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 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 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 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.
FWP Poster Writers at work. Courtesy, NY City Municipal Archives.
During the Great Depression, improving the nation’s infrastructure wasn’t the New Deal’s only agenda. Economic recovery also meant providing useful relief jobs to creative professionals, leading to the establishment of Federal One, the umbrella organization for the Federal Art, Theatre, Music, and Writers’ Projects.
The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed thousands of out-of-work editors, writers and others, and published hundreds of books in its quest to create a self-portrait of America. It supported writers through hard times and propelled careers, with authors such as Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison, Saul Levitt, Kenneth Rexroth, Mari Tomasi, May Swenson, Margaret Walker, and Richard Wright among the many authors who were part of this literary legacy. This idealistic program endeavored, through its publications, to celebrate the mosaic of racial, ethnic and cultural identities in America. It also, unfortunately, attracted the attention of conservatives, anti-New Dealers and the first iteration of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), leading to the FWP’s shutdown.
American Guide The FWP published travel guides to 48 states and some regions and cities. Photo by Addie Borchert.
After Congress defunded the FWP in 1939, it was soon nearly erased from the public mind. A host of books, starting with Jerre Mangione’s 1972 book, The Dream and the Deal, resurrected interest in the FWP, helping to re-establish the importance of the Project.
Borchert’s well-researched history of the Project is offered alongside a historical backdrop. The American literary scene converges with cultural and political themes, stretching from the aftermath of the Civil War through the 1930s. The narrative and inviting writing style are welcoming to both FWP scholars and readers new to the Project.
Gathering of Nuggets The frontpiece of the FWP’s 1939 book, “Idaho Lore”. Courtesy, LOC.
Borchert’ interest in the FWP began with the discovery of a treasure trove of American Guide books in his great-uncle’s attic. The American Guide series, the centerpiece of the FWP’s accomplishments, spanned every one of the then-48 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C. and dozens of cities and regions. Each guide included not only travel tours, but also essays on local folklore, history and geography.
Borchert’s telling of the FWP encompasses everything that made the agency special: the oral history/slave narratives collected by FWP workers; aspiring, soon-to-be famous writers; the evolving American Guide book series; segregation and racism in the Southern States; the “secret” creative writing unit approved by FWP director Henry Alsberg—and much more.
Temple Herndon Dunham, Age 103 From “Born in Slavery, Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project.” Courtesy, LOC Slave Narrative Collection.
Borchert examines previously unexplored aspects of the Project, including important but lesser known editors and writers like Vardis Fisher, the director of the Idaho Writers’ Project. Fisher, a novelist who grew up on a homestead, almost singlehandedly wrote his state’s guide, the first to be published. Readers also learn about Katharine Kellock, the FWPs highest-ranking woman, a powerhouse who helped devise the tour sections of the guide books. Borchert also brings us the story of writer Sherwood Anderson’s little-known involvement in the New Deal, as he traveled the nation to write for the FDR-endorsed magazine, Today, reporting on the impacts of Roosevelt’s new policies.
Rep. Martin Dies with Hollywood studio executives, 1939 Dies head a House Special Committee to combat un-American ideologies. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration. Courtesy, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives.
No book on the FWP is complete without the battle played out in newspapers of the day, between Congressman Martin Dies, who chaired HUAC, and FWP’s beleaguered director Henry Alsberg, who struggled to save the Project and its writers from reactionary elements. Borchert also highlights the cultural and historical events that influenced HUAC and triggered its creation.
The legacy of the FWP is often wrapped around its famous writers and its work relief programs. Borchert points to yet another legacy.
Henry Alsberg The founding director of the FWP testifying at HUAC hearing, 1938. Courtesy, LOC.
“The FWP, utterly and explicitly, was anti-fascist by design,” Borchert writes. He reminds us that the FWP was created while fascism was taking hold abroad and domestic groups like the Ku Klux Klan tried to worm its way into American society. “This was the backdrop against which the FWP was initiated, the fascist upsurge that it sought— through the American Guides and other efforts—to oppose.”
The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.
President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.
Harold Ickes As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.
I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.
Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.
Blue Bible Project page The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.
Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance. The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.”
Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com
Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”
Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”
PWA Map Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu
The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.
Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.
Harry Hopkins, (1890-1946) Hopkins oversaw the New Deal relief programs. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Harry Lloyd Hopkins (1890-1946) stood at the side of President Franklin Roosevelt through the two terrible crises of the 20th century—the Great Depression and the Second World War. Hopkins was the president’s trusted advisor, his close friend, his gatekeeper, and for three and a half years, his house guest. He was never elected to any office, yet he occupied a position of power in Washington that has yet to be matched.
