Harry Hopkins was born in Iowa. As a child, his family moved to Nebraska then to Chicago, then back to Iowa where Hopkins attended Grinnell College. After graduation in 1912 he took a job with Christodora House, a settlement house, in the pre-hipster Lower East Side of New York City. From there he shifted to a position at the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. In 1915, the mayor appointed him executive secretary of the Bureau of Child Welfare which administered what we would now call welfare payments to single mothers but at the time was understood as pensions for widows with dependent children. He then became the director of the Gulf Region of the American Red Cross, and then in 1921 the Gulf Region was merged with the Southeast Region and he ran the whole thing out of Atlanta. In 1922, he moved back to the city and took the helm at the New York Tuberculosis Association and helped expend the outfit and merge it with the New York Heart Association.
He stayed in this position for nine years until, in 1931, New York Governor Franklin Roosevelt but Jesse Straus in charge of an agency called the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Straus hired Hopkins as executive director, and about a year later Hopkins replaced Straus as President of TERA beginning his long association with FDR.
FDR, obviously, became president soon after this. Hopkins was a hugely important figure in the New Deal as the administrator relief and jobs programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). He was also a hugely influential political adviser to Roosevelt to whom the apocryphal strategy “We will tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect” is typically attributed. In December of 1938, the post of Secretary of Commerce was added to Hopkins’ portfolio. In practice, however, his work in this job was largely overshadowed by his FERA/WPA gigs and his role as a political adviser. At this same period, Harold Ickes was dual-hatted as Secretary of Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Ickes/Hopkins clashes of the perogatives of Interior-PWA and Commerce-WPA were legendary.
Even before U.S. entry into World War II, FDR began to shift his attention from the New Deal to the fight against Nazism. As such, Hopkins was shifted out of the Commerce job and sent overseas as an unofficial emissary to Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin as well as to a key role in the Lend-Lease program.