The Situation in Austin at the Onset of the Depression
Despite dreams of city founders to the contrary and some efforts to make it so, Austin was not an industrial manufacturing center at this point in its history. With respect to the Great Depression, this was a blessing. The economic collapse impacted industrial manufacturing areas to a much, much greater extent than those areas that were still primarily agricultural. This is not to say that agriculture was not hurt but simply that manufacturing was hit far worse - people could do without manufactured goods far longer than they could without food. Some areas of the northeast, the most industrialized region of the nation, suffered staggering levels of unemployment. While the overall national unemployment level stood at approximately 25%, over 40% of manufacturing laborers suffered extended unemployment. Some cities were absolutely devastated. For instance, Gary, Indiana witnessed over 60% unemployment. Austin escaped this kind of disaster. There simply were not many manufacturing jobs in the city.
With respect to the Depression, Austin benefitted beyond measure from two foundations to its local economy which, while not "depression-proof", helped mitigate the impact of the disaster. First, Austin was the seat of state government . Because of declining revenue, the state did reorganize departments to prune the bureaucracy, lay off workers, and slash salaries. Nonetheless, state government simply could not shut down entirely. This ensured jobs and payroll income which other cities in the state of Texas did not have. Second, Austin was home to the University of Texas, the largest public university in the Lone Star state. Economic conditions forced administrators to cut jobs and salaries but the University didn't simply dry up and blow away. Indeed, student population would double during the 1930s from just over 5,000 students to in excess of 10,000. Worried that the University's physical plant was inadequate for such an increase, officials convinced Texas voters in 1930 to approve a constitutional amendment permitting the school to borrow against the Permanent University Fund. With this reliable source of revenue, UT launched the largest building program in its history in 1930. A total of thirty new structures were erected during the next decade. The University benefitted from the financial support of FDR's New Deal. Programs, such as the Public Works Administration, designed to attack unemployment allowed the University to secure even more revenue.
Overall, Austin, then, was in pretty good shape as the Great Depression began. Workers at the University and the state capitol complex constituted one-third of the city's total payroll. The presence of over 5,000 students semester after semester (with the prospects of even more) guaranteed the reliable infusion of desperately-needed revenue to the city. Students had to continue to spend on housing, food, entertainment, and supplies, making local merchants' registers ring. The construction program on the University campus - in conjunction with building projects undertaken by Travis County, the City of Austin, and the public school district - limited the unemployment problem and pumped funds into the local economy.
Unemployment however was a problem by 1931. In response, municipal leaders opened relief operations to house and feed those in need. The number on relief rolls would double and double again by 1932. Thus citizens of the capital city gladly welcomed the work programs of the New Deal launched during the Hundred Days legislative revolution of 1933.
CIVILIAN CONSERVATION CORPS
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was one of the first initiatives undertaken by the new Roosevelt administration in 1933. The program, designed to relieve unemployment among young men whose families were on relief (welfare) rolls, was based on a number of precedents and goals. Among these were the conservation movement which had begun during the Progressive reform era, the Boy Scouts, the summer camp tradition, and an early version of what later became the National Guard. Organized along military lines, the CCC accepted the applications of young men who wished to do conservation and reforestation work throughout the country in return for room and board and a salary of $1 a day or $30 a month. Of this monthly sum, recruits were allowed to keep only $5; the remainder was sent directly to their families back home in hopes of moving them off welfare rolls. If successful, not only would the program reduce unemployment levels but would additionally benefit the economy by injecting funds into local economies for the purchase of food, clothing, supplies, etc.
CCC camps were established across the state of Texas in quick order. Recruits undertook various reforestation and conservation projects in the Piney Woods of East Texas where national forests had been set aside. Across the entire nation, eighty percent of all trees planted during the Depression decade of the Thirties were put in the ground by CCCers. In the Lone Star state, officials quickly embraced the program in hopes that the young laborers, paid by the federal government, could be used to construct a state park system that would not only provide recreational opportunities for Texans but would also help relieve the Depression's impact. All told, nearly fifty state parks were established using the CCC. Area examples, which are still in operation today, include: Bastrop State Park, Longhorn Caverns, and Blanco State Park. The boys also developed Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle and Big Bend National Park in the TransPecos section of the state.
