If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
When President Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, he was facing a devastated nation. Four years into the Great Depression, a staggering 13 million American workers were jobless and many millions more of their family members were equally in need. Desperation ruled the land.
What people wanted were jobs, not handouts: the pride of earning a paycheck; and in 1935, after a variety of temporary relief measures, a permanent nationwide jobs program was created. This was the Works Progress Administration, and it would forever change the physical landscape and the social policies of the United States.
The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Under its colorful head, Harry Hopkins, the agency’s remarkable accomplishment was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with its vision of physically rebuilding America. Its workers laid roads, erected dams, bridges, tunnels, and airports. They stocked rivers, made toys, sewed clothes, served millions of hot school lunches. When disasters struck, they were there by the thousands to rescue the stranded. And all across the country the WPA’s arts programs performed concerts, staged plays, painted murals, delighted children with circuses, created invaluable guidebooks. Even today, more than sixty years after the WPA ceased to exist, there is almost no area in America that does not bear some visible mark of its presence.
Politically controversial, the WPA was staffed by passionate believers and hated by conservatives; its critics called its projects make-work and wags said it stood for We Piddle Around. The contrary was true. We have only to look about us today to discover its lasting presence.
From the Hardcover edition.
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|Title of Family & Relationships eBook: American-Made|
|Release Date: 02-26-2008|
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|Publisher: Random House Publishing Group|
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The End of Jobs
In 1932, the United States faced the greatest crisis in its history short of war. The American industrial powerhouse that had emerged at the end of the Great War in Europe had fallen still. The stillness had progressed from the stock market, which had lost almost 90 percent of its value since the awful crash of October 1929, to the nation’s factories, and from the factories to city avenues, small-town streets, and out across the countryside, where it reached farmers who were mired in a crisis of their own, caused by debt and drought. Workers from every walk of life were idle, one-quarter of the workforce—13 million men and women, though some estimates ranged to 15 million and above. As their resources dwindled, they descended a spiral from belt-tightening to despair to destitution. Millions lost their homes, wore their clothes into rags, and had to forage like animals for food: city dwellers fought for scraps in garbage cans and dumps, while in the country, the hungry scratched for roots and weeds.
For all of the physical suffering, the greatest loss was to the spirit. People felt fear, shame, despair; the suicide rate soared, and the nation trembled at the prospect of a dark, uncertain future. The optimism that Americans had distilled from the promise of the Constitution and learned to take as their birthright—their dreams—had disappeared with their access to work.
This did not have to happen. That it did was dictated by a revered American political philosophy that denied the central government a role in addressing social problems. In the so-called New Era, which began in 1921 and spanned the Republica