Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A New Deal for Puerto Rico

(WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

Residents of Puerto Rico have been facing austerity measures for about 6 years now: Public worker layoffs, government restrictions on union activities, budget cuts to education, tax policies that favor the rich (for example, lowering corporate taxes but raising regressive sales taxes), and so on. Puerto Rico's current unemployment rate is 13.7%. (See, e.g., "Puerto Rico's massive anti-austerity protests ignored by U.S. mainland media," Huffington Post, May 16, 2015)

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Instead of burdening people who are already having trouble making ends meet, there could be a direct government job creation program, as well as increased investment in education and infrastructure.

Consider these New Deal facts & figures for Puerto Rico...

National Youth Administration (NYA):

During academic year 1939-1940, 46 schools and colleges in Puerto Rico were participating in the NYA program, employing about 800 students each month.

During any given month of fiscal year 1942, there were about 3,200 young Puerto Rican men & women in the NYA's out-of-school work program.

(Source: Federal Security Agency - War Manpower Commission, "Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943," 1944, pp. 246-247, and 254)

Public Works Administration (PWA):

By 1939, the PWA had contributed $14.5 million in funding towards 59 infrastructure projects in Puerto Rico (not including federal projects). In today's dollars, that's about $244 million.

(Source: "America Builds: The Record of PWA," 1939, p. 285)

(Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Puerto Rico in March of 1934. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC):

There were 12 CCC camps in Puerto Rico, typically employing about 2,100 young men. Their work on the island included "tree planting, operation of forest nurseries, road construction, soil erosion control...public recreational development," and the building of "trails, bridges, fish hatcheries, fire towers, and landing fields."

Between 1933 and 1942, Puerto Ricans in the CCC planted "Millions of young trees...including mahogany, teak, eucalyptus, and mesquite..."

(Source: Perry H. Merrill, "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942," 1981, pp. 39-41)

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

In February of 1935, 236 college students in Puerto Rico were employed in FERA's College Student Aid Program. This was a program "undertaken in order to enable young persons who would not otherwise have been able to do so to continue their education, and thereby reduce the influx of young workers into the labor market" (recall that during the Great Depression there was a large drop in the demand for labor).

Between 1933 and 1935, FERA granted $31 million to Puerto Rico for relief efforts (about $528 million in today's dollars). FERA funds typically went towards cash relief, rural relief projects, and a wide variety of work programs.

(Source: "Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration," 1942, pp. 64, 103, and 232)

(A small rural schoolhouse in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, built with funds from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration between 1933 and 1935. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the New Deal Network.)

Works Progress Administration (WPA):

The WPA employed many Puerto Rican men & women during the late 1930s and early 1940s. For example, in March of 1943 there were over 41,000 men & women working on WPA projects. These projects involved the creation, repair, or improvement of public buildings, roads, public sanitation, welfare services, war projects, water & sewer lines, airports, and more. In total, the WPA contributed $37.3 million towards work projects in Puerto Rico (about $500 million in today's dollars).      

(Source: "Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43," 1946, pp. 112-114, 124, 128)

Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (PRRA):

President Roosevelt created the PRRA in 1935, with Executive Order No. 7057, to "initiate, formulate, administer and supervise a program of approved projects for providing relief and work relief and for increasing employment within Puerto Rico."

The PRRA lasted from 1935 until 1955. The work it facilitated included rural electrification, reforestation, low-cost housing, roadwork, public utilities, flood control, welfare services, agricultural improvements, pest control, health services, recreation activities, construction of vocational schools, and much, much more. Ultimately, tens of thousands of Puerto Rican men and women obtained jobs on PRRA projects.

Of particular interest is PRRA's investment in the University of Puerto Rico. Unlike today, where attempts are being made to eliminate about 20% of the university's funding, the PRRA invested millions to construct "an auditorium with a capacity for 2,000 persons; a library with room for more than 50,000 volumes; a home economic building; a school of education; a biology laboratory; a building for the College of Liberal Arts; reconstruction of the administration building and an agricultural building..." and more.

(Sources: (1) "Executive Order 7057 Establishing the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration," The American Presidency Project, University of California - Santa Barbara. (2) "Records of the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration," National Archives and Records Administration. (3) "Puerto Rico in the Great Depression: Facts About the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration," New Deal Network.)   

(Men working on a Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration project, circa 1935-1955. Photo courtesy of the University of Puerto Rico.)

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