The City of Austin also utilized the CCC to develop its own park system. In 1933, the Civilian Works Administration, another of the early New Deal work programs, had done construction work on land donated by Andrew Zilker for a park along the southern bank of the Colorado River surrounding Barton Springs. CWA personnel had erected the art deco style entrance gate, built the bath house facility, and fashioned what is today Zilker Clubhouse. During the mid- and latter 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps laid out roads in the park, cleared the land of its native cedar and brush, and built picnic tables and barbeque pits. Further to the northwest along the banks of the Colorado River, troops of CCC workers did much the same kind of work at City Park, known today as Emma Long Metropolitan Park.
PUBLIC WORKS ADMINISTRATION
Of all of the New Deal's efforts to eliminate unemployment, perhaps none had a more profound and lasting impact on Austin and Central Texas than the Public Works Administration (PWA), headed by Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Unlike other programs which actually hired, supervised, and paid workers, PWA was a lending agency which made long-term low interest loans and outright grants to other governmental entities throughout the United States for construction projects which would lessen unemployment levels. PWA, then, was a financing mechanism rather than an employment program. Some of the biggest construction projects ever undertaken in the history of the country, i.e. Boulder/Hoover Dam, were made possible only with PWA funding.
The State of Texas, the Lower Colorado River Authority, the City of Austin, A.I.S.D., etc. all borrowed tens of millions of dollars from PWA for various construction projects. The impact was as intended. Thousands of Central Texas laborers escaped relief rolls, founded employment, earned and infused desperately-needed revenue into the regional economy, and built edifices and structures which still greatly impact life today.
Central Texas examples include:
WORKS PROGRESS ADMINISTRATION
Launched in 1935 as part of a second New Deal, the Works Progress (WPA) Administration was FDR's most massive employment effort to combat the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1942, over 7 million Americans worked on over 250,000 separate WPA projects across the nation. The program cost a phenomenal $11 billion during its lifetime. Most of that went to innumerable construction projects including schools, airports, highways, bridges, parks, etc.
There was, however, a softer and much more controversial component to WPA which funneled federal funds to the arts. Known as Federal One, the effort was composed of four programs: the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Writers Project.
The Federal Theatre Project, where such famous entertainers as Orson Welles, John Huston, E. G. Marshall, Will Geer, Burt Lancaster, and John Houseman first honed their skills, put on free theatrical productions attended by over 30 million citizens nationwide. Its offerings ranged from popular musicals and Shakesperean dramas to children's plays and puppet shows. It did present some blatantly partisan works, such as "Revolt of the Beavers" and "It Can't Happen Here". This left it open to charges that it was dominated by radicals and left-wingers. The Federal Theatre Project was eventually shut down in 1939 because of such charges by the House Un-American Activities Committee chaired by Texas congressman Martin Dies, Jr..
The other arts programs were much less controversial but were nonetheless criticized as absolutely unnecessary "make work". One joke making the rounds among WPA critics was that the initials were actually an acronym for "We Piddle Around".
State and Central Texas Examples:
NATIONAL YOUTH ADMINISTRATION
The National Youth Administration was launched by FDR at Eleanor Roosevelt's urging in 1935. Its objective was to provide part-time employment to students to help them remain in school. Those who had already dropped out or had finished their education were also offered jobs by the NYA in order to reduce the unemployment of young people throughout the United States. The program not only helped tens of thousands to continue their education; the program also represented the salvation of a number of schools which otherwise would have been ruined by falling enrollment levels.
State and Central Texas examples:
Austin, as well as the state of
Texas, did incredibly well in the political in-fighting for assistance
from the New Deal. The major reason was able political leadership. The
city was represented in the United States House of Representatives by Congressman
James P. "Buck" Buchanan of Brenham until 1937. Buchanan was able to use
his power as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, through which
every spending bill had to pass, to bring home the bacon by the trainload
for the residents of his district. When Buchanan died of a heart attack
in early 1937, he was replaced by the youthful and energetic Lyndon B.
Johnson. What power Johnson lacked as a freshman congressman, he more than
made up for in aggressiveness. Simply put, LBJ applied for everything in
sight. The same was true for Tom Miller, the pro-New Deal mayor of Austin
through the Depression years. If the federal government was offering, "Mayor
Tom" was accepting. This resulted in Austin getting a disproportionate
share of federal largesse. Buchanan, Johnson, and Miller were effective,
in part, because they worked cooperatively with other Texans of power in
Washington, D. C. including Vice-President John Nance Garner, Reconstruction
Finance Corporation director Jesse Jones, and the chairs of a dozen congressional
committees. The results were staggering. Before the New Deal came to an
end, the federal government spent a total of $1.4 billion in the state
of Texas. This was more than all other states in the union save New York,
Pennsylvania, and Illinois - all far more populous than Texas.
© L. Patrick Hughes, 1999