WPA Nursery Schools: A New Deal for Families

A WPA teacher prepares her charges for lunch at the Farm Security Administration family migratory labor camp. Yakima, Washington. 1941. Photo by Russell Lee for the FSA. Courtesy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

“Until recently, the nursery school idea was a luxury for only a few favored youngsters,” The Akron Beacon Journal declared in 1939.  “With the advent of (the) WPA, nursery schools were established in seven counties of northeastern Ohio for children coming from low-income families… the nursery schools have also afforded work for many women as teachers, cooks, and helpers.”

Such reports are numerous in newspaper archives and highlight the motivation behind the WPA nursery schools—free childcare for children ages 2 to 5 for families in need, and jobs for the unemployed. Beyond these basics, however, is a little-known and remarkable story about a push for social reform.

Feeding cod liver oil to children at the WPA nursery school at the Agua Fria migratory labor camp, Arizona, 1940. Photo by Russell Lee for the FSA. Courtesy, the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In her book, Educating Young Children in WPA Nursery Schools, Federally Funded Early Childhood Education from 1933-1943 (Routledge Press, 2019), the first full-length national study of the WPA nursery school program, author Dr. Molly Quest Arboleda describes the goals and philosophies of the WPA nursery school administrators: racial integration, where possible; parental education and involvement; toys created with recycled materials; allowing boys and girls to play with the same types of toys (not distinguishing between “toys for boys” and “toys for girls”); and, perhaps most ambitiously, cooperative group play—both indoors and outdoors—for the express purpose of planting seeds of good citizenship in children. “The program stressed social growth, defined as the ability to get along with others, as critical to physical and emotional wellbeing,” Arboleda writes.

Children at play at the WPA New Orleans Day Nursery. ca 1936-38.
Photographer unknown. Courtesy, http://nutrias.org/exhibits/wpakids/nursery.htm.

A typical WPA nursery school day would begin with a health inspection and vaccinations, if needed, against diphtheria, smallpox and other illnesses. Next, children would line up for a dose of cod liver oil, followed by orange juice, tomato juice or grapefruit juice. The rest of the day would be punctuated with playtime, naps and meals. At the children’s disposal were picture books, musical instruments, dolls, building blocks, jungle gyms, see-saws, modeling clay, painting materials and more. 

Sometimes, cooperative play was cleverly facilitated. In 1939, The Louisville Courier-Journal described one nursery school, “For scientific reasons there aren’t quite enough of any one set of toys… This gives [the teacher] the opportunity to say: ‘Ruth got the doll first. She will let you have it next. We take turns, you know. Or wouldn’t you like to play with dolly at the same time?”

Naptime at Robert White Fund Health Unit at Savin Hill, Massachusetts, nursery “home.” 1936. Photographer unknown. Courtesy, NARA.

Dr. Grace Langdon of Columbia University, director of the WPA nursery schools, hoped that her pre-K program would become universal and permanent. The popularity of the schools probably bolstered her confidence. At the end of 1935, for example, there were over 1,900 WPA nursery schools nationwide, attended by 76,000 children. Employment had been given to over 6,600 people.


Unfortunately, between World War II and an increasingly disinterested Congress, the WPA nursery schools were first converted into childcare centers for defense industry workers (funded by the Lanham Act) and eventually disappeared altogether.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a WPA nursery school in Des Moines, Iowa, 1936. Photographer unknown, Courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Eighty years later, millions of Americans struggle to find affordable childcare. It is a problem that is reported year after year, decade after decade, with half-hearted, insufficiently-funded “solutions” offered up from time to time.


Dare I say, virtually no one—voters, legislators, media—talks about, or even knows about, the history, success and popularity of WPA nursery schools. Academia has also yawned on the topic, which Arboleda calls a “grievous omission.”  

WPA nursery schools essentially have been wiped from the collective memory.  But America’s children would be better off if we remembered.

A New Deal for the Blind

The description for this 1938 photograph reads, “The blind man is listening to one of the “talking book” records in his home, selected and mailed by a WPA library project worker. A talking book “not only talks and reads, but can present complete dramas with full Broadway casts, chirrup bird songs and calls of wildlife, and in other ways take full advantage of the fact that it is written in sound.” Courtesy, NARA.

Over fifty years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Deal undertook the first major federal effort to aid citizens with physical and mental challenges. Between 1933 and 1943, mainly through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), thousands of New Deal works projects were directed at expanding, improving and staffing disabled services around the country. Facilities for the disabled were among the most elegant public works built in that era.

