To Build a Nation and a People: FDR and the WPA

Apr 8, 2013David B. Woolner

Today's Congress needs to step up as it did in the 1930s to address high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order. Some people try to tell me that we must make up our minds that for the future we shall permanently have millions of unemployed… But…I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed. On the contrary, we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return. I do not want to think that it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls.—Franklin D. Roosevelt, September 30, 1934

One of the most alarming statistics about America’s persistently high unemployment rate over the past four years is the large number of long-term unemployed. Current estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the total number of these largely forgotten workers at 4.8 million people—or roughly 40 percent of the total number of jobless Americans. Unlike previous recessions, where there was a good deal of movement in and out of the job market, loss of employment is much more serious in today’s Great Recession, as an individual’s chances of getting back to work are much lower. This leads to what one recent article terms a “loss of skills, loss of trust, and loss of networks,” all of which exacerbates the problem.

Worse still, there seems to be little political will to tackle this problem in Washington, as any serious effort to address the issue of the long-term unemployed has been sidelined by the endless budget debates in Congress and the sky-is-falling rhetoric of the extreme right, which remains ideologically opposed to government intervention in the economy. Perhaps the great symbol of this callous indifference can be found in the fact that while the recent sequester did not result in any loss of pay among the members of Congress, the long-term unemployed will see their benefits cut by 10 percent.

In the meantime, a recent report by the American Society for Civil Engineers notes that while there has been a slight improvement in the overall state of America’s infrastructure in the past four years, the current state of our nation’s roads, bridges, water systems, energy grid, and other transportation networks remains dismally low—receiving a grade of D+ as opposed to the nearly failing grade of D- four years ago. Thanks to this persistent neglect and Congress’s reluctance to appropriate the funds needed to fix our crumbling roads and other facilities, the U.S. now ranks 25th in the world in terms of infrastructure, far behind the rest of the industrialized world.

This juxtaposition of long-term unemployment and a failing infrastructure is not unlike the situation that Franklin Roosevelt faced in 1935 when, in a bold and unprecedented effort to alleviate the suffering of the long-term unemployed, FDR pushed Congress to pass the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act. It was through this piece of legislation passed 78 years ago today that Congress appropriated the funds FDR needed to launch the most ambitious public works program in American history—the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

As the generation that lived through the Great Depression passes away, fewer and fewer Americans may be aware of what a great debt this nation owes to this remarkable government program. Indeed, the WPA not only employed 8.5 million people, it also built much of the infrastructure we still use today. How many New Yorkers, for example, are aware that the WPA is responsible for the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel, Tri-borough Bridge, the Belt, Grand Central, and Henry Hudson Parkways, the East River (FDR) Drive, or LaGuardia Airport? How many Chicagoans know that Midway Airport and much of Lake Shore Drive were built by the WPA? What about the fabled “river walk” of San Antonio, Texas? Do the residents of this community know that this critical piece and driver of much of their local economy was conceived and constructed by WPA architects and engineers? Are the people of New Jersey aware that they owe the Palisades Parkway to the WPA? What about those of us who have enjoyed the beauty of a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina – are we aware that it too was built by the WPA? And what about Los Angeles International Airport or the Glendale Viaduct and countless other public works projects in California? Or the many WPA constructed buildings, parks, and other facilities constructed in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest?

This list could go on and on, for before it was through the WPA would construct nearly 600,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 airfields, 500 water treatment plants, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 other state, county, and local government buildings. Most importantly, it would also give meaningful employment to millions of skilled and unskilled workers, providing our nation with the infrastructure it needed to become the most efficient and productive economy in the world and the long-term unemployed with the one thing they needed above all else—a job.

Seventy-eight years ago, our leaders in Congress had the courage and vision to engage in what FDR called “bold, persistent, experimentation.” In the face of the worst economic crisis in our history, they came to recognize that there are times when government itself must step in to provide employment if the free market fails to do so. They had no plans “to take the country down the path to socialism” as some critics charged, or to make the WPA into a permanent institution. What they did see was a need—a critical need to provide employment and to secure the skills of an entire generation of workers, juxtaposed with an equally important need to bring America’s rickety 19th century infrastructure into the modern world. They understood that this would cost money, but they also understood that in the long run this investment—even if it required deficit spending—would pay off.

They were right. Just ask any member of the “greatest generation” who lived through the seemingly massive federal investments and spending of the 1930s and 40s and then went on to enjoy the largest expansion of the American middle class in our nation’s history. Or ask yourself, the next time you land at LaGuardia Airport or enjoy an evening out among the many shops, cafes, and restaurants that cluster around San Antonio’s River Walk.

If today’s Congress had the same vision and courage that existed in Washington in 1935, it would see that with nearly 5 million people suffering the ill effects of long-term unemployment, and with an infrastructure that is now ranked 25th in the world, the least it could do is get behind President Obama’s nearly forgotten call for a modest $50 billion in spending for infrastructure. But unfortunately it does not appear that today’s Congress—particularly the conservative membership of the House—possesses anything like the vision of its counterparts in 1935. This is very bad news, for as FDR remarked about the “generation of self-seekers” that brought the country to ruin in 1933, “they have no vision, and when there is no vision, the people perish.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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