Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA)

by Trudy Goldberg, Chair, National Jobs for All Coalition

In January 1931, newly reelected New York State Governor Franklin Roosevelt declared that the national economic emergency demanded new solutions for new problems. Under authority granted to him by the New York State Legislature in Extraordinary Session, the Governor Roosevelt created the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA) in October 1931, with an appropriation of $20 million for emergency relief of the unemployed. The state legislature, prodded by Roosevelt, allocated an additional $5 million for work relief programs. This tided the project over until the voters approved by a margin of 4 to 1 a $30 million bond issue in November 1932. Roosevelt set a precedent by creating a new agency to meet a new problem. He said  that  extending aid to impoverished citizens was not a matter of charity but of “social duty.”TERA both assisted local welfare agencies and undertook its own employment projects.

Roosevelt appointed a three-person Administration for TERA consisting of  Jesse  I. Straus, president of R. H. Macy department stores as chairman, Philip J. Wickser, a prominent Buffalo attorney,  and John Sullivan, president of the New York State Federation of Labor. Harry L. Hopkins, director of the New York Tuberculosis and Health Association, was chosen as director. Hopkins had been involved in a work relief project that used private funds to hire the unemployed for work in the New York City parks. Both Roosevelt and Hopkins were committed to jobs as a solution to the state’s economic problems. They preferred it to welfare because it preserved the dignity, morale and skills of the unemployed.

Hopkins concentrated on creating an efficient and effective work-relief program for unemployed industrial workers in New York, one that could set an example for other states. In directing TERA projects, Hopkins made sure that they were consonant with economic needs as well as prevailing cultural attitudes. He insisted on socially useful projects that would neither replace nor duplicate normal municipal functions nor interfere with private industry. One such project that put boys from the slums to work preserving New York State forests became a model for the federal Civilian Conservation Corps.

A study of TERA conducted during a six-month period shows the following types of projects:

Highways                                        41
Sanitation                                       16
Water Supply                                   7
Parks and Playgrounds                12
Utilities and Structures                 8
General Public Improvements     3
Clerical and Professional             11
Miscellaneous Jobs                        2

The wages were paid in cash and set at the prevailing rate for the type of work performed. Because of limited funds, Hopkins required a means test for applicants and limited jobs to one person per household. Direct relief was provided in kind through orders for food, clothing, shelter, medical care and fuel, which recipients turned in at local retail stores. Home relief cost less than work relief, which not only paid cash wages at the prevailing rate but also required additional expenditures for planning, supervision, materials. and the like. Fifty-two percent of expenditures went for work relief and 48% for home relief.

TERA was a model, perhaps a dress rehearsal for the national programs, also directed by Harry Hopkins, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA)  and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).