Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Eve with WPA Vaudeville

A WPA poster, advertising a New Year's Eve WPA Vaudeville show in San Diego.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The New Deal Preserved Our History

In 1936, the Civilian Conservation Corps rebuilt the first Washington Monument, which is located in Washington Monument State Park, in Middletown, Maryland. The monument was first built in 1827 by the townspeople of Boonsboro, but suffered deterioration over time. Preserving & restoring our nation's history was just one of the many project-types carried out by New Deal work programs.

Today, our political leaders bicker over extending unemployment benefits, and the unemployed live in despair. During the New Deal era, political leaders provided meaningful work opportunities and the unemployed created things that we're still using & enjoying today. What an amazing difference in political philosophy & action.  

(Photo by Brent McKee)

Friday, December 28, 2012

New Deal Schools

New Deal agencies like the CWA, WPA, & PWA built, repaired, or improved thousands of schools during the Great Depression.  They improved our nation's educational capabilities, while providing a wealth jobs for contractors and unemployed Americans.

The school above is Beall High school (1940-2007) in Frostburg, Maryland. A PWA-funded project, the building served thousands of Maryland families for nearly 70 years before being (unfortunately) demolished.

Some people say that the New Deal was a complete failure. It's hard for me to understand that type of thinking, when we used (or are still using) thousands upon thousands of New Deal schools, parks, athletic fields, bridges, etc.

(Photo by the WPA--which played a role in the improvement of the surrounding grounds--and provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives)  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

"Don't take away this WP and A"

"...the WPA came along and Roosevelt came to be a god. It was really great. You worked, you got a paycheck and you had some dignity. Even when a man raked leaves he got paid, he had some dignity. All the songs they used have about the WPA:

I went to the poll line and voted
And I know I voted the right way
So, I'm askin' you Mr. President
Don't take away this WP and A

They had lots of verses. We used to sing them:

Oh, I'm for you, Mr. President
I'm for you all the way
You can take away the alphabet
But don't take away this WPA

...There was some humanity then. We don't have humanity today."

--Sociologist Horace Cayton, from the book "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," by Studs Terkel, Random House, 1970.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

Above is a WPA poster, advertising a WPA theatre production of "A Christmas Carol." Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

A White Christmas

(WPA workers shoveling snow in Baltimore in 1936. Photo by the WPA, provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives)

Today, December 24, 2012, it is snowing in West Virginia (where I'm currently at), with about 4 inches of accumulation so far.  It will be a white Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Muddy Creek Falls

Muddy Creek Falls, at Swallow Falls State Park (Garrett County, Maryland). The CCC did extensive work at Swallow Falls State Park, helping to ensure that we can enjoy scenes like this year after year.

(Photo by Brent McKee)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The WPA & Santa

On December 14, 1940, the Associated Press reported that "...some 2,000,000 toys would distributed from (WPA) workshops to underprivileged children this Christmas. In nearly every large community...there are toy-making and repair projects."

(Baltimore Sun, Dec. 15, 1940, p. 11)

Friday, December 21, 2012

WPA on YouTube

This is a 10-minute presentation I made several months ago, highlighting the work of the WPA in Maryland from 1935-1943 (includes some nice music). Even if you're not a Marylander, this presentation will give you an idea of the types of WPA projects that occurred in your state. (The YouTube link for this presentation is

You can increase the resolution of the presentation with the "Change Quality" tool.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


"We need a new WPA, modeled after the WPA of the Great Depression, to put jobless Americans to work."

--Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, 2010

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Town Halls, Courtesy of the WPA

WPA workers helped build many town halls & community buildings across the nation. This one is in Williamsport, Maryland, and was constructed in 1939.

(Photos by Brent McKee)  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Increased wildfires? A new WPA & CCC could help with that!

On Monday, December 17, the following was reported: "Warmer and drier conditions in coming decades will likely cause the burned area from wildfires in the U.S. to double in size by 2050, according to new research based on satellite observations and computer modeling experiments." (See article here)

During the Great Depression, the unemployed helped fight & prevent wildfires. The CCC is especially remembered for its work in this area; and rightfully so, since the forests were the domain of the CCC boys. But the WPA also helped. For example, WPA workers created 6,337 miles of new firebreaks.