FERA Vocational training camp for unemployed women in Pennsylvania, 1934 Hopkins supervised the first emergency relief effort, FERA, superseded by the CWA and later, the WPA. Courtesy, Library of Congress.
which created jobs for 8.5 million Americans, and left a legacy on the American landscape that endures to this day.
He also served as Secretary of Commerce from 1938 to 1940. Hopkins’ upbringing in America’s heartland and his education at Iowa’s Grinnell College prepared him for his lifelong fight for social justice. As a social worker, his goal was social justice for all Americans. He began his public career with a deeply embedded belief that the government on all levels—but especially the federal government— has the constitutional responsibility to ensure the general welfare of all of its citizens.
He firmly believed that this included the right to earn a decent living and, if private industry could not absorb all those who wanted to work, it rested with the federal government to be the employer of last resort.
Wife and children of a sharecropper, 1936 Hopkins believed government must insure the well-being of all its citizens. Courtesy, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
During the dark years of the Depression, Hopkins stood out as the one who knew how to cut through red tape. He had the administrative skills to get things done and a sharp tongue for those who criticized the unemployed as lazy.
During the war years Hopkins deftly carried out power diplomacy, acting as the lynchpin for the Big Three—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—fighting a coalition war. As Roosevelt’s envoy, he was constantly ill, often to the point of debilitation, but relentlessly served the president’s mission to defeat fascism. For Hopkins, this was the goal of social justice writ large.
For all his adult life, Hopkins worked as a public servant. Human welfare was always his priority – for the welfare Americans suffering deprivation during the economic depression of the 1930s and then from 1940 through 1945, for people worldwide being terrorized by expansionist and militaristic dictators.
Hopkins and Churchill, 1940 Hopkins was FDR’s emissary during during WWII. Courtesy, Brittanica.com.
At Hopkins memorial service in 1946, John Steinbeck described Hopkins’ legacy: “Human welfare is the first and final task of government. There is no other.”
That dictum—the Americans have the right to live in security and that government has the responsibility to provide for that security— is Hopkins greatest legacy. In the aftermath of Roosevelt’s administrations, Steinbeck wrote, the federal government can no longer deny its responsibility for human welfare.
President Roosevelt and Hopkins Rochester Minnesota, 1938 Courtesy, Library of Congress.
Today, my grandfather’s legacy remains largely unrecognized. It would serve the nation well to remember that the task of government is to insure the general welfare of all Americans in peace and in war. Those who have the honor to serve in government must understand that this is their first and final responsibility.
Berkeley Rose Garden, Berkeley, California Architect Bernard Maybeck designed the terraced garden. Constructed by hundreds of workers from the CWA and later, the WPA, the garden was dedicated in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
Recently, progressive Democrats have proposed a Green New Deal, a massive transition to protect our planet from further damage from the juggernaut of climate change. It’s time to consider as well a Beauty New Deal to protect and restore America’s natural environment and enrich and deepen the quality of our lives.
There is an inherent human need for beauty and the vitality of creative expression. Beauty impacts all of life. Studies show that beautiful built surroundings and access to parks, nature and green space contribute to good health, social connection, altruism, equity, tolerance, reduced consumerism and increased sustainability.
While beauty’s private aspects are subject to the same unjust distribution as other private goods, beauty, as a public good, has equity as its larger dimension.
In the 1960s, amid antiwar and civil rights marches, members of Congress worked across the aisle, responding to President Lyndon Johnson’s warning that we were becoming “an ugly America” and needed to restore and protect a beautiful America for future generations.
“The Progress of the Negro Race,” 1938 A decorative frieze by Daniel Olney adorns the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing complex in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress
This led not only to expanding national, state and local parks and beautifying highways, but to beautifying urban America as well.
Encouraged by Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Lady Bird Johnson led a broad “beautification” campaign, starting with the nation’s badly neglected capital, Washington D.C. and African American neighborhoods most deprived of natural beauty by institutional racism. The “beautification” initiative was among the most widely popular of Johnson’s Great Society.
Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal was multi-dimensional, not merely economic-material, but also green and beauty-oriented.