The New Deal was an especially transformative period for blind Americans. On June 20, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Randolph-Sheppard Act, providing economic opportunities and services for the visually impaired. The legislation gave those qualified priority over other vendors to operate concessions, so-called “vending facilities,” on federal properties, including on military bases.

Joseph Clunk, the first blind civil servant in the federal government, was appointed in 1937 to administer the Randolph-Sheppard Act and serve as a “special agent for the blind.” Courtesy American Printing House for the Blind, sites.aph.org.

The passage of the Randolph-Sheppard Act also motivated legislatures in nearly every state to craft similar laws, referred to as ‘mini-Randolph-Sheppard Acts.” These federal and state initiatives today provide economic opportunities to more than 2,500 individuals.

The first blind civil servant, Joseph Clunk, (1895-1975), was hired a year later. Working in the federal Office of Education, Clunk’s main duty was to administer the new law. It seems he held this role until at least 1949, when he became Managing Director of the Philadelphia Association for the Blind.

The WPA provided employment and training of blind workers in Atlanta, Georgia, in the production of goods like brooms, baskets and rugs, some of which were distributed to low-income Americans. Courtesy, NARA.

Many blind Americans found employment in the WPA, where they received instruction in various occupations. The WPA photograph collection at the National Archives reveals many such projects implemented to help the blind become more self-supporting. For example, WPA workers transcribed books into Braille using Braille writers, a machine similar to a typewriter, and recorded “talking books,” precursors to today’s audio books. WPA workers installed labels in Braille at the garden at the Indiana State School for the Blind in Indianapolis. The Public Works Administration (PWA) also provided funding for special education facilities, such as the elementary school on the campus of the Romney School for the Deaf and Blind in Romney, Virginia, one of several such facilities still in use today.

A WPA Braille Map at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, 1936. Courtesy, NARA.

President Roosevelt was not a dispassionate observer of these efforts. In a 1935 telephone call he congratulated the American Foundation for the Blind on the dedication of its new Administration Building in New York, saying he was proud of his association with Helen Keller, whom he would later make chairman of a federal committee to promote goods made by the blind. Keller, blind and deaf since childhood, worked for the foundation for more than forty years.

Blind adults in Atlanta, Georgia learn to read and write Braille. Courtesy, NARA.

FDR also said he considered it “a privilege to have a part in aiding the betterment of conditions for those who have been handicapped by lack of vision and, when I say lack of vision, I mean it in the purely physical sense, because people who are blind certainly have a splendid vision in every other way.”

Pare Lorenz and the U.S. Film Service Take on America’s Problems

Documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz headed the U.S. Film Service. Credit, Wikipedia.

Highlighting the nation’s problems during the Great Depression—and the federal government’s responses to those problems—was the job of the United States Film Service, established in 1938 as part of the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Service’s inspiration was Pare Lorentz, a pioneer in the production of documentary films. Lorentz, a native of West Virginia, directed the U.S. Film Service from 1938 until 1940.

Lorentz’s first film, The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was completed for the federal government in 1936. Hired to head the Film Service, Lorentz soon added The River, to his film credits. Completed in 1938 under the FSA, The River dealt with the disastrous floods along the Mississippi River and construction of Norris and Wheeler Dams.

The Plow That Broke the Plains

The Plow That Broke the Plains
This classic film about the Dust Bowl has been one of the most widely studied documentaries. It was the first film to be placed in Congressional archives. Photo by Arthur Rothstein. Credit: Library of Congress.

Both films employed forceful narration and a dramatic soundtrack to expose how over-farming and soil erosion contributed to natural disasters and the New Deal’s response in the form of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Soil Conservation Service, Civilian Conservation Corps and other conservation initiatives. Lorentz used this tried-and-true style to direct or supervise three more documentary films for the Film Service.

The Fight for Life (1940), about a community health program to reduce maternal mortality, utilized professional actors. (Will Geer would later portray “Grandpa” in The Walton’s). It concludes with a tense scene in which a new mother pleads, “You won’t let me die, will you doctor?” (No spoilers here!)

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.

Film Poster for "The River," directed by Lorentz and produced by the FSA.
The companion book to The River was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Credit, NARA.

The excellent, tightly focused Power and the Land (1940) follows a farming family as they go about their daily chores, pre- and post the Rural Electrification Administration that transformed remote areas of the country—no more oil lamps, just a flip of the switch!

