Monday, January 20, 2014

Women and the WPA (part 10 of 10): African American Women

Above: Young African American women could find employment and training opportunities in the National Youth Administration (NYA). These NYA enrollees are working at a YWCA in Chicago. At the time this photo was taken, 1936, the NYA was a subdivision of the WPA. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Today, the unemployment rate for black women is higher than the national rate (see, e.g., here), and black women are being hit hard by unemployment benefit cuts--a mean-spirited effort led by Republicans in Congress and Republicans in state governments (see, e.g., "Black Women Slammed by Unemployment Cuts").

To make matters worse, Congress has cut funds for job training, has refused to consider a public jobs program for the long-term unemployed, and, of course, has looked the other way while their campaign funders--Corporate America and the super-wealthy--have shipped more and more of our jobs overseas. 

All of this leaves unemployed black women (and other unemployed groups) with little choice but to apply for low-wage, stingy-benefit, no-future jobs. And, amazingly, there aren't even enough crappy jobs for everyone, as a McDonald's hiring event in April 2011 famously highlighted, when one million people applied for jobs but only 64,000 were hired (or, to put it another way, over 900,000 people who were willing to work at a dismal, low-wage job were turned away). Also, we know that for every one job opening there are three people looking for a job (see here). 

Above: This picture shows NYA workers at a library in Greenwood, Mississippi, in May of 1936. Note the NYA sign on the book cabinet, just like the WPA work sign except with "NYA" letters. Photo courtesy of FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

So, what do all these facts and figures mean? Well, for one thing, it means that the richest 400 individuals in America now have more wealth than the entire African American population of the United States (see "Wealth of Forbes 400 Billionaires Equals Wealth of All 41 Million African-Americans"). The rising tide of supply-side economics (which is code for: Give tax breaks to the super-wealthy) didn't raise all the boats, it only raised 1% of them.....and most of those boats were already riding high.

During the New Deal things were different. Efforts were made to give more opportunities to more people, not to enrich the already-rich. The WPA offered job opportunities and assistance to unemployed and low-income black women. It wasn't perfect, but in many cases it worked and worked well. For example, a black academic journal published by the National Urban League noted: "It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations." (Opportunity, vol. 17, no. 2, February 1939, p. 34, cited in The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, by Donald S. Howard, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943)

Martin Luther King, Jr. said "A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom." Today, America spends more on military programs than almost every other nation combined, yet its social safety net is among the stingiest of all developed countries (if not the stingiest). Well, I think we should trade in some of our military spending for a new WPA, so unemployed Americans can get back to work, have something good to put on their resumes, acquire some new skills, and be hopeful about the future.  

Above: African American women could find jobs in the WPA Theatre program. This photo was taken in New York in 1935, and shows the WPA production "Battle Hymn." Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

  Above: This photo shows a WPA nurse in New York "registering (a) patient in Lower Harlem Chest Clinic." Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

Above: Assisted by her adopted son, an elderly African American woman learns how to read and write in a WPA literacy class in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and the New Deal Network.

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