Robert Stanton Theater, King City, California The high school auditorium, built in 1939 with WPA funding is embellished with sculpture by Joseph Jacinto Mora. The Art Modern-style building was designed by Robert Stanton.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
With a major focus on environmental protection and restoration, New Deal programs hired artists, writers, photographers, actors, playwrights and musicians to take public art and performance to cities and s towns across America, while providing inspiration and income to hard-hit creatives. Earlier, encouraged by Theodore Roosevelt, the City Beautiful Movement that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s added parks and other public spaces to beautify American cities.
The importance of beauty has been largely neglected in public policy discussions of our times, but these bygone efforts provide a rich store of ideas to draw upon.
Lake Michigan Beach House The CCC developed Michigan’s Ludington State Park, including its beautiful beach house, completed in 1935.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives
A Beauty New Deal should:
Provide greater public support for artists, writers, poets and performers by re-establishing the original New Deal’s WPA Arts programs
Educate students to appreciate, create and cultivate beauty in their communities
Preserve and promote natural beauty by expanding parks, wilderness areas and open spaces, while strengthening protections from commercial encroachment
Re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for beautification and environmental restoration projects
Encourage use of property taxes for urban beautification, including planting millions of flowering and shade trees
Build new public squares
Support urban mini-farms and gardens
Provide “Equal Access to Beauty” through free summer camps for underserved children
Support “Renaissance Zones” using grants and tax incentives for beauty-led economic development in poor communities
Support repertory theatre and other performing arts in small towns and cities
Direct beautification funding to areas other than the established cultural centers, and finally,
Support colleges to culturally enrich the communities around them.
Even as the current struggles threaten to tear us apart, the “Politics of Beauty” can bring Americans together and closer to the America the Beautiful of which we can all be proud.
Official program and guidebook American Negro Exposition that opened the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The official program of the Diamond Jubilee of Negro Progress, which opened at the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940, proudly states, “This is the first real Negro World’s Fair in all history…The Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world to the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”
Duke Ellington played during the Bronze America beauty contest. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was lauded, as was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery. The popular dance team, Pops and Laurie, performed in a production of “Tropics After Dark.” Mechanical Man greeted visitors to the Labor section of the fair. Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and poet Langston Hughes co-wrote a musical pageant for the Jubilee. Not to be outdone, choral director J. Westley Jones led a chorus of voices, a thousand strong, under seven large religious murals painted by Aaron Douglas.
Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition With replica of Springfield’s Lincoln Monument at the Chicago Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune
The Firestone Rubber Company sponsored an educational exhibit on Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves, then the focus of a Black repatriation movement by the American Colonization Society. The fair’s journalism booth showcased the mastheads of 235 Black newspapers. The greatest collection of Negro art ever assembled was on exhibit, as was the Court of Dioramas—33 dioramas the Exposition’s program extolls as “spectacularly beautiful,” and “historically important… illustrating the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the fair with the press of a button from his Hyde Park, New York home. The fair was the brainchild of James Washington, a Chicago real estate developer. He successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to appropriate $75,000 for the project. Soon after, Congress matched those funds. Washington hoped the fair would counteract the stereotypes of Black people perpetuated by the 1933 World’s Fair that also took place in Chicago. That fair included a “Darkest Africa” exhibit that offered visitors voyages in canoes “manned by dusky natives.”
Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition The columns in the center surround the Court of Dioramas.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Archive
The fair was hoping to draw two million visitors to the mammoth convention hall to celebrate the contributions of Blacks to America since emancipation 75 years previous. The President was honored to participate, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly said, “The nation pays a debt of gratitude to the Negroes today.”
The exposition was dominated by booths showcasing the many New Deal programs and accomplishments. There was a booth for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); another for the Federal Works Agency (FWA). “The contribution of the Federal Government to the social and economic progress of the American Negro,” reads the official program, “is the theme of the Exhibit of the Federal Works Agency occupying a commanding space in the Exposition Hall.” The program goes on extolling the virtues of the FWA, citing that the previous year, 300,000 Negro workers were employed on WPA projects and were paid some $15 million in wages.
Mechanical Man A popular exhibit of the U.S. Dept of Labor
Photo Credit: American Negro Exposition Official Program and Guidebook
The Illinois WPA’s Writers’ Program wrote a book on the fair, Cavalcade of the American Negro, published by the Diamond Jubilee Exposition Authority, it highlighted Black history along with the fair’s extensive offerings, including 33 plaster dioramas, which took center stage at Coliseum.