The Land (1949) explores farming problems of the 1930s. It features a segment on Latino migrant workers and music by the National Youth Administration, but the narration is dull and the film falls flat.

The U.S. Film Service ended in the same way many other New Deal programs ended—it was defunded by national defense distractions and an increasingly hostile Congress.

After the New Deal, Lorentz created training films during World War II, worked as a film consultant and produced two notable documentaries: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (1946) and Rural Co-op (1947), but struggled to raise money for other film projects. He died in 1992 at age 86.  

His legacy lives on, aided by the Pare Lorentz Center at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum and the IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, which supports independent films about society’s most pressing problems.

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927

Great Mississippi Flood, Arkansas City, Arkansas, 1927
Poor farming and timber practices led to one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. New Deal conservation efforts were featured in Lorentz’s films. Credit, NOAA.

Were Lorentz alive today—and running a U.S. Film Service—one could expect to see documentaries about such problems as global warming, ocean pollution, wildfires and America’s growing economic inequality playing at local movie theaters. Lorentz believed in the power of film to enlighten the electorate and inspire social change. (He also felt that Hollywood was spending too much time on the frivolous).

The Lost Colony: See an FTP Musical in 2017

The Lost Colony: An FTP musical, alive and well. (Creative Commons.)

Most of us never saw an original production from the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP). But we’re not completely out of luck. Every spring and summer, at North Carolina’s Waterside Theatre at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, audiences can attend a staging of The Lost Colony, a 1937 musical by Paul Green dramatizing the true story of 115 ill-fated English colonists struggling to survive in the land that would eventually become North Carolina. What ultimately happened to the so-called Roanoke colony, which lasted from 1585 to around 1590, remains a mystery to this day.

I went to a performance in August 2016—my first time seeing The Lost Colony—and it was fantastic, with plenty of action (including pyrotechnics), comic relief, and outstanding choreography. (I’m not too much of a song-and-dance person, but I was highly impressed with the musical numbers. In fact, they could have thrown in two or three additional dance sequences!)

In her 1940 book Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre, FTP Director Hallie Flanagan discussed how she, her staff, and WPA workers helped produce the musical: “It came true. The buildings were restored with assistance from the W.P.A. and other agencies, the play was written, the music composed, the actors and musicians assembled, the stage set, and on a July night in 1937, a thousand people gathered to see events re-enacted in the arena in which 350 years ago those events had actually taken place. Everyone watching seemed to feel a relationship to the theme… For three years, from July 4 through September 16, an average of a thousand people a week made a pilgrimage to see the play” (p. 111). What Flanagan did not know at the time was that The Lost Colony would run, with occasional changes from year to year, for another 80 years, a fact discussed in Susan Quinn’s Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times (p. 283).

So, what are you waiting for? The 2017 season begins on Thursday, May 25th. Information on tickets, show times, and more can be found here.

Dacre F. Boulton: The Rediscovery of a New Deal Artist

Dacre F. Boulton, “Industrial” (1934), created for the U.S. Department of Labor. Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

When I work on my blog, “New Deal of the Day,” I sometimes use New Deal artwork images available on the website of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Recently, I came across two paintings by Dacre F. Boulton. The first, “Winter,” is a great image for the frigid weather we’re currently experiencing in my home base, West Virginia. The second, “Industrial,” seems to be a powerful representation of the New Deal’s emphasis on work and infrastructure. And, interestingly, it shows an African American worker alongside white workers, perhaps indicating that the artist was well aware of the New Deal’s desire to extend job and relief opportunities to minorities – an effort which facilitated many integrated work sites across the country.

I couldn’t find much about Dacre Boulton on the Internet. The Smithsonian offers some information; for example, that he worked in the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). But it also notes: “Little is known about the artist Dacre F. Boulton.” With a little more research however, I was able to locate his son, Dr. D’Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. Dr. Boulton was kind enough to share some information about his father and his family, and what follows comes from his responses to several questions that I sent him in December 2016.

Dacre Fiennes Boulton was born on February 23, 1906, in Russell, Manitoba (Canada) to D’Arcy Boulton IV and Georgina Boswell Barrett-Lennard. Young Dacre was born into a family of farmers, but also lawyers, politicians, and military officers. But he bucked the family tradition and pursued his interest in art. With his father’s support, not long after completing his general education at a boarding school in Winnipeg in 1924, Dacre began his studies of art at Washington University in St. Louis, and went on to complete them at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia around 1928. Unfortunately for Boulton, graduation coincided with the first years of one of the worst economic catastrophes in world history – the Great Depression.

