Poverty and Unemployment in New York City

  • June Hopkins
Part of the The World of the Roosevelts book series (WOOROO)


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, New York City presented a political arena for energetic social workers faced with a myriad of new problems arising from industrialization and increased immigration. There Harry Hopkins came into contact with politically active progressive reformers. Many of these men and women vociferously blamed the eastern industrialists and financiers for the country’s economic and social ills and called for positive government action to correct an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity. The echoes here of Midwestern populism must have been unmistakable to Hopkins.1 But unlike the populists, these urban reformers had a comprehensive plan for social action. Reformers such as Lillian Wald, Homer Folks, John Kingsbury, William Matthews, Mary Dewson, Frances Perkins, and now Harry Hopkins were part of a tightly knit, interactive coterie of New York City welfare administrators who were later called upon by President Franklin Roosevelt to implement his New Deal programs.2 They brought from their diverse backgrounds common social, religious, political, and economic precepts that both shaped and reflected progressive values. Their shared experiences working in private and public social welfare agencies in New York City instilled in them a new attitude toward poverty. Blaming poverty on structural defects inherent in a capitalist society, they created preventive rather than ameliorative programs to help the needy.


York City Unemployment Insurance Unemployed Worker Work Relief Unemployment Problem 
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  1. 1.
    Robert Bremner, From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 1956), 107; Franklin Roosevelt, Looking Forward (New York: John Day and Co., 1933), 22, 47.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    William W. Bremer, Depression Winter: New York City Social Workers and the New Deal (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984), 1.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Lillian Brandt, The Growth and Development of the AICP and the COS (A Preliminary and Exploratory Review) (New York: Community Service Society of New York, 1942), 3.Google Scholar
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    Roy Lubove, The Professional Altruist: The Emergence of Social Work as a Career 1880–1930 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 3; Bremner, 69. See also Charles Loring Brace, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them, Montclair, N.J.: P. Smith, 1967, reprint of the 3rd ed., 1880.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Edwin R. Lewinson, John Purroy Mitchel: The Boy Mayor of New York (New York: Astra Books, 1965), 88–147. Mitchel ran against Tammany candidate Edward E. McColl. According to Lewinson, Mitchel believed “that efficient government would serve the needs of the people so well that they would never again elect inefficient machine politics.” Lewinson, 110.Google Scholar
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    This request for a survey shows how the AICP had changed its attitude toward the unemployed over the years. In 1873 the NYAICP had called unemployed workers demonstrating for public jobs “a vast hydra-headed class” ready to “strike at property and all we value most.” The association referred to demonstrators as “whining… whimpering… loafing… lazy.” In December 1873 New York City police clubbed thousands of unemployed workers who were in Thompkins Square agitating for public works. See Herbert Gutman, “The Failure of the Movement by the Unemployed for Public Works in 1873,” Political Science Quarterly 70 (June 1965), 256.Google Scholar
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    Leah Hannah Feder, Unemployment Relief in Periods of Depression: A Study of Measures Adopted in Certain American Cities, 1857 Through 1922 (New York: Russell Sage, 1936), 289. In the 1890s the New York East Side Relief Committee planned work-relief for some neighborhoods under the direction of Josephine Shaw Lowell. Similar programs were undertaken in other cities, such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Hartford, during the depressions of 1915 and 1921. The AICP repeated its park program in 1921 and also began a subway employment program. See Philip Klein, The Burden of Unemployment: A Study of Unemployment Relief Measures in Fifteen American Cities, 1921–22 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1923); Samuel Rezneck two articles that describe earlier and less successful attempts at work-relief, “Distress, Relief, and Discontent in the United States During the Depression of 1873–1878,” Journal of Political Economy (December 1950): 499–502, and “Unemployment, Unrest, and Relief in the United States During the Depression of 1893–1897,” Journal of Political Economy (August 1953): 330–337.Google Scholar
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    William H. Matthews, “These Past Five Years,” Survey Midmonthly (March 1938), unpaginated, ACSS, 47: 321.Google Scholar
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    Feder, 289–290; William H. Matthews, Adventures in Giving (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1939), 108–109. Matthews’ exaggeration can be explained only by his enthusiasm for the project.Google Scholar

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© June Hopkins 1999

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  • June Hopkins

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