25 October 2023

Using the 1940 Census to Find Emergency Relief Workers

Did you know that the 1940 United States Census can tell you if a person was employed in emergency work, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Works Progress Administration (WPA), or the National Youth Administration (NYA)?

The 1940 census was the first census taken as the United States was coming out of the depression era. Many people were still suffering from the stock market crash of 1929. The agricultural industry was suffering from a drought. Unemployment was high, families were hurting.

Emergency relief agencies were created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help the unemployed as part of the New Deal. Roosevelt wanted to "put people to work."  Three agencies were formed.

Harold Fredricks working at the Brethren, Michigan CCC camp. Photo in the collection of Brenda Leyndyke.

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was the first agency formed. Young, single men, ages 18 to 23, submitted applications through their local welfare offices. Veterans were encouraged to apply through the Veteran's Administration regional office. Any veteran could apply regardless of age or marital status. Selected men had to be in good physical condition and records are available to attest to this at the National Archives in St. Louis.  Men worked forty hour weeks, five days a week. The men received $30, assistant leaders $36, and leaders $45 per month. A portion of their pay was sent home. The work the men performed varied depending on location. Some of the projects the men were involved in were reforestation, soil conservation, fish and wildlife aid, construction of recreational areas, emergency rescue, erecting telephone lines, constructing dams, and providing assistance to those affected by floods, blizzards, hurricanes, and forest fires.   

The CCC newspapers are available online. A list can be found at the Ancestor Hunt blog. The National Archives has a guide for "Records of the Civilian Conservation Corps" that includes the record group numbers needed for research. 

A United States map with CCC camp numbers per state is available. It gives information on the number of men enrolled and where the camp is located. For example, Michigan had 11,800 men at 59 camps. 14 camps were on National Forests, 42 on State Forests, and 3 on State Parks.

Spanish-American woman spinning woolen thread at WPA (Works Progress Administration/Work Projects Administration) project. Costilla, New Mexico. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, DC.

Works Progress Administration (WPA)
 allowed men and women to sign up for the program. Only one person per household could work at any given time. Workers had to apply and be certified. They had to be at least 18 years of age. Work hours were 130 hours a month and no one could work more than 8 hours a day. Microfilmed records are available at the National Archives in St. Louis, but aren't as rich as the CCC ones. Projects varied but included things like building ski lodges, airports, schools, hospitals, public buildings, golf courses, zoos, campgrounds, the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. Some sewed clothing, made mattresses, grew medicinal herbs for pharmaceuticals, taught classes to children and adults, provided school lunches to malnourished children, delivered books by "packhorse libraries" to people in remote locations, and established electricity in rural locations.

Genealogists are familiar with the Historical Records Survey conducted by WPA workers. You may even have used materials from this work. WPA workers visited courthouses, archives, city and town halls, libraries, historical societies, and more to inventory and transcribe the records found. 

The records I have seen and used include cemetery transcriptions, census indexes, county courthouse inventories, and church record inventories. Other records inventoried by the WPA workers include naturalization records indexes, newspaper indexes, manuscript collections found, and historical narratives of minorities in a project called American Folklore Project. Records were published and can be found in many larger libraries. Your local library may have the resources for your area.

There are excellent articles for you to read to learn more about the WPA and its projects. One is on the Historical Records Survey Others can be found at Cyndi's List on her WPA page.

From National Youth Administration (NYA) to Washington navy yard. Beginning as a helper at $4.56 a day in the Washington navy yard, Miss Juanita E. Gray graduate trainee of the National Youth Adminstration War Production and Training Center now earns $45 a week. More than 300 NYA trained African American women are now working in the Washington navy yard and scores are being added monthly. Courtesy of Library of Congress Print and Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

National Youth Association was created for the youth of America. It was operated under the management of the Works Progress Administration. High school and college age students were part time employees. Employment opportunites included working in cancer research; flood control studies; agricultural experimentation; refurbishing furniture; health care; construction of recreational facilities; automotive repair; building maintenance; landscaping of public grounds; library services; forestry and soil work; and national defense and industry training (e.g., aviation mechanics)4

Now that you know what the emergency relief programs did, you can check the 1940 United States Census to see if any relatives worked for one. Two questions relating to employment status were asked on this census about emergency work. They were both to be asked of those fourteen and older:

  1. Was this person AT WORK for pay or profit in private or nonemergency Gov't. work during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No).
  2. If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC, etc.) during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No). (1940 Census Questions)
The New Deal programs were a great asset to the citizens of the United States. It helped many people survive the depression area. Check the 1940 Census for your family members and see the question about Emergency Work was yes.

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