The dioramas depicted contributions of Africans and others of African descent to world events and culture since Black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza. Measuring about 4 by 5 feet, and exquisitely detailed, each diorama was populated with sculpted figures of wood or clay. One diorama depicts the Boston Massacre that ended the life of Crispus Attucks, thought to be the first colonist to die in the American Revolution. Another is of enslaved Africans disembarking a ship onto Virginia soil in 1619. There’s one of dancers celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865. Another one honors the Black soldiers of World War I.
Pin American Negro Exposition
Photo Credit: Live Auctioneers
African American artist Charles Dawson designed the 33 dioramas and supervised the 120 Black artisans employed to create them. Twenty of the dioramas are housed at Alabama’s Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum. Conservators with the Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) oversaw the restoration of the dioramas, introducing Black students to the field of art conservation.
Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Curator and Assistant Professor at the Legacy Museum notes that those “who organized the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago understood the importance of African Americans to American History.” The dioramas reflect that, and are part of that history themselves.
Restoration Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Winterthur Museum
Other than these twenty dioramas, little else remains of those 1940 Jubilee days. The fate of the13 missing dioramas remains unknown. The Mechanical Man who drew crowds has rusted into oblivion. The remnants of the Chicago Coliseum itself were finally cleared in the early 1990s. Coliseum Park, a dog park across from where the imposing building once stood is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.
When the exposition closed on September 2, 1940, only 250,000 visitors had taken in the exposition, far fewer than the producers had hoped. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a failure. Yet, the first real Negro World’s Fair still resonates 80 years later. As Dr. Robinson says, “All the police brutality, mass incarceration, lynching, health disparities, red lining, Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination cannot disrupt the truth.”
And the truth is, Black Americans contributions continue and continue.
Ticket Stub American Negro Exposition celebrating 75 years of progress and achievement.
Photo Credit: Swan Auction Galleries
Diorama Detail “The Landing of Slaves in Virginia, 1619”
Photo Credit: Julianna Ly
by Richard Walker Abstract: A Green New Deal is the best way to deal with climate change, economic crisis and social-political disintegration in one sweep. The original New Deal offers the best model for a Green New Deal because it faced similar challenges of conservation, economic collapse, immiseration and political reaction in the 1930s and was successful in overcoming them. Indeed, like the New Deal, the United States today needs nothing less than a program of national reconstruction and renewal that is more than the sum of carbon reduction, infrastructure investment, more jobs and better wages.
The New Deal was not only successful in its time but provides an excellent model for public policy today. As a nation we face a set of profound challenges comparable to the era of the Great Depression, requiring an equally ambitious and thorough attack led by the federal government – the only entity with the power, money and scale to take charge. The lessons of the New Deal enumerated here offer hope for an embattled nation and a guide to redirecting public policy following 40 years of neoliberal deconstruction.
The New Deal provides guidelines for how to attack the major crises of today. Climate change and economic recession get most of the attention because global warming is bearing down like a runaway train and the economy has gone off a cliff. But the nation faces a massive deficit of investment in infrastructure and lags behind Europe and Asia in modern public amenities. A gulf between the rich and the rest has precipitated a social crisis marked by underfunded education, gnawing poverty and personal despair. The US is in the throes of a deep political crisis that has the republic teetering on the brink.
The only way to address these challenges is the kind of sweeping program that the Green New Deal has come to summarize. A half-century of experience with neoliberalism has shown that there is no alternative to strong government action led by mass popular mobilization. Nothing less than a Green New Deal will save the country from climate change, economic depression, a crumbling foundation, social malaise, concentration of power and political disintegration.
It needs emphasizing just how radical the New Deal was in terms of the long sweep of US history and how thoroughly it refashioned the country and its politics. The left has spent too much time criticizing the New Deal and FDR for what they did not do – bring the revolution, end White Supremacy, liberate women, etc. We would do better to appreciate what they did, in fact, accomplish in just one decade, 1933-1942 – roughly the time left to deal with climate change.
How the New Deal Responded to the Crisis of the 1930s
The New Deal is a shorthand for the policies and achievements of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933-1942. It encompassed far more than the best-known programs, such as Social Security and the Works Progress Administration, involving over 60 laws and programs in all. The Living New Deal is documenting that amazing decade, reviving historical memory and rethinking deeply ingrained political tropes – because so much of the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong.
I will consider the New Deal’s accomplishments in six areas: economic recovery and regulation, employment and class, investment and modernization, conservation and restoration, programs for the people and national political revival.
