One of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century was a social worker named Harry Hopkins who through public service committed himself to help impoverished and unemployed Americans.
Today, Hopkins’ work is forgotten by most politicians, pundits, political scientists, economists, and historians.
And though he is lost in the minds of many Americans, he is my personal hero and moral compass who opened my eyes to the endless possibilities of what a good government can do.
Will we ever see a Harry Hopkins in our lifetime?
Harry Hopkins was born in Iowa in 1890 into a modest Methodist family. After graduating from Grinnell College he moved to New York City and found work in a social settlement house in New York City's Lower East Side ghetto.
During the 1915 recession, Hopkins helped organize the Bronx Park Employment Program, which was one of the first government employment programs in the US.
Hopkins was then appointed by New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel to the Bureau of Child Welfare, which administered pensions to mothers with dependent children.
In 1931, as the great depression raged, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) appointed Hopkins to lead New York’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration that became a template for the federal government’s future job creation programs.
FDR’s Presidency 1933 - 1945
When FDR was sworn in as President in March 1933, the banking system had collapsed. People like my grandparents lost all their savings. Unemployment was everywhere.
Over the course of the 1930s, Hopkins helped managed these government programs that built America’s public works infrastructure by constructing over 900,000 miles of highways and roads, 40,000 schools, 12 million feet of sewer pipe, 2,500 hospitals, 12,000 playgrounds, 124,000 bridges, and 125,00 public buildings, along with many other investments in state and national parks, airports, and energy production facilities.
These federal programs created over 20 million jobs for Americans. A similar sized jobs and public works program with today’s population would be equivalent to creating over 52 million good paying jobs.
Our Cataclysm, Our Responsibility
Both Republicans and Democrats have presided over fifty years of growing inequality, labor union decline, cartelization, deindustrialization, and asset stripping of public works and infrastructure.
Over 150 million Americans are now a five-hundred dollar emergency away from total ruin. The financier class has never been richer while the majority of working class Americans are in a hole that is being dug deeper every year.
The reality is grim.
Yet we must band together, understand what the past makes possible, and organize today for a better future.
We all have a responsibility to build a new America that is better than now and better than before. As Hopkins wrote, “...failure sometimes is the first step to success and success is only another form of failure if we forget what our priorities should be.”
Where is Harry Hopkins today?
I see his spirit in tens of millions of people who act with a humane attitude toward all facets of life. We just need to agree on our priorities.