Since we have about 5 million Americans who are classified as long-term unemployed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and since we have millions of young adults who are neither in school nor working (according to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation), why not train & employ some of them to fight today's wildfires and prevent tomorrow's? Some could fight fires directly and some could work in support positions. Offering job opportunities to the jobless, and protecting our forests & parks from destruction, seems like a much more positive response to the problems of unemployment and wildfires than the endless political games & brinkmanship that occur in Congress today.

Our forests burn, while some of our political leaders are busy signing anti-tax pledges and casting laid-off Americans as lazy "moochers," "parasites," and "takers."'s pathetic.

(Image above is a WPA poster, provided courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Monday, December 17, 2012

The unemployed helped the environment and business

WPA workers planting oyster shells in the Chesapeake Bay, off Crisfield, Maryand, in the Summer of 1936. Planting oyster shells is good for the environment--since oysters filter water--and also good for business, as many watermen count on oysters for income. Oh, and planting oysters is also good for people who like to eat oysters!

Was this a good project for unemployed people to work on? You be the judge.

(Photo by the WPA, provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Federal Theater!

During the Great Depression, unemployed actors and theater workers were given job opportunities in the WPA's theater program. The WPA performed thousands of plays across the country for millions of people. Local businesses benefited from the increased activity. Why don't we do this today?

(Photo provided courtesy of the Library of Congress)  

Throwing people away?

In my blog post yesterday, I questioned whether we have, as a culture, determined that some percentage of Americans are necessary casualties, i.e., throwaway people. People who we relegate to joblessness and poverty, so that the larger group can live comfortably. To put it another way, have we determined that there are not enough resources and jobs for everyone, so some sub-group of the population is simply going to have to live in misery.

Arthur Delaney, a Huffington Post journalist who regularly covers unemployment issues, wrote a piece yesterday--"Long-Term Unemployed Left Out of Recovery: Study"--detailing how there is probable hiring discrimination against the long-term unemployed (based on research, not just anecdotal evidence), how there are fewer and fewer long-term unemployed collecting unemployment benefits, and how extended unemployment benefits may not continue in the new year.

Question: If the long-term unemployed are discriminated against by private sector companies, and we are not going to create a WPA-type jobs program, and we are slowly but surely phasing out extended unemployment benefits, and we are cutting federal funding for job retraining programs (see, e.g., here), what is left for these people in terms of employment? Is it just "game over" for them, and we all throw up our hands and say, "oh well"?

Our fellow citizens need help. Why are we turning our backs on them?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Waste of Human Potential

Do we want this:

Or this:

On Wednesday, December 12, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke stated: "The conditions now prevailing in the job market represent an enormous waste of human and economic potential" (statement here).

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report for November, there are 4.8 million Americans who are "long-term unemployed." And according to a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, there are about 6.5 million young adults who are not in school and not working (see article about report here).

Collectively, as a culture, have we decided that some percentage of our population consists of throwaway people? Have we decided that the idle youth and the long-term unemployed are necessary casualties, i.e., the price that has to be paid for the rest of us to have jobs? Or, after 4 years of economic doldrums, are we still waiting for the "job creators" to come to the rescue?

Some people say that the unemployed don't want jobs, that they're lazy and don't want to work. But when McDonald's had a big hiring event in the Spring of 2011, one million people applied (64,000 were hired, 936,000 were not; see article here). To my way of thinking, that's not a sign of laziness, but a sign that people are hungry for jobs, even low-paying McDonald's-type jobs.

To the people who say that the unemployed are lazy, I say: Let's put that theory to the test. Let's create a new WPA and a new CCC and see how many people sign up.

(First photo above shows unemployed men sleeping on grass in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1939, photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. Second photo shows WPA workers building a school in Maryland during the Great Depression, photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives. One criticism of the New Deal work programs was that they did not employ enough people.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Inn at Cacapon

This Inn, at Cacapon State Park (near Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps--as was the park itself. Today, the "Ol' Inn" can be used for things such as business meetings and family reunions, proving (yet again) that we are still benefiting from yesteryear's government investment and the great work of the unemployed.

Why aren't we doing similar things today, given that about 6.5 million young adults are neither in school nor working (see here)? Isn't creating useful public works better than idleness?

