August 2021

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Investing In Prosperity

wpa  The New Deal was an unprecedented campaign of national construction. According to a study by economists Price Fishback and Valentina Kachanovskaya, the New Deal cost $41.7 billion at the time—about $827 billion in today’s dollars. What did America get for its money? Michael Hilzik, in his book The New Deal, A Modern History, summed it up this way: “The WPA produced 1,000 miles of new and rebuilt airport runways, 651,000 miles of highway, 124,000 bridges, 8,000 parks and 18,000 playgrounds and athletic fields; some 84,000 miles of drainage pipes, 69,000 highway light standards and 125,000 public buildings were built, rebuilt or expanded. To this day, Americans still rely on its work for transportation, electricity, flood control, housing and community amenities.” The New Deal laid the foundation for the decades of productivity and prosperity that followed. Eighty years on, America’s infrastructure has fallen into desperate disrepair. President Biden’s $1 trillion plan to “build back better” is a belated downpayment on decades of deferred maintenance, as well as investment in America’s future.

In this Issue:

Why The New Deal Matters

Rural Electrificatio

Rural Electrification
Members of the REA cooperative in Hayti, Missouri at an annual meeting. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

The New Deal’s legacy is everywhere, in ways both grand and modest. If you want to see the New Deal you don’t really need to know where to look: you just need to know what you’re looking at.

Our public spaces were, and still are, shaped by the New Deal. Almost anywhere in the United States you are probably near a post office, library, school, park, museum, bridge or sidewalk built or improved by the New Deal. So, it’s not surprising that the New Deal of infrastructure is probably the New Deal that first comes to mind.

But when I say that New Deal is everywhere, I really mean everywhere, especially in economic activity.

If you have a bank account, your deposits are insured by the New Deal’s Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, operating since 1933.

If you’ve used money to buy stocks, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Securities and Exchange Commission, established in 1934 to enforce trading transparency laws.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West.

Overseas Highway connecting mainland Florida to Key West
Built by the PWA, the 100-mile-long highway stretches over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Courtesy, State Library and Archives of Florida.

If you’ve bought a house, you’ve certainly made use of, at least indirectly, the Federal National Mortgage Association better known as Fannie Mae, created in 1938 to enable a national mortgage market.

But you don’t have to be carrying on high finance to feel the economic impact of the New Deal in your daily life.

If you’ve joined a union, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Wagner Act of 1935, which protected the right to organize and bargain collectively.

If you’ve earned minimum wage, thank the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also barred child labor.

If you or someone in your family has drawn a federal old-age pension, disability benefits, or unemployment insurance, you’ve made use of the New Deal’s Social Security Act of 1935.

But even that summary underestimates the economic ubiquity of the New Deal:

The dollar we use today is a creation of the Roosevelt Administration’s first days in office, when the president took the dollar off the gold standard and secured from Congress the authority to change the value of the dollar to ensure the smooth functioning of the economy. If you’ve ever been paid, saved, spent or even handled a dollar, you’ve come into contact with the New Deal.

The New Deal shaped the land. Policies we still have today to control production and sustain use of the soil began with the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the 1930s.

New Deal agencies, like the Tennessee Valley Authority, built dams to generate power for impoverished rural regions, transforming the kinds of industry that could take place there.

Developing National Parks

Developing National Parks
CCC crews leave for job sites in Grand Canyon National Park, 1934. Courtesy, Grand Canyon NP Museum Collection.

The original New Deal was—in its way and for its day—green. It introduced the idea of ecological thinking to large-scale policy. When we think about a Green New Deal, we should remember the innumerable trees, parks, trails and firebreaks installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The New Deal also brought an end to the 19th-century policies of homesteading and allotment, which broke up federal and Native lands and parceled them out to individual owners. It restored control of Native lands to Native nations, which renewed recognition of their sovereignty.

Road-building programs—by far the largest part of the Works Progress Administration—knitted disparate parts of the nation together, making remote locales accessible for travel and commerce, thus making the postwar economic boom possible.

The Air Traffic Control system is a result of the New Deal, as is the Federal Communications Commission.

  Workers at the Social Security Administration 

Workers at the Social Security Administration 
The SSA used IBM tabulators to keep track of enrollees in the system. Courtesy, Wikimedia.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and, indeed, the United Nations itself are institutions that carried New Deal programs and ideals into the postwar world.

To say the New Deal matters is to realize that it gave shape to our world and that we reckon with it every day. But its ubiquity is only one reason the New Deal still matters.

