September 2021

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Beyond Infrastructure

Soil Conservation Service

Soil Conservation Service
A New Deal environmental restoration effort in response to the Dust Bowl.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

In overcoming the Great Depression, the New Deal approached national recovery not only through vast public works for which it is best known, but also through the arts, education, conservation and a social safety net. The New Deal’s ambitions extended to providing housing, schools, museums, concert halls, community centers, parks and playgrounds; restoring depleted forests and soils; supporting musicians, writers and artists; and improving literacy, nutrition, public health and safety. More than eighty years after it began, the New Deal has reemerged in a national conversation about America’s future. A Green New Deal, a Civilian Climate Corps; a New Deal for Writers; for Teachers, for Youth, for Labor, for Higher Education, for Women, for Seniors; for Civil Rights—are among the propositions being put forward. Beyond infrastructure, what might a new New Deal include?  

In this Issue:

The Crisis of Childcare

Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother
Florence Owens Thompson and her children. Nipomo, California, 1936
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

Two children bury their heads into their mother’s shoulders. The mother is from Oklahoma. Her family is living in a migrant camp in Nipomo, California. She looks out from the canvas tent where lives with her ten children, her hand cradling her haggard face. She is Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of Dorothea Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph, “Migrant Mother.”

“We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something,” Thompson’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalled decades later. “She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate.”

Florence Owens Thompson worked the fields with her children alongside her. She could barely afford food, much less pay someone to care for her young family while she worked.

Childcare has historically been a dilemma for poor and working mothers alike. Believing that mothers should stay home with their children, social reformers pushed for pensions—not childcare. By 1930, nearly every state in the union had some form of mothers’ or widows’ pensions. But strict eligibility requirements and inadequate funding compelled many women to find jobs. With few options for childcare. Children would be left alone or brought along to the workplace, sometimes in hazardous conditions.

WPA Nursery School

WPA Nursery School
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a WPA nursery school in Des Moines, Iowa in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Between 1933 and 1934, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) opened nearly 3,000 Emergency Nursery Schools (ENS), enrolling 64,000 students in 43 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The History of Childcare in the U.S., describes the New Deal effort: “Unlike the earlier nursery schools, which were largely private, charged fees, and served a middle-class clientele, these free, government-sponsored schools were open to children of all classes. Designed as schools rather than as child care facilities, the ENS were only open for part of the day, and their enrollments were supposedly restricted to the children of the unemployed. They did, however, become a form of de facto child care for parents employed on various WPA work-relief projects,” according to Dr. Sonya Michel.

In 1943, the U.S. Senate passed the first, and thus far only, national childcare program, voting $20 million to provide public care of children whose mothers were employed in the war effort.

Childcare Program

Childcare Program
The Lanham Act, adopted in 1942, was the first and, thus far, the only universal childcare program in the U.S.
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

In 1965 a bipartisan bill to establish national child-development and day-care centers was passed by both houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President Nixon, who dismissed it as “family weakening.”

A half-century later, there is still is no broad-based federally supported child care.

Though the need persists, childcare is increasingly beyond the means of many families. Under the current policies, most parents must cover the full cost on their own. Costs vary widely but the average cost of a sending a child to a day care center in the U.S. is $10,000 per year.

The federal government considers child care affordable when it is 10 percent or less of a family’s income. Low income and single parent families pay a much larger share of their income for child care and have less access to licensed childcare. Most young children spend time in multiple childcare settings. An estimated 15.7 million children under age 5 are in at least one childcare “arrangement” while their parents are working, at school, or otherwise unavailable to care for them. Currently, only 1.9 million children receive subsidized care through the federal Child Care and Development Fund.

Children at childcare center in New Britain, Connecticut, while their mothers worked in the war industry, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The U.S. trails behind other industrial nations such as France, Sweden, and Denmark, which offer free or subsidized childcare. “Unlike the United States, these countries use child care not as a lever in a harsh mandatory employment policy toward low-income mothers, but as a means of helping parents of all classes reconcile the demands of work and family life,” Dr. Michel point out.

Harry Hopkins, the New Deal’s Federal Relief Administrator, emphasized the need for such assistance. “The education and health programs of nursery schools can aid as nothing else in combating the physical and mental handicaps being imposed upon these young children in the homes of needy and unemployed parents,” Hopkins said.

