The New Deal and North Dakota: A Special Report
In 1932 the American people and North Dakotans elected Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt as president. He promised the nation a New Deal. The depression was so severe that local and state governments were unable to remedy the crisis. Only the power of the federal government could fight the great depression. Federal spending and programs were the twin governmental responses.
The farmers of North Dakota, like those of the nation, needed immediate help. The depression was driving farmers off the land. In June 1933 Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act - one of the first pieces of major New Deal legislation. The act established the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) which had the responsibility for raising farm prices by restricting production of crops. In return for cutting production, the farmer received a “benefit check.” For example, wheat farmers received about 30 cents a bushel on 54 percent of their average production. When the Supreme Court declared AAA unconstitutional, immediately Congress passed the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act which provided for benefits to farmers who would reduce acreage of soil-depleting crops and take steps to rebuild the land. In 1937 Congress enacted a new Agricultural Adjustment Act which maintained the soil-conservation idea and provided direct support to prices. All three acts were designed to provide the farmer with “equality” or “parity” to bring farm prices more in line with the prices the farmer had to pay for goods.
“Many farmers are going to have to depend on this money for a large part of their food and fuel,” declared J. H. Langford, the first North Dakota farmer to receive a wheat benefit payment. “There won’t be much of this left in another month or two and for whatever purpose the money may be used, it will stimulate business in the territory.” Langford who had farmed in Griggs County for 44 years was, like most farmers, happy about the program. “I certainly think the allotment plan is all right. I believe they are sincere in their efforts to help us and their program will be successful if it is given the proper backing.” Between 1933 and 1940, farm programs paid the state’s farmers over $142 million.
The severity of Depression, however, called for more than just aid for the farmer. In the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) Congress appropriated $500 million to battle the depression. Because of severe drought and crop failures, the people of North Dakota welcomed the outpouring of federal relief. During the two-year period of FERA, 1933-1935, North Dakotans received almost $25 million for work relief, direct relief, emergency education, and college-student aid. When FERA began in July 1932 only 5.5 percent of North Dakota’s population needed government financial aid. After 1933, however, crop failures forced thousands more North Dakotans on relief. By spring 1934 FERA funds went to one in every three North Dakotans, and throughout that year the state had a higher percentage of the population on relief than any other state. By July 1935, when FERA was terminated, North Dakota was second only to New Mexico in percentage of population receiving federal assistance.
Although direct cash relief was available throughout the life of FERA, the program encouraged work. FERA work-relief projects touched all parts of North Dakota. Projects dealt with small construction and road improvement. During its two years, the FERA work program in North Dakota built 2,300 miles of road, 114 dams, 60 bridges, 30 wells, almost 1,000 outhouses, 14 swimming pools, 11 playgrounds, 88 tennis courts, 32 golf courses, 108 skating rinks, 40 baseball fields, 30 airports, and 23 parks.
Not all FERA work programs dealt with construction. It supported endeavors such as recreation, immunization of children against disease, historical research, and hot lunches. FERA sponsored statewide smallpox immunization for 55,000 children whose parents had no money. During five months in 1935, FERA served 600,000 hot lunches to school children in 1,000 North Dakota schools.
North Dakotans benefited immensely from the other help programs. The Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) distributed surplus beef, veal, pork, cereals, and fruit to the destitute. Surplus cotton was used to make clothing, mattresses, and towels. To those who faced starvation, the surplus commodities program meant the difference between life and death. In all, the programs brought North Dakotans over $8 million worth of goods and produce. FERA programs brought $35 million to the aid of North Dakotans. To a state where one-third of its population faced ruin, the FERA played a paramount role in keeping North Dakotans alive. The Civil Works Administration also ran work projects. At its peak the North Dakota program employed about 35,000 people in a variety of work projects, most of which were similar to those of FERA. In Minot, 600 men worked on a new sewer system. In Walsh County 363 men labored on road construction. In Griggs County 100 men shoveled snow off the highways after a blizzard. In Olga School District 24 men dug cesspools for the schools; in Bismarck 400 men repaired school buildings. At Langdon, two sewing units made mittens, surgical nightgowns, sheets, and other garments.
The young were not forgotten. The Civilian Conservation Corps began to furnish work and training to young men and war veterans who were unemployed and to carry out a nationwide conservation program. CCC enrollees improved forests and parks, helped control soil erosion, developed recreational areas, worked on flood control projects, and assisted in the protection of wildlife. In North Dakota men from every county participated in the program, and by 1940 over 30,000 had taken part. They earned $30 a month of which $25 was sent home to their families. About $10 million went home to needy families as a result of CCC work in the state. Most North Dakota projects focused on parks, dams building, and tree planting. CCC helped develop the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and completed many important water-control projects. FERA, CWA, and CCC aided thousands of North Dakotans. These New Deal programs fed, clothed, and provided security to half the state’s population, pumped over $50 million into the state’s economy and lifted the spirits of the people.
In 1935 the New Deal created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the fall and winter of 1936-1937 almost 53,000 North Dakotans found work on WPA projects. WPA workers earned about $40 a month for working 100 hours. Much of the work that WPA carried on concerned the construction of bridges, sewer systems, public buildings, highways, and sidewalks. By 1940 WPA had built 13,643 miles of highway, 465 bridges and 425 new public buildings. Each county had a WPA sewing project. The program employed 800 women, who produced garments for distribution to the needy.
Most communities participated in WPA recreational programs, and many had WPA-sponsored bands. WPA offered literacy classes and vocational courses in electricity. WPA employees served almost a million hot lunches and repaired a half-million library books. The WPA Federal Writers Project prepared an excellent book, North Dakota: A Guide to the Prairie State (1938).
The New Deal created the National Youth Administration. It provided part-time employment for students between the ages of 16 and 25. High school students could earn up to $6 per month, college students up to $20, and graduate students up to $30. Most students did light construction or library and research work. Non-school youth between the ages of 18 and 25 could earn an average of $16 per month working for local public agencies. The program invested about $2 million in North Dakota youth. The average value of farmland per acre fell from $22 in 1930 to $12 in 1940. Per capita income was less than half of the national average. The depression cost the state’s farmers over $1 billion. Population declined as thousands sought a better life elsewhere. Between 1935 and 1940, 86,699 North Dakotans fled the state. And by 1940 the population had dropped to 642,000. Farm population decreased 17 percent. Tied to a one-crop economy, North Dakotans fell victim to drought. The depression was severe, but the drought delivered the knockout punch. North Dakota could not have survived without huge federal subsidy. The federal government became the state’s main business during the Thirties. Federal programs spent $266 million in the state between 1933 and 1940. Citizens occasionally grumbled about the massive bureaucracy which had enveloped them, but they also realized that federal money meant survival.
By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton
Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.