Monday, September 5, 2016

Thom Hartmann calls for a new WPA

Above: In this video segment from his August 30, 2016 show, Thom Hartmann calls for a new public works program, like the New Deal's WPA, to provide more economic opportunities for struggling Americans (the original, longer video segment can be seen at

In June 1938, at a press conference in Hyde Park, New York, the following exchange occurred between a journalist and President Roosevelt:

Journalist: "... how should our relief policy be stated?"

Roosevelt: "I should say this, that the object of work relief as distinguished from the dole is to give wages for work instead of just enough money to keep body and soul together without work..."

Journalist: "I had in mind a more fundamental thing. There used to be a favorite statement with some people that the Government has no obligation to any of these people."

Roosevelt: "It is a continuing policy, and there are two perfectly definite schools of thought. One is to give them wages for work to a sufficient extent to keep them going, in as decent a way as we can afford to do. The other school of thought is merely to give them enough money for food and clothing, without asking them to work for it."

Above: In this audio clip, from his October 31, 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, President Roosevelt describes the New Deal's philosophy on unemployment and work. 

Many years later, in his autobiography, Ronald Reagan praised the WPA for the very same reason Roosevelt and his fellow New Deal policymakers created it - work being preferable to the dole. Today, however, if you were to suggest a new WPA, conservatives would scream "bloody murder"... even though the president they have praised above all others (Reagan, who is almost a deity to them) applauded the WPA. Isn't that odd? Conservatives have ignored both Roosevelt and Reagan on this matter, and have instead joined in with right-wing extremists in labeling the unemployed as mere parasites and takers - undeserving of help. Democrats, for their part, are too wimpy and corporate-owned to promote a new WPA. We saw this in 2011, when U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) submitted legislation to create a new WPA, and his fellow Democrats (including President Obama) yawned and let the bill die in committee without a fight.

Here's a simple proposition (destined to be ignored of course, because I can't write million-dollar checks to politicians): (a) If a person is out of work, give them 6 months of unemployment benefits. (b) If, after 6 months, the person hasn't found a job--and can prove that they made a good faith job search--employ them on a public works project, on the condition that they continue looking for work suitable to their education & experience. (c) Give them two years on a public works project and, if they still haven't found a job, require them to retrain for another profession if they want to continue in the public works program for another year or two.

Again, this is just a simple proposition. More rules & requirements would need to be hashed out. But here's the great thing: We have the WPA experience to model a new public works program on - we could simply tweak it to suit modern day realities.

Above: A WPA exhibit promoting public works projects as a way to restore dignity to unemployed Americans. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

President Roosevelt to Congress, January 4, 1935:

"The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America. Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers... 

The Federal Government is the only governmental agency with sufficient power and credit to meet this situation. We have assumed this task and we shall not shrink from it in the future. It is a duty dictated by every intelligent consideration of national policy to ask you to make it possible for the United States to give employment to all of these three and one half million employable people now on relief, pending their absorption in a rising tide of private employment."

(The WPA was created 4 months later, and ultimately provided employment for 8.5 million Americans.)

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