Dacre F. Boulton, “Winter” (1934), painted for the U.S. Department of Labor. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum.

During his studies, Boulton had been financially aided by scholarships (which also allowed him to visit museums in Europe); but after graduation from the Academy he must have had some difficulty finding a job that would pay him enough money to be self-sufficient. This was a problem shared by thousands of artists across the country. So, responding to the crisis, federal policymakers created the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of several New Deal programs devoted solely to the arts. The PWAP “was set up under the Treasury Department for supervision, as one of the agencies to extend relief to the professional class, its object being to employ artists who were unemployed in the decoration of public buildings and parks” (Final Report of the PWAP, 1934, p. 1).

For Boulton, the PWAP must have been a godsend, and perhaps an unforeseen one, since it was “the first federal government program to support the arts nationally.” Indeed, shortly after the PWAP ended (and shortly before an even larger federal initiative would begin) Jacob Baker—a high-ranking official in the various New Deal work-relief agencies—wrote in the New York Times, “For the first time in our history, our government has become a patron of the arts, officially and quite unashamed” (“Work Relief: The Program Broadens,” November 11, 1934). Dacre Boulton’s son reflects, “I know that he depended entirely on the money he received from [the PWAP] after his graduation.” And he also recalls that his father “was very grateful to Roosevelt and his administration for establishing the [PWAP], and always spoke highly of the whole project” (email correspondence with Dr. D’Arcy Jonathan Dacre Boulton, December 2016).

Of course, the PWAP was not a one-way street. For a small investment of public funds (about $23 million in today’s dollars), the artists on the project created a great body of work: 3,749 artists produced 15,663 works of art, brightening up public places all across the country. Boulton created at least two of the artworks, the aforementioned “Winter” and “Industrial.” The former “was included in the 1934 exhibit of works created by PWAP artists held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C.”

After the PWAP ended in May 1934, it would be nearly a year and a half before similar programs were created for artists who needed a helping hand: The Treasury Relief Art Project and the WPA’s much larger Federal Art Project, both created in late 1935. But it would be too long of a wait for Boulton, so he returned to Canada to put his talents into high gear. He subsequently enjoyed a very successful career as a commercial artist (at one point, his artwork could be seen in supermarkets all across Canada), and even worked as an artist in the Canadian Army during World War II.

As we know, New Deal policymakers and Congressional lawmakers sometimes showed hesitancy in creating and funding work-relief programs. This is part of the reason we see gaps in time between some New Deal programs, and rapid increases and decreases in employment in programs like the WPA. This hesitancy may have cost America a fine artist in Dacre F. Boulton.

Boulton died in Toronto, on May 26, 1984. He is remembered by his son as a generous and supportive father – two traits he inherited from his own father, D’Arcy Boulton IV. And perhaps, though we may never know for sure, his brief experience in the New Deal served to reinforce his already-existing tendencies towards service and generosity.

New Deal Smiles

Jesus Campos, National Youth Administration worker from Puerto RicoIf you read the news with any regularity, you know that many working Americans are fed up. They’re fed up with stagnant wages, oppressive student loan debt, and trade deals that whittle away at their economic well-being. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren has said, “People feel like the system is rigged against them. And here’s the painful part: they’re right.”

Currently, I’m performing research for The Living New Deal at the National Archives in Washington, DC. We have a number of goals in this research, such as finding more infrastructure projects for states and territories that are underrepresented on the LND map. But one thing that has caught my attention, and which has nothing to do with our research goals (or perhaps, everything to do with them), are the smiles I’m finding in the New Deal photograph collections – a Works Progress Administration (WPA) worker receiving his paycheck, a young Puerto Rican man happy to have a job in the National Youth Administration (NYA), a woman training to be an airplane mechanic, an “army” of young girls running and smiling in an NYA summer camp, a boisterous and happy group of men in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and so on.

Young woman training to be an airplane mechanic, National Youth Administration program, West VirginiaI believe these smiles are representative of something that was present during the New Deal but is largely absent today: A feeling among the downtrodden that the government was truly on their side. During the Great Depression, millions of Americans cried out for jobs and New Deal policymakers answered the call by creating millions of job opportunities in programs like the CCC, NYA, and WPA. That’s responsive public policy: a government for the people. Now, compare that to modern times, when recent research indicates “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” This apparent dismissal of the needs of average citizens might help explain why the 21st Century WPA Act died so quickly in 2011 and why a CCC-like program for unemployed veterans was swatted down in 2012, despite the high unemployment during the years of the Great Recession, 2009-12.

