Guest Essay: Bring Back The WPA

This piece was written by Stephen Seufert, a new friend of the Living New Deal.  We’re happy to re-print his op-ed here with his permission; it also has appeared on PhillyBurbs.com and njtimes.com.
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By Stephen Seufert

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/ .

is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

10 comments on “Guest Essay: Bring Back The WPA

  1. Boy, do I approve this message!

  2. Jeanette J. Sandberg

    WPA put thousands and thousands of people back to work.
    Building roads, paving thousands of miles of country roads
    building new schools, and repairing old ones- build bridges and repaired old ones brought ‘electric lights’ to many who still use kerosene lamps for light. Started many Night classes- where many were able to learn new “job skills” and get their “high school diplomas. Also brought the telephone to many who had no means of communication. WPA worked and we didn’t go broke!!!
    How did America do it back then??? Was it because America
    was a much richer country???

  3. Mary-Jane Sears

    Right On! This gentleman should run for office!! He’d certainly be a politician who not only represented his constituents but cared about them & the country too and all too well understood that he was there to work for those who voted for him!

  4. russel heim

    This kind of reminds me of Mr. Ed’s comment on MSNBC where he states we need to have the government create the jobs just like they did to end the depression!?? The depression ended as we ended ww 2 and the factories began to produce for the war effort!

    • Actually, the Great Depression was over by Pearl Harbor, and the New Deal’s public works programs are largely responsible for ending it. The full employment and deficit spending of World War II is one of the best arguments I can think of for Keynsian economics, though I don’t recommend a world war as a way to get out of the economic hole that austerity and deregulation are so successfully digging for the great majority of people today.

  5. Denise Williams

    Can you send this to all the Congressmen/women and Senators? It’s the first thing I’ve heard that has made any sense.

  6. Building new schools, Industrial Wastewater Treatment and repairing old ones- build bridges and repaired old ones brought ‘electric lights’ to many who still use kerosene lamps for light. Started many Night classes- where many were able to learn new “job skills” and get their “high school diplomas. Also brought the telephone to many who had no means of communication.

  7. this would be a great program if the people actually got a living wage. that is my main mistrust with these programs they usually claim a benefit they dont give. the major problem with this will be the corporations and wealthy that think they are entitled to enourmous profits that they can hide from taxation. so this will be another very hard fight to make right and actually work

  8. I’ve been saying this for a while, this person said it better than I have. I am 100% behind the idea, and it has been proposed, and shot down by the just-say-no tea party congress. It might make Obama look good. I think they keep hoping they will win, and then they will get credit for it, but if folks give the Congress back to Obama in 2014, we will see things like this getting done.

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