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

March 2023
5min read

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.

A DMITTEDLY , anything so prodigious in scale was bound to develop abundant flaws. Many work-relief recipients were far from being the cream of the work force, and their output was low. Hopkins, both under the pressure of circumstances and because of his own preferences, prided himself on the speed with which he conducted work-relief operations. As a result, administrative safeguards were often short-circuited, sometimes at a heavy price—as much as a billion dollars in avoidable expense according to one estimate. His competitor “Honest Harold” Ickes was so fearful corruption might creep into the programs he managed that he operated with tireless caution and plodding decision. Today’s assumption that public works projects are too slow for effective relief is undoubtedly fueled by Ickes’s prudence of fifty years ago.

Then as now, work relief, with its billions in expenditures, is vulnerable to pork-barrel politics, to the demands of congressmen, governors, and mayors, to private contractors and labor unions, all hurigering for self-gain. Today’s workrelief programs are far more responsive to members of Congress seeking bonanzas for their districts than to the ideal that federal funding should be linked to unemployment rates in each state. Roosevelt better resisted the distorting effects of politics: most of the time, need was the sole basis for distributing projects to the states. With Roosevelt’s backing, Harry Hopkins was able to fight off state bosses bent on converting work relief into a patronage paradise right up until Congress belatedly overtook him when it required Senate confirmation of all WPA jobs paying over five thousand dollars a year.

Yet these shortcomings remain minor compared with work relief’s benefits. With nearly one in four of the work force unemployed, and state, local, and private resources exhausted, federal jobs programs were imperative to save the country from certain upheaval. The programs restored hope to millions who had worked all their lives and were searingly humiliated by having to seek public assistance. A CWA administrator in Michigan observed that “the joy of having even this brief opportunity to earn a decent living wage knew no bounds,” and some left her office “weeping for sheer happiness.”

Work relief was dispensed in an atmosphere of fairness and humanity. When an orthodox economist told the President that the economy must be allowed to strike bottom, Roosevelt replied disgustedly, “People aren’t cattle, you know!” Hopkins admonished his WPA staff to not make applicants “feel morally deficient” and to secure light, agreeable offices for meeting with them rather than dreary rooms. Work programs were designed to resemble standard employment routines, complete with weekly pay envelope. The wife of a WPA worker, who had just left the ranks of those receiving simple handouts, explained, “We aren’t on relief any more. My husband is working for the government.”

Above all, the New Deal’s work programs mirrored Roosevelt’s own deep commitment and understanding. “The President,” Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins observed, “had a keen feeling for the sensibilities of recipients of this relief. ” He was avid for information about work projects and how people felt about working on them and he was imaginative in conceiving new projects. To the President, Perkins noted, ” ‘make-work’ was finding useful things for people to do.”

For the more distant future, Hopkins urged in 1936 the creation of a permanent structure of public works that could be activated and halted as the economy fluctuated, a net to catch workers dropped from the payrolls of private employment. So far, the counsel of this most experienced of public jobs administrators has been ignored.

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