Yes, I think I know why I’m seeing more smiles in the New Deal photograph collections at the National Archives than what I’m seeing in America today.

 -Brent McKee


The Making of a WPA Inventory

The New Deal cared a lot about books--producing, consuming, maintaining them.

The New Deal cared a lot about books–producing, consuming, maintaining them.  SourceWordPress, 2010

I recently completed a new project for the Living New Deal: a list of about 1,500 writings, created between 1935 and 1943, by the Federal Writers’ Project and the WPA Writers’ Program. The writings include both published and unpublished items, and the titles came primarily from two sources: a list compiled by a Florida book seller in the 1970s and a list created by a private firm working in collaboration with the Library of Congress in 1987. Our list, which also includes contemporary scholarship, is organized alphabetically—by state and then by title—and uses a similar (but even more basic) style as the sources listed above. The goal was to make it reader friendly.


I learned two things while I was working on this project. First, creating an inventory of 1,500 writings is somewhere between less-than-fun and merciless torture. The second thing I learned is that the writers of the WPA wrote on a stunning variety of topics – even more topics than I had thought. We’re all familiar with the popular American Guide Series, detailing attractions and history in all states and select cities. But consider some of these other titles, which speak to local interests and idiosyncrasies: National Guard of Wyoming, Wisconsin Circus Lore, Churches of Roanoke, Baseball in Old Chicago, Recreational Activities: Christmas Tree Ornaments, Winter Hikes, Air Raid Warden’s Manual, Seminole Indian Canoes, and Gumbo Ya Ya.


And, really, this list has plenty of room to grow. For example, we could add research reports by WPA workers (traffic studies, disease studies, hydrographic surveys, etc.); books transcribed into Braille by WPA workers; or inventories of church records created by the WPA’s Historical Records Survey to name a few. Or our list could evolve into a larger “New Deal Inventory” that would include reports and writings by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and more. How large could such a list grow? 3,000 items? 4,000? 10,000? Perhaps one day we’ll have a list of every report, publication, manuscript, bulletin, and inventory made by FDR’s alphabet soup of agencies. Check out what we already have in our Bibliography.

The CCC and the Battle of Droop Mountain

Reenacting the Battle of Droop Mountain, courtesy of the CCC.

Reenacting the Battle of Droop Mountain, courtesy of the CCC. Brent McKee, 2015

The afternoon started out fairly quietly, other than a young boy occasionally shouting, “Newspapers for sale! Read all about it!” Then, a little after 1:00pm, a canon shot thundered out, startling the onlookers and marking the beginning of the battle. For the next half-hour, Union and Confederate bullets tore through the air as the Yankees tried to dislodge the Rebels from their mountaintop position. And when the last clouds of smoke lifted off the field, and the Rebel Yell could be heard no more, the wounded on both sides began to move; while many more lay still.


And I witnessed it all at the reenactment of the Battle of Droop Mountain, held at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park, in southeastern West Virginia, this past Sunday, October 11, 2015. A good-sized crowd of spectators and actors enjoyed a gorgeous fall day with clear blue skies and a temperature of around 70 degrees. But many of them probably did not know that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a large role in preserving this historical site.


The Battle of Droop Mountain occurred on November 6, 1863. It “represented Civil War in its truest… form. The heaviest fight occurred on the left flank where former neighbors in the 10th West Virginia and 19th Virginia met in the closest combat. While one brother fought against the Confederates on the left flank, another with the 22nd Virginia defended the right.” Casualties were about 119 Union and 275 Confederate. 72 years later, young men in the CCC came to the battlefield to preserve the history and to create a park. According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, “Camp Price was established in 1935 on Droop Mountain at the site of the 1863 Civil War battle. During two short years Camp Price enrollees reclaimed the battlefield [presumably by removing trees and undergrowth], planted trees, constructed cabins and the lookout tower and developed the picnic areas; most of the existing current park buildings are CCC constructed buildings… One rental cabin built by the enrollees is a Civil War Museum and also houses some CCC artifacts.”


Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park is just one of many examples of New Deal efforts to preserve Civil War history. Others projects included repair & restoration work at Antietam National Battlefield, Gettysburg National Military Park, the War Correspondents Memorial Arch, and Fort Frederick, which also has history dating back to the French & Indian War. And these New Deal investments greatly benefit us today, highlighted by Civil War reenactments, history tourism, and preserved artifacts.


