Jobs For The Unemployed: How They Did It The Last Time

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D ESPITE TODAY’S high unemployment, the worst since the Great Depression, Congress is reluctant to enact large-scale jobs programs. Today’s conventional wisdom about such help for the unemployed, frequently expressed in congressional debate, is that the New Deal’s massive efforts to provide public jobs were costly, slow, and wasteful. It was a gigantic “boondoggle”—the favorite disparagement of the 1930s, often accompanied by cartoons of sleepy workers leaning on rakes. The Reagan administration has opposed such public jobs as “makework” bound to retard recovery.

Actually, the New Deal’s approach to unemployment was so diversified and its results so mixed, and it so dwarfed today’s efforts, that these summary judgments do less than justice to history. The Civil Works Administration (CWA), for example, begun in November 1933 to counter the rigors of an approaching winter, speedily put four million jobless people to work, half of them transferred from an existing agency, the remainder drawn from the newly unemployed.

They repaired roads, improved schoolhouses, parks, and playgrounds, instituted pest controls, combatted soil erosion, and completed long-postponed work on municipally owned utilities. Writers and artists were set to work too; when critics objected to squandering public money on such “questionable” purposes, the agency’s dauntless administrator, Harry Hopkins, retorted, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” Within two months the CWA had recruited nearly as many people as had been mobilized in the whole of World War I. The agency had risen from ground zero. It started with no inventory of public works needs, no planning staff, no program.

Another major venture, the Public Works Administration (PWA), was managed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, a hardheaded, progressive businessman who believed that the best way to relieve unemployment was by “pump priming,” that is, subsidizing private contractors in the construction of huge projects that would stimulate the economy and increase jobs. The PWA completed Boulder Dam, built the Tennessee Valley Authority, and finished New York City’s Triborough Bridge, which had been halted in 1932 when the city’s funds ran low. The PWA gave a half-million unemployed persons steady work and saved countless other jobs in private employment.

But the largest of all the unemployment relief agencies was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Successor to the CWA, it, too, was headed by Hopkins, a former social worker who was once described as having “the purity of St. Francis of Assisi combined with the sharp shrewdness of a race track tout.” The WPA’s projects, which created eight million jobs, were selected for their potential as labor absorbers, for accomplishing work that needed to be done, and for using available skills to do it. Projects were tailored, for instance, to the needs of silk weavers in Passaic, New Jersey, to coal miners in West Virginia, to farmers and dairymen in Iowa.

In all, some forty agencies administered work relief. The Resettlement Administration moved families from worn-out fields and decaying buildings to new, federally created farming communities on fertile lands. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruited some three hundred thousand boys from families of the unemployed to work in the woods at long-neglected conservation tasks, while sending part of their earnings home. The National Youth Administration (NYA), designed to help sixteen- to twenty-four-yearolds, fostered small-job construction, trade workshops, training for nurses’ aides, and sewing rooms to prepare clothing for needy families. The NYA underwrote jobs for students whose parents could no longer pay tuition.

If the New Deal’s output was makework, it was at least made to last. Hopkins correctly predicted that “long after the workers of CWA are dead and gone and these hard times forgotten, their efforts will be remembered as permanent useful works in every county of every state.” Today we ride over bridges they made, travel on their roads and highways, attend schools they built, and use post offices and town halls they either built, repaired, or embellished with murals. When the Depression threatened nutrition and health standards, the WPA invested in the population’s future by serving nearly 600 million school lunches, immunizing seventeen thousand children for smallpox, diphtheria, and other diseases, and providing a quarter-million boys and girls with medical and dental care. The $250 million the WPA spent refurbishing Army posts and Naval stations proved useful all too soon when World War II broke out.

If the New Deal’s output was make-work, it was, at least, work made to last.

For stern evaluators of cost effectiveness, even the most vulnerable programs had their bright side. The WPA’s Federal Theater, which fielded 158 companies in twenty-seven states, featured a hearty schedule of community drama and free performances, and plays whose social messages not everyone applauded. And it still grossed over a million dollars in box-office receipts in its first two years. Work on the American Guide Series, a superb and durable set of guides to every state, enabled some of the nation’s most gifted writers to survive the Depression.