Jason Scott Smith: Remember the CWA, A Government Jobs Program That Worked: Echoes

Roundup: Historians' Take

Jason Scott Smith, an associate professor of history at the University of New Mexico, is the author of "A Concise History of the New Deal," forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.

What do you do when you've lost your job and winter is coming? That's the dilemma now facing more than 13 million Americans who are out of work. It's also the dilemma that faced more than 10 million Americans in November 1933.

By then, the Great Depression was four years old, the nation's new president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been in office for seven months, and the U.S. was about to enter one of the worst winters in its history.

On Nov. 9, 1933, Roosevelt announced the creation of a new government agency, the Civil Works Administration, with an eye toward using government employment to jump-start job creation. The CWA's story resonates with our present moment, not least as an obvious example of government's ability to swiftly provide, as FDR put it, "a smashing answer for those cynical men who say that a democracy cannot be honest and efficient." The details of how Roosevelt and his administration made the CWA a success that winter -- and of how the CWA was ultimately killed off -- can help us grasp some of the political risks and possible benefits for politicians, like President Barack Obama, looking to use governmental authority to create jobs today.

FDR had made the relief of mass unemployment a central focus of his first inaugural address. Although remembered today primarily for the statement that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the speech also contained Roosevelt's brief for the New Deal. "Our greatest primary task is to put people to work," he declared....

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