Thursday, April 6, 2017

Roosevelt's Wheelbarrow Army

Above: "Wheelbarrow," an oil painting by Morris Graves (1910-2001), created while he was in the New Deal's Public Works of Art Project, 1934. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Above: A procession of WPA workers, with their wheelbarrows, on the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kansas, 1936. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: The Wichita men are working on a flood control project. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: Millions of men lost their livelihoods during the Great Depression, and millions more insulted them for it. The same thing happened during the most recent recession, and the same thing will happen again when machines start replacing more and more workers in the near future (for example, think about driverless cars, trucks, and 18-wheelers). It's a timeless story: the rich get richer, through some innovation or swindle, and then the millions who lose their jobs are lectured about "personal responsibility." Aubrey Williams, a top administrator in the New Deal work-relief programs, once wrote: "To fill his bitter cup to overflowing, he has been ridiculed by thoughtless and cruel people as a loafer... But his day is coming... when all the barbs that have been hurled at him bounce back from the good, honest masonry of the things he has built to increase the wealth and happiness of the whole nation" (New York Times, May 10, 1937). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: As one group unloads their wheelbarrows, another group waits to fortify the embankment. Look at the man leaning on his shovel. This reminds me of how WPA workers were frequently called "shovel-leaners" - a derisive comment that was intended to persuade Americans that WPA workers were just lazy good-for-nothings, and thus wasting taxpayer money. But anyone who has done hard physical labor knows that you have to rest from time to time. Our bodies are not designed to work non-stop like tractors. Author John Steinbeck once observed that "it was the fixation of businessmen that the WPA did nothing but lean on shovels. I had an uncle who was particularly irritated at shovel-leaning. When he pooh-poohed my contention that shovel-leaning was necessary, I bet him five dollars, which I didn't have, that he couldn't shovel sand for fifteen timed minutes without stopping. He said a man should give a good day's work and grabbed a shovel. At the end of three minutes his face was red, at six he was staggering and before eight minutes were up his wife stopped him to save him from apoplexy. And he never mentioned shovel leaning again" ("A Primer on the '30s," Esquire, June 1960). Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Above: Roosevelt's Wheelbarrow Army in Wichita heads back for another load of Earth. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

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