Economic Stabilization and Recovery
The Great Depression was the greatest failure of capitalism in US history and one that challenged the legitimacy of the nation’s class system, dominant ideology and political leadership. By winter 1933, US output had fallen by one-third, unemployment risen to one-quarter of the labor force and profits and wages had declined sharply.
In 1933-34, the New Deal ended financial excess and put the banking system on a new foundation. This meant shutting down bad banks, separating commercial and investment banks and providing deposit insurance. In addition, FDR called in gold, devalued and solidified the dollar and stock markets were regulated.
Meanwhile, the administration set up price controls under the National Industrial Recovery Act and Agricultural Adjustment Act. The unpopular NIRA was later dropped, but the AAA became the basis of US farm policy for the next fifty years. More important was the creation of the PWA in 1933 to start the process of federal investment in infrastructure; it would be the central pillar of New Deal spending.
A massive relief effort began with the Federal Emergency Relief Act of 1933. FERA salvaged bankrupt state and local treasuries, ending the downward spirals of government revenues, spending and employment. In the winter of 1933-34, FERA created the first relief jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), for which Congress created a permanent replacement in 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
The New Deal cost roughly $650 billion in today’s dollars.  With today’s population that would come to over $1.1 trillion – a surprisingly modest sum. It was paid for by higher taxes on the rich and the corporations, aided by revived alcohol taxes from the end of Prohibition, and the administration was willing to tolerate peacetime federal deficits for the first time in US history.
Crucially, economic recovery came before World War II. Under the New Deal, GDP grew at an average rate of almost 10 percent and had fully recovered by 1939. Contrary to popular opinion, the war did not solve the Great Depression, but it did dry up unemployment by recruiting millions into the military and by the greatest deficit spending in US history – the same formula as the New Deal.
Employment and the Working Class
A pillar of New Deal policy was aiding the working people. The New Dealers saved capitalism but they saved millions of people from desolation at the same time, chiefly through programs for mass work relief: FERA, CWA, WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). These agencies combined created more than 20 million jobs for the unemployed over ten years, giving workers dignity and injecting income into bankrupt households. Those are impressive numbers compared to the 15 million unemployed when FDR took office and the 5 million who were still jobless when the war began in 1942.
The New Deal succeeded in raising working class wages and incomes by supporting unionization. Unions were legalized in the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935; New Deal public works required fair and prevailing wages of contractors; and the Fair Labor Standards Act was added in 1938. It also created the first federal safety net through unemployment payments in the NLRA and the Social Security Act of 1935. Greater taxation of the rich and higher incomes for the working class sharply reduced inequality, ushering in the most egalitarian period in US history.
Not only were jobs programs life-saving financially, they restored workers dignity. Non-discrimination clauses brought jobs and wages to African Americans and other minorities. In addition, they aided economic recovery by raising wages, making relief payments to households and aiding state and local governments. Those flows stimulated aggregate consumption and raised net consumption out of the same total national income.
Investment and Modernization
The New Deal was more than a short-term program of recovery and make-work projects. The federal government invested in the infrastructure of the country, or what was then called “public works.” The government built tens of thousands of civic facilities, such as city halls, courthouses, schools, sewers and parks, as well as regional systems like dams, aqueducts and airports.
At the heart of this effort was the Public Works Administration (PWA). Just as important, the administration pumped money into existing federal agencies, like the Bureau of Public Roads and Bureau of Reclamation, and demanded contributions from the states. Governments at every level – federal, state and local – were reanimated. Moreover, the feds asked the state and cities to propose projects they wanted locally and thus gained important political buy-in.
Crucially, the New Deal walked on two legs: big regional infrastructure and small local projects. For the latter, the relief agencies were absolutely vital. The CWA, WPA, CCC, and FERA undertook local improvements numbering in the hundreds of thousands: playgrounds, recreation halls, baseball fields, picnic areas, water lines, street trees, ranger stations, park roads and trails and more. These, too, were projects asked for by local governments, with local financial participation.
Almost entirely overlooked is the degree to which the New Deal modernized the United States. It brought the entire country into the 20th century. The 1930s witnessed the second greatest leap in economic productivity in US history after the 1920s – higher than the World War by far. The New Deal aided modernization through its massive investments in hydropower and highways, at a time when industry and transportation were shifting enmasse to electric motors and trucks.
This infrastructure was long-term investment that continued to pay off after the New Deal ended. The war effort was the first beneficiary, as was recognized at the time. But roads, dams, schools and hospitals continued to function for decades after that, and many are still with us.
