Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 10: The Accomplishments of Unemployed Americans

Above: WPA administrator Harry Hopkins delivers a speech at the Louisiana State University (LSU) football stadium, on November 28, 1936, after WPA workers doubled the facility's seating capacity, and also built dormitories for 1,000 students under the new grandstand sections. Photo courtesy of of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Above: The LSU band forms the letters "WPA," in honor of the formerly-unemployed workers who expanded their stadium. When was the last time you heard a public official praise the unemployed, or a community thank the unemployed, at a football game? It was a different world back then. Today, thanks to right-wing politicians & pundits, the unemployed are more likely to be treated with apathy and scorn. Note the WPA work sign, at the bottom right of the photo. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum and the New Deal Network.
During the Great Depression, New Deal policymakers decided that it would be better to give job opportunities to the unemployed, instead of insults. The exact opposite is true today, of course, where right-wing politicians, pundits, and Internet commenters make constant insinuations of laziness about the unemployed (see, e.g., here, here, and here), want to drug test them (see, e.g., here and here), routinely call them names like "moochers," and even question their right to be called Americans.
When Harry Hopkins made his speech at the LSU football stadium in 1936 (see photos above), he highlighted how opportunities-instead-of-insults had turned out to be the better approach:
"The things they have actually accomplished all over America should be an inspiration to every reasonable person and an everlasting answer to all the grievous insults that have been heaped on the heads of the unemployed" (Nick Taylor, American-Made, 2008, p. 235 of 2009 paperback edition, citing two New Orleans newspapers).
70 years later, author Nick Taylor elaborated on Hopkins's sentiment:
"Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins believed that people given a job to do would do it well, and the fact that their paychecks were issued by the government would make not a whit of difference. They were right. The workers of the WPA shone. They excelled. They created works that even without restoration have lasted more than seventy years and still stand strong, art that is admired, research that is relied upon, infrastructure that endures... These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation. They were golden threads woven into the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them, thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people." (American-Made, p. 530 of 2009 paperback edition).

Even limited-government icon Ronald Reagan agreed with Hopkins' assessment. In his 1990 autobiography, the former president wrote:

"The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies because it put people to work building roads, bridges, and other projects... it gave men and women a chance to make some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it" (Ronald Reagan: An American Life, 1990, p. 69 of 2011 paperback edition).

Today, of course, ignorance, apathy, and cruelty rule the land. Thus, we'll probably never see another WPA again; its amazing success and the wide-scale, continued use of its projects notwithstanding. 
What a shame that we don't heed the recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins.

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