We remember the Great Depression as an economic crisis. But we should also remember that to Roosevelt and many who voted for him the Depression caused a crisis of democracy.

Americans went hungry as unemployment skyrocketed. Millions of Americans became refugees in their own country.

At least so far as FDR’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover was concerned, government could do little, or at any rate, would do little, to help. When Americans protested this inaction, the government proved it could rouse itself quite swiftly to send out the army to teargas protesters and run them off.  Within the United States and around the world, many wondered if democracy had reached its end.

Roosevelt was, more than most people, sensible of this threat. Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, just after FDR won election to the presidency. A friend told FDR if he succeeded he would be remembered as one of the greatest American presidents, and if he failed, he would be remembered as one of the worst. Roosevelt responded, “if I fail, I may well be the last.”

The New Deal was, and remains, imperfect. But it held out the promise and demonstrated the possibility of an improved democracy for Americans, which is why, even to those mindful of the New Deal’s shortcomings, the New Deal still matters very much today.

Eric Rauchway, a member of the Living New Deal’s Research Board, is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He is author of several acclaimed books including The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction; and Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal. His Why the New Deal Matters, (Yale University Press) was published in 2021.

Maintaining Civilization

CCC forestry

CCC forestry
Men of the Civilian Conservation Corps cleared brush, fought fires and replanted forests. Courtesy, US Forest Service.

Maintenance is much on my mind as megafires once again rage across California and President Biden’s infrastructure proposals collide with the partisan stonewall in Congress. During the 1930s, it took about 16,000 Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruits two years to build the Ponderosa Way, an 800-mile-long fire break the length of the Sierra Nevada. A few decades of neglect following the Second World War erased the fire break from the landscape and memory. Now, it will take trillions of dollars of public investment to redress the nation’s decaying infrastructure which, like the Ponderosa, Americans largely but unknowingly owe to the New Deal. 

 Repairing the gold dome, 1934.

Repairing the gold dome, 1934.
Civil Works Administration workmen cleaning and painting the dome at the Colorado State Capitol. Courtesy, Wikimedia Commons.

Infrastructure undergirds the growth of all complex civilizations. Its neglect or sabotage contributes mightily to their fall. In 1936, the top marginal tax rates in the U.S. jumped from 63 to 79 percent, largely to pay for the New Deal’s public works programs. It rose further still to 92 percent in 1952 under President Eisenhower. But that rate began to fall sharply in the 1980s during the Reagan Administration. Though already low, funding for infrastructure plummeted after 2010, falling far short of the $450 billion annually that the American Society of Civil Engineers 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure says would be needed to protect public safety and assure productivity.

Rosedale Playground, Washington, D.C.

Rosedale Playground, Washington, D.C.
The WPA renovated city playgrounds. WPA and National Youth Administration (NYA) workers ran recreation programs. Courtesy, National Archives.

Maintenance is not sexy, nor do politicians reap credit for it, so it’s easy to scrimp. The millions of public jobs created by New Deal agencies during the Great Depression made the 1930s a golden age not just of building but also of maintenance. Refurbishing schools and parks raised the spirits of those who used them and arguably contributed to the social order. In fact, 80 percent of Americans today support rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure—more than almost any other top issue facing the current Administration. According to the Value of Water’s 2020 National Survey on Public Opinion on Water Infrastructure, nearly everyone (97 percent) said that America’s infrastructure is at least somewhat important. Only strengthening the economy ranked slightly higher, at 81 percent, and the two are inextricably linked. 

In 1942, as Washington closed down work relief agencies such as the Works Progress Administration and CCC to free men up for war, Roberts Mann, the Superintendent of Maintenance for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois, wrote in Parks and Recreation what he saw coming to Chicago’s richly endowed parks and those elsewhere as they “entered upon the lean years:”

Washington Monumen

Washington Monument
PWA funds restored the famous D.C. landmark. Courtesy, National Archives.

“The past ten have been years of plenty—too fat for those of us who blithely drifted with the flood of federal labor and materials, to find ourselves with more acres, more buildings, more facilities and more frosting-on-the-cake than we possibly can maintain. It has been proven that poor maintenance engenders disrespect, misuse, abuse and vandalism by the public. Dirt breeds dirt, disorder breeds more disorder; shoddy, ill-kempt buildings and grounds invite contemptuous, careless treatment by our customers.

Mann could well have been describing our own time, though it was not war but a starved tax base—even in fat years—that led the nation to neglect the maintenance that has held it—and its people—together.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.