Conservation and Restoration
An essential element of the New Deal was conservation – healing the land and resources along with the people. This massive effort is too easily overlooked because it took place far away from the urban centers—on rangelands, forests, farmlands, marshes and coasts. The New Deal was nothing if not green.
Most of the New Deal’s conservation programs were small-scale works. CCC camps planted 3 billion trees under the direction of the US Forest Service. A massive soil conservation program was set in motion on damaged range and farmlands under the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), which built erosion dams, regraded hillsides and planted windbreaks. Grazing controls were imposed for the first time on federal lands under the new Grazing Service.
Around 200 national wildlife refuges were established during the Roosevelt years, often at the president’s personal direction, and a new Duck Stamp program channeled millions of dollars from hunters to wildlife programs. Several new national parks and national monuments were established, and national forests were expanded. The CCC built the waterworks, roads and campgrounds that rendered federal recreational lands usable.
Many protected areas were purchases of degraded lands in the Dust Bowl or cutover forests, while agricultural policy paid for the withdrawal of millions of acres of farms from production, returned to wetlands and woods that aided wildlife.
Programs for the People
While the New Deal employment and relief effort was focused on the working class, it went much farther. It embraced farmers, retirees and the poor. In addition, there was an array of programs targeting the forgotten and neglected. An essential principle was universal programs with non-discrimination clauses. This was not only a matter of principle. It made such programs more popular with the public.
A number of programs aided tenant and marginal farmers and others targeted African Americans. The New Deal built the first federal public housing projects in both rural and urban areas. It also brought the first federal initiatives to meet the special needs of the handicapped and a major turnaround in the treatment of Native Americans.
A primary quality of New Deal activity was its wide distribution, or “geographic universality”. There is hardly a county or city anywhere in the country that did not get federal funds for a high school, hospital or park from the New Deal – not to mention land restoration, farm subsidies and programs for poor farm families, such as the Resettlement Administration’s housing and town-building. When the New Deal invested in depressed places, the people saw the evidence of federal concern with their own eyes, both in what was built and who did the work.
Lastly, there was a firm belief in the need to address the whole person and the needs of the public as a whole. The New Deal prioritized aid to education from school lunches and teachers’ aides to college buildings and laboratories; built up health programs from school nurses to the National Institutes of Health; and invested in recreational facilities and programs from playgrounds to national parks. One of the most remarkable dimensions of the New Deal was its creation, en masse, of civic buildings, civic spaces and public art to edify and elevate the spirits of the people.
Political Renewal of the Nation
Franklin Roosevelt was a master politician and dealmaker who played his cards carefully. But he was also a true leader, coalition builder, progressive reformer and believer in American democracy. These qualities ran deep among all the New Dealers like Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and Mary McLeod Bethune.
The New Dealers first step was to take charge of a terrible situation with a real sense of urgency. They waded into the fray, ignoring precedent, deficits and naysayers to introduce legislation, issue executive orders and draw up plans for action. There was no blueprint, just a liberal pragmatism and willingness to try anything that might work. For all his patrician background, FDR was able to speak to the public in a manner that restored their confidence in government and gave them hope.
The New Dealers built a broad coalition across class, regional and racial lines. FDR knew that his legislative program depended not to alienating the South over race because he needed that left-leaning white populists of the southern delegation to pass New Deal legislation. That coalition frayed over the years as southern landowners reasserted their power.
FDR was willing to bring unions on board and address the catastrophic conditions facing the working class. Conversely, his aristocratic origins gave him the confidence to stand up to the rich and the corporations when he needed to. He wisely sought to defang radical uprisings by meeting some of their demands, as in the case of the Townsend Movement’s demand for old-age pensions.
A vital quality of New Deal leaders was their ethical commitment to the public good and to the welfare of the common people. They recognized the importance of work to self-worth; the value of civic works in uplifting communities; and that education, recreation and the arts were essential to the human spirit. Their sense of public service also meant no significant scandals hanging over the agencies dispensing such huge amounts of money.
Lastly, Roosevelt and the New Dealers understood that a nation devastated by the Great Depression and left rudderless by Republican leadership needed a new sense of national purpose. The New Deal gave Americans a project of national renewal in which they could participate, feel ownership, and witness in their everyday lives.
FDR was urged by many liberals to seize emergency powers, but refused. He was confronted by fascist movements, was abandoned by the capitalist class—many of whom were fascist sympathizers that feared FDR’s alliance with the working class. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was a committed democrat who wanted, like Lincoln, to save the Republic from itself.
