The WPA that Built America is Needed Once Again

May 6, 2011David B. Woolner

Begun 76 years ago today, the WPA brought America into the modern age. Our times call for a repeat of this effort.

More than three quarters of a century ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the "demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally it is the greatest menace to our social order." He also insisted that he would "stand or fall" by his "refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed." On the contrary, he said, "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 take wise measures against its return. I do not think it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls."

To put people back to work, FDR launched a series of programs designed to protect America's environment (through the CCC reforestation programs and creation of the shelter belt in the Midwest to bring an end to the Dust Bowl) and build America's economic infrastructure. The most famous of these was launched seventy-six years ago today: the Works Progress Administration or WPA. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA literally built the infrastructure of modern America, including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 fifty airfields, and 4,000 airport buildings. It also constructed 500 water treatment plants, 1,800 pumping stations, 19,700 miles of water mains, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 24,000 miles of sewers and storm drains, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 county, state, and local government buildings.

Conservatives critics charged that the WPA was a "make work" program, but its accomplishments, which touched nearly every community in America, continue to make a mockery of this charge. The WPA put millions of skilled and unskilled laborers back to work -- it was a requirement of the program that all those involved in the projects, from the architects and engineers down to the construction laborers, be hired by WPA dollars. It provided the critical economic infrastructure needed to bring the United States into the modern age.

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Sadly, many of the conditions that led to the creation of the WPA are once again with us today: high unemployment and a crumbling economic infrastructure that is rapidly rendering the United States less and less competitive in the global economy. This sorry state of affairs is detailed in a recent article in The Economist, which notes, among other things, that the United States' public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at a paltry 2.4% of GDP. Meanwhile, Europe spends on average 5% of GDP on infrastructure and China is spending 9%. In fact, the United States, according to the article, does not spend nearly enough just to maintain, let alone expand, its existing transport and water systems. The result is that today the US ranks 23rd among the nations of the world in overall infrastructure quality, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

A new and even modest stimulus package would help alleviate this critical problem and provide millions of skilled and unskilled jobs, but the deficit hawks in Congress will have none of this. They insist that such a use of government is contrary to the American way.

To this, FDR's would no doubt reply:

[T]o 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...

In our efforts for recovery we have avoided on the one hand the theory that business should and must be taken over into an all-embracing Government. We have avoided on the other hand the equally untenable theory that it is an interference with liberty to offer reasonable help when private enterprise is in need of help. The course we have followed fits the American practice of Government -- a practice of taking action step by step, of regulating only to meet concrete needs -- a practice of courageous recognition of change. I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that "The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."

Isn't it time we rebuilt our nation and put people back to work? Time for a new WPA?

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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