Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ten Ways the WPA Helped Feed America

(See images below and click to enlarge) 

     Today, food assistance for low-income individuals & families is under constant criticism, and budget cuts constantly threaten the Food and Drug Administration--the agency that works to protect our food from contamination and poor handling.

     Meanwhile, the unemployed are punished in a variety of ways, and stereotyped as lazy good-for-nothings. Even as private sector job creation is weak, the unemployed face insults from political commentators, diminished unemployment benefits, reduced assistance for job re-training, coerced drug-testing, and employment discrimination.

     However, there was a time where the humiliation of the needy was put on a back burner, and more productive & compassionate public policies were utilized. One of these policies was called the Works Progress Administration (WPA, 1935-43). The WPA hired the jobless, and provided food assistance to the needy (and Americans generally) in a number of ways:

1. The WPA created jobs for the unemployed, which meant the unemployed could finally earn money to feed their families. Jane Yoder, a woman who grew up during the Great Depression, said: " father immediately got employed in this WPA. This was a godsend. This was the greatest thing. It meant food, you know. Survival, just survival."

(The caption to this photo reads: "WPA worker and family at dinner. Zeigler, Illinois." Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress)

2. WPA workers distributed food to low-income families:

(WPA workers preparing food for distribution in Maryland. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives)

3. WPA artists created posters promoting nutritious foods:

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

4. WPA artists created posters promoting food safety:

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

5. WPA artists created posters promoting local food markets:

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

6. WPA workers provided food to low-income children, at schools, nurseries, and in special summer lunch programs:

 (Children sitting down for lunch at a WPA nursery in Cambridge, Maryland. Notice the box crate chairs. Image provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives)

7. The WPA built farm-to-market roads, to enable farmers to more easily get their food products to consumers:

(WPA laborers working on a farm-to-market road in Allegany County, Maryland. Image provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)  

8. The WPA planted 8 million bushels of oysters, thereby putting smiles on the faces of many generations of American seafood lovers:

(WPA workers planting oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Image provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

9. The WPA built or improved fish hatcheries across the nation (many of which are still in use today), thereby providing generations of anglers & consumers with an ample supply of aquatic fun & nourishment:

 (WPA laborers working on a fish hatchery in Frederick County, Maryland. Image provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.  
10. The WPA created subsistence gardens in communities, so low-income residents could grow their own food:

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

     Imagine if we had a WPA today. The unemployed could be hired to work and, among other things, provide food for low-income families. Wouldn't that be better than humiliating the jobless and cursing food stamp recipients as "takers" and "parasites"?  

     I was raised Christian, and even though I'm not a religious person today, I still hold many of the teachings dear, e.g., "if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday" (Isaiah 58:10, Holy Bible, New International Version). This seems to square nicely with the U.S. Constitution's promotion of the general welfare in the preamble, and the statement that Congress shall have the power to provide for the general welfare (Article I, Section 8). 

     President Franklin Roosevelt said: "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." And Ronald Reagan said, "The WPA was one of the most productive elements of FDR's alphabet soup of gave men and women a chance to earn some money along with the satisfaction of knowing they earned it."

     Given these words from the Bible, the Constitution, FDR, and Reagan, why are we still refusing to provide direct employment to the jobless, and why are we still acting cruelly to those who need governmental food assistance?

(Jane Yoder quote from "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," by Studs Terkel, 1970. FDR quote from "American-Made," by Nick Taylor, 2008. Ronald Reagan quote from "Ronald Reagan: An American Life," by Ronald Reagan, 1990)


  1. Social measures are relatively inexpensive - I doubt if the posters cost much - so are a good deal. As far as the public spending of the New Deal is concerned the evidence is fairly clear, there was a private sector recovery under way from 1931 onwards and the government spending of the New Deal may have suppressed this. There are some charts at Sydenham's Law of public expenditure and economic growth. The real history trumps any theories and models.

    1. Thanks for your comment John.

      According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the GDP in 1932 was 23.3% lower than it was in 1931. That does not, to me, indicate an emerging recovery.

      And things were so bad by mid-1932, that even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had frowned upon federal relief efforts, requested federal relief.

      Also, you have to look at other things besides economics. People needed jobs, they couldn't wait for years on end for supposed job growth at some unknown future time. They had a family to feed now, not just a family to feed in the future.

      And look at what the WPA created: Schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, water lines, etc., that we used for generations (and still use today in many cases). They also built or improved hundreds of airports and military facilities that became essential for the war effort.

      The CCC planted billions of trees, the PWA funded the services of millions of private sector workers, the Tennessee Valley Authority sparked a huge period of growth in that area, and so on.

      I don't argue that the New deal was perfect, it certainly wasn't. But it put people to work, GDP rose sharply, unemployment (even excluding relief workers) dropped, and thousands of things were created that generation after generation benefited from. As Reagan said, "The WPA was the most productive of FDR's alphabet soup of agencies."

      I respect your opinion, but I agree with Reagan.

  2. I agree that there are other things besides economics and the New Deal should be celebrated for its effect. Recoveries start when the rate of industrial failures starts to decrease (when the trend in private sector growth becomes positive). The USA began to recover in 1932 and industry was back in the black by 1934 - the data and sources are clearly documented in the links given above.

    Surely the message of the New Deal was that workers matter too, the workers are the people, they are you and me. The message is also that schools, hospitals etc. matter. The message cannot be that throwing public money at recessions will restore growth for an entire country because it didn't.

    Your comment that "thousands of things were created that generation after generation benefited from" is the truth. Public spending is an overhead, if you get it right it will be to the long term benefit of everyone but, as any businessman will tell us, you don't increase overheads until the business can sustain them. The New Deal occurred at an auspicious moment, just as the economy recovered.

    1. Hi John,

      The argument that the private sector was recovering at the very moment that the New Deal was initiated is too coincidental and convenient for me to agree with.

      If the New Deal had coincided with a worsening of the Depression, many people would blame the New Deal. If the New Deal had conincided with an improving economy (which it did) then people can say, "Well the private sector was recovering anyway." If one is an opponent of gov't involvment in the economy, then this type of argument can always be used to make the gov't look bad.

      Also, even if we say that the private sector economy was improving, I think we can say that the New Deal helped (or hastened) that recovery. For example, in 1936, well after the CCC, PWA, WPA, etc. had been firmly established, GDP increased 14.3% from the previous year. That is a huge gain, not often seen in American history.

      Furthermore, any private sector improvement had to have something to do with the fact that people were working and had money to spend. CWA and WPA workers (millions of them) had paychecks to buy goods. CCC workers sent $25 dollars home every month for their families to pay rent, buy food & clothes, etc. All this purchasing power, from people who had previously drifted from town-to-town looking for work that rarely existed, and could not buy anything, aided business owners who needed customers.

      Marriner Eccles, who served as the Chair of the Federal Reserve, from 1934-1948, and was a very successful banker, said the Depression was caused, in part, by consumers being unable to purchase what the economy was capable of producing. Even such capitalists as Henry Ford knew it was not good when his own workers could not afford the product they were making, and so he dealt with the problem. Programs like the CCC, PWA, and WPA similarly dealt with the problem, by strengthening the consumer class. (The PWA funded enormous projects, like the Hoover Dam, which generated work for private contractors across the nation)

      So again, I respect your opinion, but when I look at the economic data, and when I read account after account after account (from people who lived through it, e.g., CCC alumni) about how these New Deal programs gave people hope, and a paycheck, and money to spend in the economy, I cannot agree with the notion that New Deal was detrimental, or held back the economy. The numbers and the personal recollections, to me, simply don't support a negative interpretation of the New Deal.