Federal Emergency Relief Administration

Written By David J. Koon

Signed into law on May 12, 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) was a New Deal government-spending program established to give direct cash assistance to the impoverished.  Different from work relief agencies such as the National Recovery Administration and the Public Works Administration, which created jobs for the unemployed, FERA initially offered only short-term subsistence support. FERA’s poor design coupled with its low per-capita grants failed to assuage the effects of the Great Depression in North Carolina.

Although similar to a program formed under President Herbert Hoover, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s FERA was the first agency to give citizens direct assistance during the Great Depression.  FDR believed short-term direct relief was necessary, for jobs were largely unavailable.  He appointed his close friend and confidant, Harry L. Hopkins, a New York social worker, to head the agency.  Hopkins distributed FERA funds to the states during the agency’s existence from 1933 to 1935.  

Under the program, states applied for block grants from FERA.  Several criteria determined the amount of aid a state would receive: (1) the state’s relief needs, (2) the state’s good-faith efforts to ensure supervision of the aid, (3) measures already taken by the state for relief, and (4) the manner in which the state would use the requested funds.  If granted aid, the state then matched the allotted amount and distribute the money among the populace as needed. Governor John C. B. Ehringhaus appointed Annie Land O’Berry to lead the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration.  Along with 220 state office employees and a few thousand county officials, she distributed approximately $40 million to North Carolinians.

Of the $40 million, the state of North Carolina paid $1.5 million.  Governor Ehringhaus was unwilling to request that the General Assembly match FERA funds, for he believed that North Carolina, when funding government agencies, had already shouldered more than its fair share of the New Deal burden.  Hopkins threatened to withdraw federal aid, yet he soon understood that this action undermined the President’s goal.  So, Hopkins yielded and agreed–even if reluctantly–to cover nearly all costs.  In return, North Carolina transferred $1.5 million from the state highway fund yet refused to increase taxes specifically to sustain FERA.  Local governments provided an additional $679,310.46. During its tenure, the FERA supported approximately 300,000 impoverished North Carolinians per month–nearly 10% of the total state population.

For two reasons, these funds provided insignificant short-term relief.   First, the per-capita benefit for relief, given the circumstances, was too small.  At the time, most North Carolinians lived an agrarian lifestyle.  The average relief benefit per-capita from 1933 to 1935 was $26.54. Because the government mandated that unskilled workers be paid a daily wage of at least $0.50, farmers could not afford to hire sufficient labor to work their fields. As a result, the state’s economic misery continued.  Second, fewer North Carolinians accepted financial assistance than were qualified to receive it.  Still influenced by agrarian values, North Carolinians and Americans cherished independence and self-reliance, and many families refused government assistance.  President Roosevelt disliked the program, too, and wanted to “quit this business.”   Recognizing the problem, Hopkins restructured FERA to include a work relief division—the Civil Works Administration—to distribute welfare to citizens without damaging their self-worth and sense of rugged individualism.

On November 9th, 1933, an executive order created the Civil Works Administration (CWA) to provide aid to citizens who labored on public works projects.  The CWA was planned to be short-lived and last only through the 1933-1934 winter.  The agency employed approximately 34,000 North Carolinians.  These workers improved or constructed North Carolina sewage systems, schools, bridges, roads, sidewalks, and other public infrastructure. In Spring 1934, the CWA was disbanded, and the FERA was reorganized.  

Following the restructuring, the FERA consisted of three divisions: social service, public works, and rural rehabilitation.  Under these divisions, the FERA organized a fishing cooperative, constructed freezing and processing plants on the coastal plain, created a cattle program, started a vagrancy program, conducted survey and research projects, and cooperated with other agencies on their programs. In 1935, the FERA was disbanded, and most responsibilities of the administration were incorporated into the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal agencies. 

The FERA’s program of direct cash assistance was abandoned, and work relief programs were embraced thereafter. Though it supported thousands of North Carolinians, the FERA’s effectiveness in North Carolina was minimal.