Sunday, April 7, 2013

10 Ways the WPA Helped (or is still helping) the American Economy

(See pictures below! Click on images to enlarge.)

Except for one year, American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased—usually significantly—every year of the WPA’s existence (1935-43). And, even if you exclude the war years, the GDP gains of the WPA years have rarely been matched in American history. As measured by the percentage increase or decrease from the year before:

1935:  +11.1%
1936:  +14.3%
1937:  +  9.7%
1938:  -   6.3%
1939:  +  7.0%
1940:  +10.0%
1941:  +25.0%
1942:  +27.7%
1943:  +22.7%
(Data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

Interestingly, the one year of negative GDP growth—1938—occurred after major reductions in WPA employment, as Roosevelt felt the economy was improving significantly enough to draw down the rolls. He was wrong. The economy needed the WPA, just as our present economy needs a WPA.

Obviously, there are many factors that contribute to positive or negative economic gains. But if a “big government” program like the WPA is so bad, how did it coincide with such large economic growth? According to the “government-shouldn’t-help-people-it-should-only-help-corporations” crowd, the WPA should have made things much, much worse. But it didn’t. Why?

1. The WPA gave people paychecks for doing useful work

       (WPA worker and his paycheck, image courtesy of the National Archives.) 

As Ronald Reagan said, “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” (from “Ronald Reagan: An American Life,” by Ronald Reagan, 1990). Consumer purchasing power is the most vital component of a strong economy.

2. The WPA utilized local building materials

(The WPA building a school on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1936. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

If you owned a construction supply business, and your sales slumped because of an economic depression, would you be happy or sad if the government offered to buy a ton of supplies from you?

3. The WPA educated—and is still educating—millions of Americans

(Children in front of a WPA-built African-American school in Pocomoke City, Maryland, in 1936. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

The WPA hired unemployed teachers and offered various free courses to children and adults. The WPA also built schools—all across the country. Many are still in operation today. Millions of Americans have been educated in WPA-built schools, and most don’t even know it. So, what's the economic value of an educated worker? What's the economic value of millions of them?

4. Through theater and music performances, the WPA increased the number of customers for local businesses

(Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. Photo description reads, "WPA: Federal Theater Project: theater-goers in lobby: Boston: 'Created Equal' production.")

Businesses do better when people are out and about. When people came out to attend WPA plays and concerts they were more likely to visit surrounding stores too.

5. The WPA provided skills to people (or helped them maintain their skills), and these skills were taken to the private sector

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

The examples here would fill volumes, but let’s look at nurses and mechanics.

Today, many nurses are having a difficult time finding work despite the nonsense they were told that it was a sure-fire career (see, e.g., "For nursing jobs, new grads need not apply"). And, after a certain period of time, these well-intentioned, educated & skilled people will be discriminated against and permanently excluded from the nursing field, despite being registered nurses and despite the years of lectures, exams, and tuition payments they endured. Employers will look at the gaps on their resumes, i.e., periods of not working as nurses, and assume they are either not committed to nursing or that there is something wrong with them; it’s a common employment discrimination practice.

The WPA, on the other hand, hired unemployed nurses to work in health clinics. The nurses’ skills were preserved, and they could include nursing experience on their resumes. Isn't that a much better outcome than the complete exclusion of people from their chosen, and hard-earned, profession? Especially after these people were assured that their educational choice was the smart & practical way to go?

The WPA also offered many education and training programs. One was airplane repair. People went through these programs, giving them the skills they needed to work in the defense industries, the military, or private sector airports and airline companies. What is the economic value of workers who can fix airplanes during war and peace?

6. The WPA’s development of recreational areas supported—and still supports—surrounding businesses

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

The WPA created, repaired, or improved tens of thousands of recreational facilities, e.g., parks, tennis courts, golf courses, ski jumps, ski trails, public pools, athletic fields, and much more  Thousands of these areas are still in use today. According to the new Infrastructure Report Card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, "The popularity of parks and outdoor recreation areas in the United States continues to grow, with over 140 million Americans making use of these facilities a part of their daily lives. These activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs."

7. WPA infrastructure facilitated the movement of goods and services

(WPA workers repairing a bridge that connects Maryland to West Virginia, in 1936. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

The WPA performed 650,000 miles of roadwork; built repaired or improved 124,000 bridges; and constructed over 500 new airports and landing fields.  How many goods and services have moved (and are still moving) across these roads, over these bridges, and out of these airports? And people have the nerve to say the New Deal was a waste? Wow.

8. WPA infrastructure facilitated the expansion of business and residential areas

(On this 1937 project in Allegany County, Maryland, WPA workers are installing sewer lines. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.

The WPA installed 16,000 miles of new water lines and 24,000 miles of new storm and sewer drains.  They built repaired or improved 4,000 utility plants. This expansion of infrastructure facilitated the expansion of businesses and communities. In other words, yes, economic growth.  

9. WPA artwork is sold today by private business

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

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

Try this experiment: Go to Ebay and enter the search words “WPA” and “poster.” Isn’t it funny that these so-called lazy and unskilled WPA workers (people who would be called “parasites” today by our kind political pundits and Internet comment-makers) made artwork so good it’s being reproduced and sold by private sector businesses?    

10. The WPA gave people dignity and hope

(A happy worker standing over a completed farm-to-market road in Frederick County Maryland in 1936. Farm-to-market roads were special WPA projects, designed to help farmers get their produce & goods to market. Image courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Recall Reagan’s statement (from #1 above) about people’s satisfaction from earning money doing useful work. That’s called dignity. Dignity is being able to feed your family. Dignity is being able to work instead of holding out a tin cup to a church or charity. Dignity is being able to get up in the morning and knowing that you have responsibility. Dignity is being able to respond positively when someone asks, “Where do you work?”


Despite the clear historical evidence of the WPA’s positive effect on the economy, and despite the fact that 26 million Americans would like a full-time job but can’t find one, we continue to muddle along—for 5 years now—with anemic GDP growth, high unemployment (much higher than the main reported number), and widespread hopelessness.

Meanwhile, most of our political “leaders” never discuss the possibility of a new WPA, probably do not even know what the WPA was, and are content as long as they are collecting their sizable paychecks and continued corporate funding.

At what point do we turn reality television off, stop worrying about what Kim Kardashian is wearing, or what Snooki is up to, and start demanding that our government act in the best interest of everyone, and not just the few?

My fear is that the answer to that question is “never.”

No comments:

Post a Comment