The New Deal was a political earthquake in American governance. The power of the federal government grew exponentially and the federal system was transformed. The Democrats replaced Lincoln’s Republicans as the dominant party for the next half-century. And, despite many failings of the New Deal on racial grounds, there was an epochal shift of African-American voters to the Democrats.
 Both were overturned by the Supreme Court but the AAA was revised and passed a second time by Congress in 1938.
 Fishback, Price and Kachanovskaya, Valentina. “The Multiplier for Federal Spending in the States during the Great Depression.” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2015, pp. 125-62.
 Romer, Christina. 1992. What ended the Great Depression? Journal of Economic History. 52, no. 4: 757-84.
 Leighninger, Robert. 2007. Long Run Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. Smith, Jason Scott. 2006. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Taylor, Nick. 2009. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Books.
 Field, Alexander. 2011. A Great Leap Forward:1930s Depression and U.S. Economic Growth. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.
 Brinkley, Douglas. 2016. Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. New York: Harper Books
 Alexander, Benjamin. 2018. The New Deal’s Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
 There has been too much criticism of the New Deal as ‘racist’, which is not true. It was not the Civil Rights revolution, but its programs were of enormous benefit to the vast majority of Americans. Sitkoff, Harvard. 2009. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue: The Depression Decade. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Smith, Jason Scott. 2014. A Concise History of the New Deal. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 Leuchtenberg, William. 1963. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932-40. New York: Harper Torchbooks.
 Katznelson, Ira. 2013. Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.
by Susan Ives As development marched toward the Berkeley hills in the 1920s, the ravine carved by Cordonices Creek was considered too steep for houses. A street car trestle was constructed to span the gap. With panoramic westward views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the 3.6-acre canyon captured the imagination of park advocates.
Renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. The City of Berkeley applied for federal funds available under New Deal public works programs.
Construction on the Berkeley Rose Garden began in 1933. Hundreds of men employed by Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration, worked over four years to install the garden. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) also built the adjacent tennis and handball courtsat Cordonices Park.
Native rock quarried in the Berkeley hills form the amphitheater walls and terraced rose beds. Paths wend through the garden and native woodlands. A footbridge spans Cordonices Creek where it emerges at the canyon floor to form an oval pond. Maybeck’s redwood pergola serves as a trellis for climbing roses. Along the six curved stone terraces are more than a thousand rose bushes, at their most spectacular in mid-May.
The garden was officially dedicated on September 26, 1937. According to newspaper accounts, on hand were the Berkeley Municipal Legion Band and “the full staff of the park department, to assist in managing the crowds.”
The garden was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 1995. Since then, the original sign was replaced with a replica. The entrance to the garden was reconstructed in 2002. The pergola is currently undergoing renovation.
The rose garden remains one of the city’s most cherished public spaces. It is open from dawn to dusk and is wheelchair accessible via a pedestrian tunnel under Euclid Avenue that connects the garden to Cordonices Park.
Newsreel Before television, newsreels were a source of current affairs and entertainment for millions of moviegoers.
In order to restore public confidence and hope during the Great Depression, the federal government created a short-lived agency, the U.S. Film Service. Frustrated with anti-New Deal propaganda and obstructionist Republicans in Congress (sound familiar?), Harry Hopkins, chief of the Works Progress Administration, invited commercial producers—“Hollywood,” in popular parlance—to make newsreels that would show mass audiences how workers formerly on relief were building a better United States.
In 1935, with an eye toward the 1936 presidential election, Hopkins invited forty-one firms to bid on a contract for thirty, 600-foot, that is 5-minute, films. Pathé News won the contract with a bid of $4,280 a reel and a promise to include one WPA story each month in its national newsreel.
Colonial Park (now Jackie Robinson Park) African American workers construct Colonial Park pool and bathhouse in Harlem in 1937. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
It was a challenge to keep to the grueling production schedule. And there was backlash from the Republican National Committee, which charged that these short films would be nothing but “propaganda . . . paid out of relief funds.” But Pathé’s general manager, Jack S. Connolly, countered that the huge array of activities of the WPA would generate enough “straight news for unprejudiced releases.”
School Lunch Program A woman makes school lunches in an industrial kitchen. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archive
A Better New York City is in some ways an anomaly in the “A Better” series. Instead of breadlines and beggars the newsreel opens with billowing clouds that part to reveal Manhattan Island; the music swells; the skyline glimmers in the sunshine; and the narrator states that this is, “a great city, the financial, commercial capital of the entire world.” The unfolding panorama features Central Park (restored and improved with CWA and WPA funds and labor) and the Triboro Bridge (built with federal money). Streets, sidewalks, and buildings come into view as the narrator explains the program that “removed residents from relief rolls” and made New York a better city.