(Photo by Brent McKee)  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Good Eatin'--WPA Style

Did you know that the WPA served over 1.2 billion school lunches, had a food program for low-income kids during the summer, and helped set school lunch standards in many areas of the country?

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A CCC Forest

Green Ridge State Forest, Allegany County, Maryland. Developed with major assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps. Click on the picture to enlarge it.

(Photo by Brent McKee)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Skiing, WPA style

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

During the course of its life, the WPA created 310 miles of new ski trails, and constructed 65 new ski jumps.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Op-ed: Useful work is better than a dole

In his famous 1936 speech at Madison Square Garden, FDR said: "Of course we will provide useful work for the needy unemployed, because we prefer useful work to the pauperism of a dole."

This sentiment is echoed by Stephen Seufert in a recent op-ed on, where he makes the very interesting and compelling argument that a new WPA would more adequately fulfill the general welfare clause of the Constitution than continued extensions of unemployment benefits. (See Mr. Seufert's op-ed here)

I agree with Mr. Seufert's assessment. I think unemployment benefits are good for a particular period of time (6 months? 9 months?) because it allows for an extensive amount of time for the laid-off worker to find a job appropriate to his/her skills & education. But, at some point, extended unemployment benefits cripple the jobless and--among the general population--raise doubts about the efficacy of such continued benefits. The jobless remain unemployed and hopeless (and it is likely that they are discriminated against because of their unemployed status, see an interesting study here), and America receives no work product for its investment.

And let's be clear. This is not about putting the jobless to work like indentured servants, but about providing meaningful work opportunities to those who want to work but are having serious problems finding employment after a significant, good faith, and verifiable job search. It's about compassion, it's about hope, and it's about creating useful public works (infrastructure, art, research, environmental & historic preservation, making clothes for the poor, etc.).  


What did the WPA mean to people?

" father immediately got employed in this WPA. This was a godsend. This was the greatest thing. It meant food, you know. Survival, just survival."

--Jane Yoder, a woman who dealt with hunger during the Great Depression, in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Wasting America's Youth

According to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, "Nearly 6.5 million U.S. teens and young adults are neither in school nor working..." Further, "The report warns of a future of chronic unemployment due to a continuing failure to educate and train America's youth in needed skills...young people aged 16 to 24 are facing serious barriers to successful careers as youth unemployment has reached its highest level since World War II." (See article about report here)

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "I have moments of real terror, when I think we may be losing this generation. We have to bring these young people into the active life of the community and make them feel that they are necessary." (Quote found in the book, The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps, by Olen Cole, Jr.)

During the Great Depression, America made a concerted effort to offer work and training opportunities to millions of young adults, via the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). For example, the photo above is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. The caption reads, "Learning to work a cutting machine, these two NYA employees receive training to fit them for important work, Corpus Christi,Texas. After eight weeks they will be eligible for civil service jobs at the Naval Air Base." And a Baltimore Sun article from 1940 reported that "2,687 (CCC) boys of 126 camps in area this year leave to accept private jobs." A CCC education officer said, "...we learn from reports from the field that the boys leaving us have demonstrated qualities of neatness, precision and willingness, plus a degree  of skill to give them an opportunity to learn a skilled trade." (Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1940, p. 11)

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, I think we should all have a moment of terror. Terror that we are not going to respond to the problem of high youth unemployment by offering large scale job and training opportunities, but instead by increasing our already world-leading incarceration rate; because when people do not have job and career opportunities--year after year after year--it is only a matter of time before some percentage of them resort to illegal means of obtaining income. Our own recent history proves this, as economically impoverished communities across America are stuck in a cycle of poverty, drugs, and prison.

Yesteryear, we had the CCC & NYA. Alumni of these programs have constantly expressed the positive & life-transforming effect of their time & involvement in these programs. Today, we have a piece-meal approach to the problem (which is obviously not working for the great bulk of young Americans), as well as an anti-government ideology from the political right, that will not even allow a CCC-type program for unemployed veterans (see here for example). If we do not change our current policies and philosophy soon, we are going to pay a terrible price; even more of a terrible price than we are already paying for ignoring previous generations of youth.            

Monday, December 3, 2012

Golden Threads

"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."

--Nick Taylor, "American-Made," New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (p. 530, 2009 paperback edition).

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas Countdown

25 days until Christmas!

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