Desperate times call for bold measures. President Obama need look no further than the WPA.
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… I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed… [W]e 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. – Franklin D. Roosevelt
With unemployment still hovering at over 9 percent nationwide, and with some economists and historians arguing that the present economic crisis should not be referred to as the “Great Recession,” but as the “Great Depression II,” a good deal of anticipation has arisen over what President Obama will propose in his message to Congress on Thursday. Despite widespread Republican opposition to further government spending, many economists and business leaders — not to mention liberal members of the Democratic Party — argue that what the country desperately needs is another stimulus package. A jobs program could provide hope and relief to the millions of long-term unemployed, restore confidence, and stem the U.S. economy’s steady slide back into recession. Even the ever demure Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has indicated that “putting people back to work” must be made a priority if the country wishes to avoid long-term damage to the economy.
Just over 75 years ago, in the midst of a long-term unemployment crisis not unlike the one we face today, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7034 to create one of the largest federal employment programs in American history: the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Roosevelt created the WPA in part out of his conviction that when the private sector fails to provide basic economic security in the form of employment to millions of Americans, it is right and proper for the government to step in to pick up the slack. Like President Obama, FDR presided over an economy that was expanding, in fact at a much faster rate than the meager growth we see today. But the growth was not strong enough to absorb the many millions still looking for work. Even though the unemployment rate had fallen by more than five percent since his assumption of office in 1933, FDR was not content to sit on his laurels and wait for the long hoped for return to full employment. So the president did what the American people expected him to do: he took action.
Over the course of its eight-year history, the WPA employed approximately 8.5 million people, the vast majority of whom worked on projects aimed at rebuilding America’s wholly inadequate 19th century infrastructure. That infrastructure was marked by feeble bridges, unpaved roads, little or no water or sewage treatment facilities, and tens of thousands of decrepit schools and other public buildings. Thanks to this massive effort, millions of Americans (including engineers, architects, and other skilled workers) gained meaningful employment and through their labor transformed the face of the nation. In New York City alone, for example, the WPA constructed the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, FDR Drive, LaGuardia Airport, and the Belt, Grand Central, and Henry Hudson Parkways. It also rebuilt the Central Park Zoo, landscaped Bryant Park and Hunter College, and built or renovated hundreds of schools throughout the city — not to mention put thousands of unemployed city teachers back to work in the newly constructed classrooms.
As this incomplete list of projects for New York City alone shows, the WPA was no “make work” operation, but a national endeavor aimed at transforming the nation’s economic infrastructure and bringing the United States into the modern world by making use of our most precious resource: human capital. By the time it was finished, the WPA had constructed 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. It was also widely popular among working Americans who wrote tens of thousands of letters to the White House thanking the president for his determination to counter the demoralizing effects of unemployment.
The infrastructure built by the WPA and other New Deal agencies helped lay the basis for the massive economic expansion that took place during World War II and the post-war years. All of us have benefited immensely from this visionary effort to simultaneously rebuild America and the American workforce. But after roughly 70 years, much of this infrastructure is in desperate need of replacement or repair.
If the president and Congress are serious about meeting the worst economic crisis this nation has endured since the Great Depression, remaining competitive in the global economy, and avoiding the atrophy of skills that comes after years of an idle workforce, then they should embrace the opportunity to rebuild America and the American workforce with the same sort of bold vision that inspired an earlier generation. With infrastructure that is now ranked a dismal 23rd among the world’s industrialized states, and with millions of skilled and unskilled workers in desperate need of a job, this is no time for half measures. In light of this, isn’t it time for the president to establish his own jobs program — by executive order if necessary — and to insist that Congress provide the funds needed to support it? The American people would no doubt support such a move. They understand that the real crisis in America is a jobs crisis, exasperated by a failure of leadership in Washington and the false obsession of Republican party extremists with cutting government spending at a time when we can least afford it. They are also tired of crumbling roads, burst levees, and collapsed bridges. They have heard enough talk of cuts, cuts, cuts when, in the spirit of the New Deal, they would much rather heed a call to “build, baby, build.” Surely, as FDR said in his first inaugural, the time has come for “action and action now.”
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.