“The overwhelming majority of unemployed Americans, who are now walking the streets and receiving private or public relief, would infinitely prefer to work.” FDR, 1933
It may seem hard to believe, but back in the 1930s the Federal government put Americans to work who couldn’t find a job in the private sector. Imagine that, the government assisting the unemployed by providing them a job. Instead of giving them a handout, able bodied men and women out of work joined Federal programs such as the WPA (Works Progress Administration). The WPA was and still is considered to be one of the most successful New Deal programs, yet it’s largely forgotten today.
The WPA employed over 8 million Americans from 1935 to 1943 and pumped $11 billion into the economy($170 billion total/$19 billion each year by today’s standards). In the first year alone, the WPA employed over 3 million Americans on public works projects across the nation. In total, the WPA constructed 116,000 buildings, 78,000 bridges, 651,000 miles of road and improved 800 airports.
An interesting aspect of the WPA is that the military, more specifically the Army Corps of Engineers, used its logistical and organizing skills effectively and enthusiastically to help the program be the success that it was. General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the Army during the formation of the WPA, saw the great potential of putting Army officers in charge of public works programs. The WPA gave many officers practical experience later used in World War II and also saved military jobs. Today, veterans are among the highest unemployed.
Additionally, while the national unemployment rate has dropped below 8%, specific sectors such as construction are well above 11%. These unemployed construction workers are skilled, blue collar workers looking for an honest day’s work.
Why not bring back the WPA? The current welfare system doesn’t adequately represent the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution. Ask yourself this, is modern welfare helping the general population? A true welfare system would serve the interests of all Americans. Currently, the welfare system is one sided and taxpayers are growing tired of supporting those on welfare because of the seemingly diminishing returns. In 2011 alone, it was found that $14 billion was overpaid in unemployment benefits. In the past four years, unemployed Americans have collected $438 billion in Federal unemployment benefits. Shift that revenue over to creating a new WPA and restore the true meaning of “general welfare” to the Constitution.
The idea is simple, give WPA workers a living wage so that they in turn can spend that money on businesses. Businesses need costumers and with a million or more men and women employed in the WPA that’s what they’ll get. Bottom line, the government must be willing to spend and build in order for Americans to spend and grow once again. Lowering taxes and cutting spending won’t help the unemployed pay rent or buy food; giving them a job will.
On the home front there is much to be done, yet time and again chances are squandered to rebuild America. Several states along the east coast were devastated by hurricane Sandy. In 1937, FDR sent over 200,000 WPA workers to assist in disaster relief after a major flood along the Ohio River Valley devastated the area. In 1938, a hurricane similar to Sandy hammered the east coast. Hundreds died and hundreds of thousands more were left without shelter. FDR once again sent WPA workers to assist in disaster relief. The Red Cross Chairman at the time, Morman Davis, credited the WPA as being part of “one of the most amazing disaster recoveries this organization has ever known.” We need another coordinated effort to rebuild and restore the east coast after Sandy.
This article is meant to remind Americans there was a time in our history where we were united in our common interests. That when things needed to be done, the American people carried on with great courage and determination. Today, there is a prevailing view that government can do no right and that the best government is limited government. Well I strongly disagree. As I stated in a previous articles, I want a government that works for all the people. I don’t care about the shape or size, as long as it serves the interests of all Americans.
Stephen Seufert, Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania, has a bachelor’s degree in government and political affairs. He was communications director of the Pennsylvania College Democrats and president of the Millersville Chapter of College Democrats from 2010-2011. He maintains a blog at http://seufert.blogspot.com/ .