The WPA Had a Low Price Tag but a Lasting Legacy

Apr 8, 2013Ellen Chesler

The WPA looks like a small investment by today's standards, but it remade the country.

There’s hardly a community in the United States without a park, bridge, school, or library constructed by the WPA. Just think of the built legacy right here in New York: Hunter’s College’s handsome mid-century modern building on Park Avenue; LaGuardia Airport; the bucolic parkways, enduring beachfront facilities and swimming pools of Robert Moses; stunning murals in public spaces throughout the city.

So it is actually surprising to learn on this anniversary that the entire federal appropriation for the legislation in 1935 was only $4.9 billion. And total spending across the country reached only $13.4 billion before the program expired in 1943, when wartime conscription and the recovery of private industry and manufacturing finally ended the unemployment crisis brought on by the Great Depression.

Of course, money went a lot further back then. Salaries at 30 hours per week were pegged to prevailing wages and varied considerably by region, ranging from $20 to $100 per month. Federal spending on some WPA projects also leveraged state and local funds, adding by one estimate up to another 10-30 percent in investment. All together the program funded some 8 million jobs and put a meaningful dent in the number of unemployed who were looking for and able to work.

This was far from a foundation for state socialism or a “seed bed for Communists,” as some of the program’s strongest critics on the right then described it. Spending was also, by and large, not politically motivated or determined by partisanship, as many feared it would be – with jobs distributed across party lines and, just as meaningfully, across ethnic and racial divides, even in the south. To placate unions skeptics on the left, no formal job training was allowed, and yet evaluations of projects demonstrated high levels of efficiency and little corruption or waste.

Yet the WPA was most definitely a watershed in the history of American state building. The country’s entire GDP was only $860 billion in 1935. Of that, a mere 5 percent or so represented total government spending, and most of that money paid for local school teachers, police, fire, and sanitation.

Federal Social Security expenditures were just ramping up. Defense spending was still negligible, with U.S. foreign policy focused mainly on being a “good neighbor” as FDR memorably put it. Even as the president promised to invest in public works and social welfare to reboot the economy, he also committed to rebalance the budget, and by attempting to do so in his second term actually prolonged the economic downturn. More public works, not less, would have been a good thing, stimulating and vastly expanding the private economy, as World War II wound up doing only a few years later.

Today, U.S. government spending, inclusive of local, state, and federal, domestic, foreign, and military expenditures, represents some 40 percent of our giant $13.67 trillion GDP. Years of Republican presidencies notwithstanding, we live in a mixed-economy and a country remade by Franklin Roosevelt.

This 78th anniversary of the WPA inspires us to find in our history a model for increased investment in public works today, perhaps leveraging the private sector, not just hard-strapped states and municipalities. With the WPA as a model, federal resources can easily capitalize a U.S. infrastructure bank, which could in turn raise capital in markets across the globe. The financial structure is not complicated. All we need is the political will.

Might it be helpful to remind deficit hawks that Roosevelt was reelected in 1936 with 60 percent of the popular vote and 98 percent of the electoral vote in 1936, with a budget in deficit but the WPA underway?

Ellen Chesler is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and author of Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America.

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