Harry Hopkins, one of Roosevelt's most trusted advisors, asked why the federal government could not simply hire the unemployed and put them to work. Reluctantly, Roosevelt agreed.
The first major program to attack unemployment through public works was the Public Works Administration (PWA). It was supposed to serve as a "pump-primer," providing people with money to spend on industrial products. In six years the PWA spent $6 billion, building such projects as the port in Brownsville, Texas, the Grand Coulee Dam, and a sewer system in Chicago. Unfortunately, the man who headed the program, Harold Ickes, was so concerned about potential graft and scandal that the PWA did not spend sufficient money to significantly reduce unemployment.
One of the New Deal's most famous jobs programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). By mid-1933, some 300,000 jobless young men between the ages of 18 and 25 were hired to work in the nation's parks and forests. For $30 a month, CCC workers planted saplings, built fire towers, restocked depleted streams, and restored historic battlefields. Workers lived in wilderness camps, earning money that they passed along to their families. By 1942, when the program ended, 2.5 million men had served in Roosevelt's "Tree Army." Despite its immense popularity, the CCC failed to make a serious dent in Depression unemployment. It excluded women, imposed rigid quotas on blacks, and offered employment to only a miniscule number of the young people who needed work.
Far more ambitious was the Civil Works Administration (CWA), established in November 1933. Under the energetic leadership of Harry Hopkins, the CWA put 2.6 million men to work in its first month. Within two months it employed 4 million men building 250,000 miles of road, 40,000 schools, 150,000 privies, and 3,700 playgrounds. In March 1934, however, Roosevelt scrapped the CWA because he (like Hoover) did not want to run a budget deficit or to create a permanent dependent class.
Roosevelt badly underestimated the severity of the crisis. As government funding slowed down and economic indicators leveled off, the Depression deepened in 1934. This intense despair triggered a series of violent strikes, which culminated on Labor Day 1934, when 500,000 garment workers launched the single largest strike in the nation's history. All across the land, critics attacked Roosevelt for not doing enough to combat the Depression. These charges did not go unheeded in the White House.
Following the congressional elections of 1934, in which the Democrats won 13 new House seats and 9 new Senate seats, Roosevelt abandoned his hopes for a balanced budget. He decided that bolder action was required. He had lost faith in government planning and the proposed alliance with business, which left only one other road to recovery--government spending. Encouraged by the CCC's success, he decided to create more federal jobs for the unemployed.
In January 1935, Congress created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Roosevelt's program employed 3.5 million workers at a "security wage"--twice the level of welfare payments, but well below union scales. Roosevelt, again, turned to Harry Hopkins to head the new agency. Since the WPA's purpose was to employ men quickly, Hopkins opted for labor-intensive tasks, creating jobs that were often makeshift and inefficient. Jeering critics said the WPA stood for "We Piddle Along," but the agency built many worthwhile projects. In its first five years alone, the WPA constructed or improved 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 schools, 1,000 airport fields (including New York's LaGuardia Airport), and nearly 13,000 playgrounds. By 1941 it had pumped $11 billion into the economy.
The WPA's most unusual feature was its spending on cultural programs. Roughly five percent of the WPA's spending went to the arts. While folksingers like Woody Guthrie honored the nation in ballads, other artists were hired to catalog it, photograph it, paint it, record it, and write about it. In photojournalism, for example, the Farm Security Agency (FSA) employed scores of photographers to create a pictorial record of America and its people. Under the auspices of the WPA, the Federal Writers Project sponsored an impressive set of state guides and dispatched an army of folklorists into the backcountry in search of tall tales. Oral historians collected slave narratives, and musicologists compiled an amazing collection of folk music. Other WPA programs included the Theatre Project, which produced a live running commentary on everyday affairs; and the Art Project, which decorated the nation's libraries and post offices with murals of muscular workmen, bountiful wheat fields, and massive machinery.
Valuable in their own right, the WPA's cultural programs had the added benefit of providing work for thousands of writers, artists, actors, and other creative people. In addition, these programs established the precedent of federal support to the arts and humanities, laying the groundwork for future federal programs to promote the life of the mind in the United States.
In 1939, a Gallup Poll asked Americans what they liked best and what they liked worst about Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. The answer to both questions was: “The WPA, the Works Projects Administration.”
Work crews were criticized for spending days moving leaf piles from one side of the street to the other. Unions went on strike to protest the program's refusal to pay wages equal to those of the private sector. President Ronald Reagan, a staunch critic of large-scale government programs, was one of the WPA's defenders, however. "Some people," he said, "have called it boondoggle and everything else. But having lived through that era and seen it, no, it was probably one of the social programs that was most practical in those New Deal days."
Approximately five percent of its budget was devoted to the arts. WPA alumni include writers Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright, the artist Jackson Pollack, and actor and director Orson Welles.
The WPA was not especially efficient. In Washington, D.C., construction costs typically ran three-to-four times the cost of private work. Although, this was intentional. The WPA avoided cost-saving machinery in order to hire more workers. At its peak, the WPA spent $2.2 billion a year, or approximately $30 billion annually in current dollars.
Copyright 2016 Digital History