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The Case for a New WPA

Why many are calling for a modern incarnation of the Depression-era program.
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Migrant Mother, photo by Dorothea Lange

One of the most powerful images of the Great Depression, "Migrant Mother" depicts 32 year-old Florence Thompson, a pea picker, with her children in Nipomo, Calif..

Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The image catches your breath. The look etched on the mother’s face reveals more about the hard lives of migrant workers during the 1930s than any history book. The photo, by Dorothea Lange, is one of the most famous shots in American history and an iconic representation of the Great Depression. Lange captured it while participating in the Farm Security Administration’s photography project, a division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt took office with the promise of government action to relieve destitution, unemployment had reached nearly 25 percent. As part of that commitment, his administration created the WPA, a permanent jobs program that put 8.5 million Americans to work between 1935 and 1943. The WPA was a massive public undertaking that changed the face of a growing nation. In addition to providing jobs to millions, it brought the nation’s transportation system into the 20th century and brought art to people of all classes, leaving the U.S. with a rich legacy of oral history and artistic masterpieces.

Many organizations are calling for a modern incarnation of the WPA both to assist the nation’s 6.5 million long-term unemployed and to advance national priorities, from transitioning to clean energy to modernizing infrastructure to supporting the arts. A new WPA could help support:

Jobs

The first WPA provided jobs to millions, it brought the nation’s transportation system into the 20th century, and brought art to people of all classes.

In 1938 the WPA was the largest employer in the nation. For every job it created, two jobs in the private sector were created indirectly. Today, with unemployment seemingly stuck above nine percent and concerns that young workers will never fully recover from slow-starting careers, a new WPA, like its predecessor, could be the answer. The WPA was an important strategy for lowering unemployment and reducing the human suffering of economic recession. Government can hire people that the private sector typically does not: the long-term unemployed, young people without work experience, people from chronically underemployed populations, older workers nearing retirement, and workers with criminal backgrounds. Job experience and training can help these workers move into new industries for the long term.

Green Infrastructure

WPA Artist Sketch

The WPA created jobs and brought art to the public. In 1938, the WPA was the largest employer in the nation. Above, Michigan artist Alfred Castagne, paints workers employed through the WPA.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

A new WPA could also help modernize an American infrastructure in desperate need of overhaul. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a grade of “D” in categories ranging from drinking water to transit to hazardous waste management, and estimates that $1.6 trillion in investment is needed over five years to bring dams, bridges, roads, sewers and other public projects up to par.

The first WPA played a huge role in modernizing the United States’ 19th century infrastructure. Workers built 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, and 125,000 public buildings. The WPA built parks, zoos, public pools, golf courses, and even ski hills, many of which are still in use.

This incarnation of the WPA should focus on creating green jobs to decrease U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. WPA workers could perform overdue energy assessments on public buildings and help boost their energy efficiency; build improved and expanded transit systems; or overhaul sewer systems to stop disastrous overflows and protect fresh water sources. 

The Arts

The WPA also brought art to the public through Federal Project Number One, which included the Federal Art, Theater, Music, and Writers’ Projects. During the life of the WPA, musicians performed 225,000 concerts for 150 million people, many of whom had never seen a concert. They also produced nearly 475,000 works of art, which still decorate post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings.

The Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photography project documented the life of the rural poor through photos. The motto of the program was “introducing America to Americans.” The project produced more than 160,000 photos, many of which are iconic today, and captured the struggles of thousands of Americans.

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The FSA was not the only project determined to “introduce America” to her citizens. The Writers’ Project original goal was to produce accessible, detailed guides to every state in the union so that people could learn about their country. But one of the project’s most enduring and important was the Slave Narrative Collection. Between 1936 and 1938, writers conducted more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves in seventeen states. The interviews gave ex-slaves the opportunity to describe what they had lived through and are an important part of the nation’s collective memory.

A modern day Writer’s Project could bring music, art, and theater back to cash-strapped public schools. It could also hire journalists and writers who have been laid off from the shrinking newspaper and publishing industries to collect oral histories from survivors of World War II and the Civil Rights Era.

True Majority is advocating for a new WPA, while Campaign for America’s Future and many other organizations are pushing the Local Jobs Act for America, a bill designed to save local jobs and services, authored by California Rep. George Miller. Notably, the Local Jobs Act lacks WPA-style funding for artists. You can show your support for a modern WPA by signing their petitions, and by calling on Rep. Miller to add funding for the arts to the Local Jobs Act.

It is difficult to quantify the priceless legacy of WPA projects; the highest honor that could be paid to the visionaries of the past would be to repeat their efforts. Maybe the time has come to “introduce America to Americans” all over again.


Kate-McCormack.jpgKate McCormack wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Kate is a freelance writer currently living and working in Zacatecas, Mexico. She volunteers with a transnational workers’ rights law center where she participates in outreach to migrant workers about their labor rights in the United States.

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