Virginia availed itself of these programs in spite of opposition from its political leaders. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA, provided food, clothing, and shelter for the neediest and work relief for the unemployed. More than 40,000 Virginians were employed on FERA projects building schools, roads, and sewer systems. Other FERA programs aided students, transients, and the rural poor. A Women’s Work Division provided jobs for women in libraries, sewing rooms, and mattress centers. Although FERA required matching funds from the states to help pay for these programs, Virginia never contributed. Its leaders argued that money spent to employ the jobless on highway construction was the equivalent of direct relief. FERA, therefore, wound up paying 92 percent of Virginia’s relief bill ($26 million), with localities paying the remaining amount. It assisted 500,000 Virginians during its two-year life.
Other New Deal work-relief programs included the Public Works Administration, or PWA; the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC; and the Civil Works Administration, or CWA. Focusing on larger construction projects in an effort to “pump prime” the economy, PWA built electric power plants, hospitals, public housing, and libraries, including Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and the State Library (now the Patrick Henry Building) in Richmond. It also funded the Colonial, Blue Ridge, and Skyline parkways.
Perhaps the most popular New Deal agency in Virginia was the CCC, which employed jobless young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five in the state’s forests. They planted trees, reduced fire hazards, improved wildlife conditions, stocked fish, and restored historical sites. They also created Virginia’s first statewide park system. Living in forest campsites, wearing uniforms, and supervised by military personnel, 65,000 Virginians received training that also would prepare them for service in the upcoming war.
Virginia homeowners were assisted by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, and the Federal Housing Administration, or FHA. HOLC refinanced mortgages to prevent foreclosures, while FHA loans enabled the building of new homes or the modernizing of the old ones. In a similar fashion, the Farm Credit Administration refinanced farm mortgages, adjusted farmers’ debts, and advanced loans for annual crop production.
The Agricultural Adjustment Administration, or AAA, addressed the problems of low crop prices and declining farm incomes. The domestic allotment plan of AAA attempted to raise crop prices by reducing production; farmers were paid not to plant a portion of their acreage. Senator Harry Flood Byrd Sr., a conservative Democrat and the state’s most powerful politician at this time, objected to the coercive nature of the plan, but Virginia farmers year after year overwhelmingly endorsed the AAA as they experienced improved prices and incomes. The tobacco control program proved particularly effective in raising prices. Larger farmers and landowners received most of the benefits, however, not sharecroppers and tenants. The New Deal did devise programs under the Resettlement Administration and later the Farm Security Administration to help poorer farmers resettle on more fertile land, buy the land they farmed and obtain credit to purchase stock and equipment, but these programs were inadequately financed and never reached a large number of subsistence farmers in the state. When the Supreme Court of the United States overturned the AAA in 1936, Congress responded with the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act that provided payments to farmers for employing conservation practices on their land, a mechanism that even Byrd applauded.
The major failure of the early New Deal was the National Recovery Administration, or NRA, which attempted to revive economic activity with a series of codes for each industry aimed at controlling production and prices and raising wages. After a flurry of enthusiasm for the “blue eagle,” the emblem that indicated an employer’s acceptance of the codes, NRA faded in the face of an abundance of ill-designed codes, too many bureaucrats, and too little trust between labor and management. Although NRA benefited Virginia’s workers, who enjoyed higher wages, it had little impact in the less industrialized regions of Virginia and was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
In 1935, Roosevelt initiated legislation, often called a “second New Deal,” to address some of the more deep-seated economic and social problems facing the nation, such as labor-management relations, welfare reform, and agricultural instability. Passage of the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act), strengthened workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively with management. This stimulated union activity in the state, resulting in a number of strikes, including a few of the infamous sit-down strikes that led to wage increases and forty-hour weeks in many Virginia plants.
To replace the dole of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration with jobs, Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. Since it required no matching state funds, Virginia’s political leaders could not obstruct its programs, which included building schools, roads, and airports; placing unemployed white-collar workers in art, writing, and music projects; and, through the National Youth Administration, or NYA, giving part-time jobs to young people to keep them in school. The Writers Project produced two noteworthy books: Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion and The Negro in Virginia. Although frequently confronted with charges of “leaf-raking” and wasteful expenditures, WPA was a life-saver for almost 100,000 Virginians, who earned $66 million during its eight-year lifetime. One student commented on the benefits of NYA: “It means employment for which I have been seeking long; it means encouragement; it means a new and brighter outlook on life.”
The inadequacy of private and state-supported programs for the elderly, the disabled, and the unemployed forced Roosevelt to create, over the opposition of Virginia’s two senators, a national Social Security program that established a pension system for the aged, unemployment insurance, and aid for dependent children and the disabled. Fearing high future costs, Virginia became the last state to join the Social Security program. Three years after Congress enacted the plan, Virginians began receiving benefits. Furthermore, in 1938 Congress established a twenty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage and a forty-four-hour workweek.
In that year Congress also passed the “permanent solution” to the farm problem—the “ever normal granary” bill that attempted to stabilize crop output with a combination of production and marketing controls, a program that endured well beyond the Roosevelt presidency. Furthermore, the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 brought electricity to Virginia’s farmers through the establishment of local electric cooperatives. This stimulated competition with private utilities that ultimately electrified the rural areas of the state, easing workloads, improving living standards, and diversifying economic activity. Said one farmer: “Getting electricity in 1937 made Fluvanna a nice place to live.”
Over the objections of Virginia’s leaders, the New Deal made a positive contribution to the state during the Great Depression, aiding almost every segment of Virginia’s society. The federal government fed and clothed the needy, improved the state’s physical infrastructure, helped farmers overcome the problem of overproduction, saved homes and farms, provided electricity for rural areas and recreation facilities for vacationers, and created a security net for the state’s neediest. A Virginia extension service agent stated: “One great value of these New Deal programs was to let the people know that someone cared and was doing something to try to help.”
The obstructions of the Byrd Organization, however, and the shortcomings of the New Deal programs limited their effectiveness in the state. The miserliness of state leaders left many citizens without adequate relief. Virginia agriculture, with its many subsistence farms, was not well-suited for the crop control programs of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. The AAA also inadequately addressed the forces of mechanization and agribusiness that threatened to eliminate the small family farm. Most of the programs were racially segregated, too, which usually left black Virginians with less than a fair share in relief funds and jobs. Virginia ranked twenty-seventh in New Deal spending, but only forty-third in per capita spending. The New Deal permitted survival and brightened horizons for many Virginians, but it did not challenge the social and political order; and the problems of unemployment and reduced business activity resisted solution until the spending of World War II.
Virginians divided their loyalties between Roosevelt and Byrd in the 1930s. Since Virginia was a one-party state, party loyalty demanded that both state and national Democrats be endorsed. They applauded the New Deal programs that were addressing the worst features of the depression, but they also continued to support the pay-as-you-go policies of the organization. The absence of party competition, Roosevelt’s missteps, including the court-packing scheme and party purges of the late 1930s, and a traditional self-help ethic for which Virginians were renowned, preserved Byrd’s leadership in the state.