Harry Hopkins, Address on federal relief delivered at a WPA luncheon (September 19, 1936). From "Address at WPA Luncheon," Harry L. Hopkins Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Excerpted by Michael Maiorana.
I am going to discuss with you very briefly some of the things that have happened to me in the last three or four years, and some of the things that would have happened to you if you had had this job. You didn't have it — you could sit around your dinner table and discuss these things — about what you would and would not do. "What a terrible fellow this bird Hopkins is." But if you had had my job you would have had to sign on a dotted line — you would have had to put it in writing. You would have had to say "yes" or "no" and you would have had to make a lot of decisions, and furthermore you would have had to make these decisions fast. People were hungry. Twenty-two million of them in the United States. You would have had to decide who should and who should not get relief. Would you give relief to everybody that knocked on the door and asked for it, and would you make an investigation of their need, and what kind of an investigation? Investigators that these people had never seen in their lives would go in and ask whether they had a bank account or an insurance policy — how far behind they were in their rent, did they have any relatives. If a man had an insurance policy for $200 would you make him cash it in? If he had $100 in a savings bank — every dime he had — would he have to take it out and spent it before you gave him relief?
The idea was to make these people as uncomfortable as possible. Of all the outrageous things that were done to American people, treating these people like outcasts. Behind that is a moral philosophy, if anyone is poor it's because something is wrong with them. Give them just as little relief as possible so you won't encourage them. They want these unemployed to walk up timidly and knock on the door, and why should they? It is no fault of their own that they are out of work, and it is the business of society to take care of them. It shouldn't be done as an act of degradation. I made up my mind early in this game that relief was a matter of right and not a matter of charity.
You would have had to decide about 560,000 white collar men. You would have had to decide what kind of work you were going to give them. Would you make them suffer? Would you put them out in a ditch with a pick axe and make them like it, musicians, actors? We decided to take the skills of these people wherever we found them and put them to work to save their skills when the public wanted them. Sure we put musicians into orchestras. Sure we let artists paint. It was all right for the great foundations to give fellowships to artists, but when the United States Government did it because these fellows were busted and broke, it became a waste of money. There must have been some men or women in this town who have put up money for a great orchestra. Now we have been doing the same things when the arts no longer have a patron.
IV. [Interlude I]
I think it is an outrage that we should permit hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people to be ill clad, to live in miserable homes, not to have enough to eat; not to be able to send their children to school for the only treason that they are poor. I don't believe ever again in America are we going to permit the things to happen that have happened in the past to people. We are never going back again, in my opinion, to the days of putting the old people in the alms houses, when a decent dignified pension at home will keep them there. We are coming to the day when we are going to have decent houses for the poor, when there is genuine and real security for everybody. I have gone all over the moral hurdles that people are poor because they are bad. I don't believe it.
Every night when you went home and remembered there was a telegram you didn't answer, the fact that you failed to answer the telegram and the telephone call may have resulted in somebody not eating. That is the kind of a job I have had for the last three and a half years, and still have. I don't know whether you would have liked the job. When this thing is all over and I am out of the Government the things I am going to regret are the things I have failed to do for the unemployed.
VII. [Interlude II]
When it is all over, the thing I am going to be proudest of are the people all over America, public officials, volunteers, paid workers, thousands of people of all political and religious faiths who joined in this enterprise of taking care of people in need. It has been a great thing I am not ashamed of one of them and I hope when I am through they are not going to be ashamed of me, and as I go around this country and see the unemployment and see the people who are running this show of ours, I am tremendously proud of this country of ours and I am tremendously proud that I am a citizen of it.