA and CWA. Robert L. Cochran, who became governor in 1935, was a "cautious progressive" who sought federal assistance and placed Nebraska among the first American states to adopt a social security law. The enduring impact of FERA and social security in Nebraska was to shift responsibility for social welfare from counties to the state, which henceforth accepted federal funding and guidelines. The change in state and national relations may have been the most important legacy of these New Deal programs in Nebraska.[6]

Tenant farmers

FERA made welfare payments to Southern

  • FERA Program description
  • University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections – Federal Emergency Relief Administration Photographs Essay on the program and images documenting the Federal Emergency Relief Administration program in King County, Washington, 1933-35.
  • ERA and FERA in Utah
  • Complete List of New Deal Communities, of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, the Resettlement Administration, and the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, from the National New Deal Preservation Association

External links

  • Hopkins, Harry L. Spending to save: the complete story of relief. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1936.
  • Kirk, J.S. ed.Emergency Relief in North Carolina a Record of the Development and the Activities of the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration 1932-1935 (1936) 544pp; complete text online
  • McElvaine, Robert S. Down & out in the Great Depression: Letters from the "Forgotten Man" (1983); letters to Harry Hopkins; online edition
Primary sources
  • Bremer William W. "Along the American Way: The New Deal's Work Relief Programs for the Unemployed." Journal of American History 62 (December 1975): 636-652. online at JSTOR
  • Brock William R. Welfare, Democracy and the New Deal (1988), a British view
  • Charles, Searle F. Minister of Relief: Harry Hopkins and the Depression (1963)
  • Hopkins, June. "The road not taken: Harry Hopkins and New Deal Work Relief." Presidential Studies Quarterly 29, 2(306-316). online edition
  • Howard, Donald S. The WPA and Federal Relief Policy (1943) full text online
  • Meriam; Lewis. Relief and Social Security The Brookings Institution. (1946). Highly detailed analysis and statistical summary of all New Deal relief programs; 900 pages online edition
  • Mertz, Paul. New Deal Policy and Southern Rural Poverty. (1978)
  • Sautter, Udo. "Government and Unemployment: The Use of Public Works before the New Deal," The Journal of American History, Vol. 73, No. 1 (Jun., 1986), pp. 59–86 in JSTOR
  • Sautter, Udo. Three Cheers for the Unemployed: Government and Unemployment before the New Deal (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Singleton, Jeff. The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression (2000) online edition; also excerpt and text search
  • Sternsher, Bernard. Rexford Tugwell and the New Deal (1964) online edition
  • Venkataramani, M. S. "Norman Thomas, Arkansas sharecroppers, and the Roosevelt agricultural policies, 1933–1937." Mississippi Valley Historical Review (1960) 47: 225–46. in JSTOR
  • Williams; Edward Ainsworth Federal Aid for Relief (1939) online edition

Further reading

  1. ^
  2. ^ . DAI 1984 45(3): 919-920-A. DA8412604 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ William H. Mullins, "In the midst of Adversity: the City, the Governor, and the FERA," Chronicles of Oklahoma (1999) 76(4): 374-391 and 77(1): 54-73. Issn: 0009-6024
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^


See also

Julius Stone, Jr., changed the economic direction of Key West, Florida, when he was the director of the southeast region of FERA. In 1934, Key West went bankrupt and state turned the city over to the FERA in a dubious constitutional move. Within two years, Stone had reversed the economic disaster and successfully moved the city into tourism.[8]

Key West


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