The Great Depression was characterized by unemployment, homelessness, hunger, bankruptcies, home foreclosures, dust, drought, and inequality in the distribution of wealth. And America’s infrastructure was crumbling. Sound familiar?
Some grim current statistics: Although the unemployment rate fell to 8.4 percent, late last month, over one million Americans filed for unemployment. And 24.2 million reported they were unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic. Another 5.2 million couldn’t even look for work, also thanks to the pandemic.
Our infrastructure? Still crumbling. According to a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, the US will underinvest in its infrastructure by an estimated $2 trillion between 2016-2025. This is only partly due to the pandemic.
Wouldn’t it be nice if some of these unemployed people could be put to work repairing our dangerously rotten infrastructure?
According to Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman, “A rational political system would long since have created a 21st-century version of the Works Progress Administration — we’d be putting the unemployed to work doing what needs to be done, repairing and improving our fraying infrastructure.”
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the WPA — Works Progress Administration, later called the Work Projects Administration — and it brought the country back to life.
The program was ingenious: by solving unemployment, it also solved the problem of the infrastructure. Millions were employed by the WPA building “651,087 miles of highways, roads and streets; [it also] constructed, repaired or improved 124,031 bridges; erected 125,110 public buildings; [and] created 8,192 public parks and built or improved 853 airports,” according to a journalist from the Depression era.
And it took people off welfare. Harry Hopkins, the chief architect of the New Deal, said, “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”
Among those saved were artists. Part of the WPA was the Federal Arts Project, which put unemployed artists back to work painting murals and creating sculptures for public buildings. When criticized for including artists and other white collar workers in the WPA, Hopkins said,
Would you put them out in a ditch with a pick axe and make them like it? … We decided to take the skills of these people wherever we found them and put them to work to save their skills when the public wanted them.
Thanks to this inspired decision, we can experience these wonderful works of art.
(click images to enlarge)
Winold Reiss (commissioned for Cincinnati Union Terminal)
Bernece Berkman, South Chicago (Series #7)
Thomas Hart Benton, Kansas City
“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt
Thomas Hart Benton, Boomtown
Rowena Fry, The Parking Lot
Lily Furedi, Subway
Archibald Motley Jr., The Liar
Daniel R. Celentano, Festival (Little Italy)
Dox Thrash, Ship Fitters
Nicolai Cikovsky, On the East River
“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt
Louis Lozowick, Guts of Manhattan
Harold Anchel, Cafeteria
Boris Gorelick, Sweat Shop
Fritz Eichenberg, April
Oscar Weissbuch, American Scene
Michael J. Gallagher, The Wood Gatherer
Manuel G. Silberger, Labor
Blanche Grambs, No Work
Joseph Hirsch, Lunch Hour
Thomas Hart Benton, Mine Strike
Hugo Gellert, A Wounded Striker and the Soldier
Minna Citron, Strike News
“The true conservative is the man who has a real concern for injustices and takes thought against the day of reckoning.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt
Conrad A. Albrizio, The New Deal, Dedicated to President Roosevelt, 1934
“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” —Franklin D. Roosevelt
Related front page panorama photo credit: Seamstress (Moses Soyer / Smithsonian American Art Museum), Mine Rescue (Fletcher Martin / Smithsonian American Art Museum), Artwork Days without End (Frank Cassara / Smithsonian American Art Museum)