Nick Taylor: The WPA: Antidote to the Great Depression?





[Nick Taylor is an independent scholar and the author of American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work (Bantam, 2008).]

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, estimates of the number of jobless workers in the United States ranged from thirteen million to as high as fifteen million – a quarter of the working population. Every class of worker was affected: laborers, factory workers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, secretaries, clerks, salesmen and women, teachers, architects, engineers. No one was immune.

The new president spelled out the problem in his inaugural address. “Our greatest primary task,” he said, “is to put people to work.”

His first steps toward job creation, however, were limited in scope, slow to gear up, or temporary. The Civilian Conservation Corps paid young men to work in national and state parks and forests; their numbers never reached more than 300,000 at any given time, and the $25 they sent home from their $30 monthly paychecks had limited effect as stimulus. The Public Works Administration, created under Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act, would build magnificent dams, bridges, and other major projects that took a lot of planning. Its administrator, interior secretary Harold Ickes, deliberated at length before approving project plans, and these factors assured that the PWA had a far greater impact on the national infrastructure than on unemployment. The Civil Works Administration put 4.3 million of the unemployed to work during the winter of 1933-34 but closed, as designed, after just five months; it prevented hardship during a harsh winter but failed to deliver long-term benefits.

Roosevelt’s presidency was therefore two years old before he launched his primary attack on unemployment – the Works Progress Administration. Under administrator Harry L. Hopkins, a former social worker who had headed relief efforts in New York when Roosevelt was governor and started the first federal relief agency once Roosevelt was in the White House, the WPA put over three million Americans to work in its first year of operation. Hopkins believed fiercely in giving the poor the dignity of work.

WPA rules were geared to maximize employment among the people hardest hit by the depression. Ninety percent of WPA jobs went to workers on relief, meaning that they were certified as poor and in need of government help. (Supervisors and administrators made up the remaining ten percent.) Moreover, WPA rules specified that ninety percent of project budgets would be spent on labor, with the remainder to cover materials, machinery, and administration. Both rules were designed to put money in the hands of people who needed it the most, and therefore would spend it most quickly, funneling money into the economy....



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