Story Time

Teacher reading to young children at child care center, New Britain, Connecticut, 1943
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, Courtesy LOC Prints & Photographs Division

The Biden Administration has proposed what could be a New Deal for childcare. The “American Families Plan” includes $200 billion for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. If fully implemented, it would save the average family $13,000 and provide free or reduced-cost child care for the majority of working families with children under the age of six. The plan would affect about 9.76 million children nationwide.



Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He's written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, National Parks Magazine, and Seattle Magazine.

America Needs a Federal Scholars Project

Poster for the American Guide Series

Poster for the American Guide Series
Like the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, a Federal Scholars Project could support intellectual and cultural production today.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

The humanities and social sciences in the United States today are on the verge of collapse. After forty years of austerity and disinvestment in higher education, more than 75 percent of the teaching in America’s colleges and universities is done by part-time adjunct instructors paid abysmally low salaries. A generation of younger scholars are at risk of being shut out of viable careers, representing a tremendous loss to our society and culture.

The Great Depression offers not only an historical example of direct public employment for members of America’s creative class, but also lessons for making it happen. Just as the New Deal provided jobs for thousands of out-of-work writers, artists and performers during the Great Depression, a new jobs program is needed now for scholars who, through the casualization of intellectual labor, find themselves without jobs or precariously employed.

The New Deal’s Federal Art Project (FAP), Federal Writers Project (FWP), Federal Theater Project (FTP), and Federal Music Project (FMP) provide useful models. Through these WPA cultural projects, talented young people—including women, ethnic minorities and people from working-class backgrounds—were able to pursue creative careers despite the economic calamity. These initiatives democratized access to culture in another way as well—bringing music, art, and theater to geographically remote or socially marginalized communities—often for the first time.

WPA Historical Records Survey

WPA Historical Records Survey
Employees microfilming documents in New Jersey in 1937.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

A new federal jobs program hiring young talent in the humanities and social sciences—a Federal Scholars Project—could similarly advance these democratic objectives. Much as the FWP detailed the histories and cultures of various states and cities through its American Guide series, and the FAP created art for the broadest public possible, a direct employment program for the humanities and social sciences would produce teaching, research, scholarly studies and cultural materials as public goods.

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem

Poster for the WPA Federal Art Project’s Community Art Center in Harlem
Community-based centers today could host employees of a new Federal Scholars Project along with writers, artists and performers.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, Library of Congress

Although the College for All bill now before Congress would help to reverse the long slide into the academic gig economy, a Federal Scholars Project could do even more. Developed in consultation with the New Deal for Higher Education campaign, College for All would make four years of higher education free for most Americans, while requiring that institutions that received new federal funding commit to having 75 percent of all teaching done by full-time, tenure-track faculty within five years. Passage of College for All would be an enormous victory in the struggle to restore the New Deal vision of public goods, but it shouldn’t limit our horizons.

Imagine a Federal Scholars Project that teamed up academic humanists and social scientists with artists, writers and performers to create innovative representations of America’s past, present and future. A Federal Scholars Project could also facilitate the formation of new experimental institutions and sites for the production of knowledge and culture, much as the FAP did in the 1930s by sponsoring the Design Laboratory, the first comprehensive school of modernist design in the United States. Also, employees of the Federal Scholars Project could still be assigned to financially strapped universities and colleges, archives, libraries, museums and other types of community-based cultural centers as a way of providing indirect assistance.

WPA-Sponsored Design Laboratory
Students and faculty at work in the experimental school’s studio in 1936.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration

Finally, the New Deal’s cultural projects only came about because unemployed members of the creative class organized to demand jobs. The proponents of the cultural projects succeeded in the 1930s because they were part of a broader social movement—a Popular Front—that included white-collar unions that advocated for racial, ethnic and gender equality and antifascist solidarity in addition to public patronage for culture. Securing a robust federal response to today’s crisis of academic employment will likewise depend on organizing and coalition-building among unions and contemporary movements for social equality and workplace diversity, but it can and must be done. The history of the WPA cultural projects shows us the way.


Shannan Clark is Associate Professor of History at Montclair State University. He is the author of The Making of the American Creative Class: New York’s Culture Workers and Twentieth-Century Consumer Capitalism, new from Oxford University Press.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.