So get out there and enjoy your Civil War History, courtesy of the New Deal.



Austerity or a New Deal for Puerto Rico?

New Deal money at work, providing medical services.

New Deal money at work, providing medical services.

The unemployment rate for Puerto Rico is currently 12.6%. The island is also $72 billion in debt. And Republicans in Congress are opposed to providing the territory with the same type of bankruptcy protections that are available to the states. To address Puerto Rico’s economic problems, some officials and analysts have been promoting austerity measures—for example, reduced college funding, weaker labor laws, lower health care expenditures, teacher layoffs, and higher sales tax. The adoption of these austerity recommendations will disproportionately burden the middle-class and poor. And so we might ask: Is there an alternative approach to the island’s economic problems?


Precedent exists. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Puerto Rico was rocked by the Great Depression and two devastating hurricanes that destroyed many of the island’s buildings and homes. Its economy was left in tatters. New Deal policymakers addressed these problems by increasing food assistance, enhancing medical services, employing the jobless, and building up infrastructure.

New Deal workers dig a water line in San Juan.

New Deal workers dig a water line in San Juan.

Indeed, the contrast between the New Deal approach and the austerity approach could not be more astounding. Starting in 1933, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) provided funding for new schools, new hospitals, new infrastructure, and public works jobs for the unemployed. Later, the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration (RA) did the same, and for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hired thousands of Puerto Rican men to plant trees, reduce erosion, and build fish hatcheries. The National Youth Administration (NYA) helped hundreds of young men and women complete their high school and college education. The Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put many thousands to work building roads, improving airports, and bolstering national defense. In 1936, the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation provided Puerto Ricans with 970 tons of flour, 440 tons of rolled oats, 25 tons of dried beans, 105 tons of onions, 90 tons of dried peas, and 150 tons of dried prunes. During fiscal year 1940 it provided about 428 tons of food to school lunch programs, feeding tens of thousands of children.


New Deal assistance & investment improved the quality of life for Puerto Ricans for many decades after the New Deal. It’s an important historical lesson, and it’s worth considering today.


Facts & figures from: (1) Second Report of the Puerto Rican Emergency Relief Administration, from September 1, 1934, to September 30, 1935 and Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for Puerto Rico, from October 1, 1935, to June 30, 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939. (2) “Facts about the Puerto Rico Reconstruction Administration,” New Deal Network, https://newdeal.feri.org/pr/pr10.htm, accessed July 22, 2015. (3) Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt’s Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981. (4) Federal Security Agency – War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944. (5) Public Works Administration, America Builds: The Record of PWA, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939. (6) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946. (7) Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, Report of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation for the Calendar Year 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937. (8) Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation, Report of the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation for the Calendar Year 1936, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940.



America’s Infrastructure Gets a D+

Cumberland, Maryland

WPA workers constructing a sidewalk, 1937
Cumberland, Maryland

If there ever was a time to invest in a New New Deal, this is it. Our airports, roads, bridges, dams, parks, schools, and water lines are falling apart. The American Society of Civil Engineers annually issues a report card on the condition of our nation’s infrastructure. This year the nation’s engineers gave America a D+.

They estimate it will take $3.6 trillion for America to rebuild. Meanwhile, 26 million Americans who would like a full-time job can’t find one. During the Great Depression, Americans invested in work and construction programs that built much of the infrastructure we depend on today. Now America’s infrastructure investment barely makes the grade:

Aviation: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that the national cost of airport congestion and delays was almost $22 billion in 2012.” Grade: D

Skagit River, Washington

Recent bridge collapse on I-5
Skagit River, Washington

Bridges: “…one in nine of the nation’s bridges are rated as structurally deficient…” Grade: C+

Dams: “The number of deficient dams is estimated at more than 4,000, which includes 2,000 deficient high-hazard dams.” Grade: D

Drinking Water: “There are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States.” Grade: D

Levees: “Many levees were originally used to protect farmland from flooding and now are increasingly protecting developed communities. The reliability of these levees is unknown in many cases, and public safety remains at risk from these aging structures.” Grade: D-

Parks and Recreation: Park and recreation “activities contribute $646 billion to the nation’s economy, supporting 6.1 million jobs. Yet states and localities struggle to provide these benefits amid flat and declining budgets.” Grade: C-

Roads: “Forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually.” Grade: D

Schools: “Public school enrollment is projected to gradually increase through 2019, yet state and local school construction funding continues to decline.” Grade: D

Susan Ives contributed to this article.