Like every newsreel in the “A Better” series, the New York City film highlights work and workers—blue and white collar, unskilled and skilled, men and women, whites and people of color. Manual labor, executed by men with weathered faces, strong hands, and brawny bodies, is valorized.
Caretaker An African American caretaker and her young charges. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
They build airports, bulkheads, and highways, and repair streets, sewers, and public buildings. The film heralds public swimming pools and bathhouses the New Deal built in this city.
For all the good that was done here, the New Deal tolerated racial segregation, and the newsreel disseminates a message of racial difference that is consistent across the “A Better” series.
Another consistent message is how the New Deal benefited children. The WPA operated twenty daycare centers in New York City for the children of needy or working mothers. In A Better New York City, youngsters are clean, heathy, and amply fed. They don’t work. Rather, they play in supervised sites such as play streets, parks, playgrounds, pools, day camps, nursery schools, and day care centers and enjoy a school lunch program, substantiating the narrator’s praise “In the knowledge that we are providing healthy bodies in sound minds for our future citizens . . .”
Play Street Healthy children are shown playing in supervised areas. A Better New York City, 1937, Federal Works Agency, Works Progress Administration, National Archives.
As we look back to find a way forward, we should assess the imperfections of the New Deal along with its successes. African Americans were the hardest hit by the Depression, and yet they are underrepresented in A Better New York City just as they were underserved by New Deal programs.
Still, the WPA films remind us of the transformative power of the state to improve our wellbeing—and the power of moving images to craft political narratives.
WPA American Travel Guides From the author’s collection
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson
The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1937 and 1942, is one of the best-known projects of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested driving tours and accompanying essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions also have their own WPA guidebooks.
Poster for American Guide Week President Roosevelt offered his support for the Federal Writers’ Project American Guide Series on this poster celebrating American Guide week, November 10–16, 1941. The individual state guides were meant, as he noted, to “illustrate our national way of life, yet at the same time portray variants in local patterns of living and regional development.”
Photo Credit: Poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Each guide was written by a team and published anonymously. Several now-famous American authors got their start working for the FAP. Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and Zora Neale Hurston were among those who survived the Great Depression as writers of the American Guides.
Less renowned and anonymous writers deserve equal credit. They were a careful and inquisitive bunch with a wide range of talents and interests. The wealth of knowledge conveyed in each guide is astonishing. From architectural history, economic research, fishing and hunting, folklore, regional foods, cooking, Native American history, literature, regional language differences, botany, geology, race relations, labor movements, to women’s rights—there was someone at the FAP who could write with authority on it.
I first became interested in the guides in the 1980s when I was a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brandeis University. In that pre-internet era, finding the WPA guides presented quite a challenge. It took me nearly five years searching used bookstores around the country to amass a complete set of the 48 state guides and many regional and city guides—most of them first editions.
The guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity of the country at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guides are as much fun to read today as they must have been for travelers in the 1930s.
The Crescent City New Orleans City Guide, 1938
Mardi Gras New Orleans City Guide, 1938
Maps from Oklahoma Guide Stages of development of the Oklahoma through its history
Photo Credit: Fern Nesson
For years, I considered writing about the guides, but it was not until last November, after 20 years as a lawyer, 25 more as a teacher, and the last three as a student of fine art photography that I hit upon a format for doing so. After completing my MFA I found the time to travel and decided to use the guides as inspiration for where to go. Going back to their delightful mélange of cultural and historical essays and suggested back roads seemed a wonderful way to explore the country. Reportedly John Steinbeck hit the road with the WPA guides when he embarked on a 10,000-mile road trip with his poodle in 1960, memorialized in his travelogue Travels With Charley: In Search of America.
The project has been endlessly fascinating. Remarkably, much along the routes remains unchanged, at least in the places I have visited so far. Yet, much has changed—some things for the better, others distinctly not. Old houses in Maine that were derelict in the 1930s are now beautifully restored homes for wealthy summer residents. Once sleepy towns and small cities are today engulfed by sprawl and strip malls. The encouragement that the guides gave to sightseeing by automobile—tourism being a way to lift the economy—now seems positively regrettable, cars being no longer a novelty but a bane.
Snake River Gorge from "Idaho: A Guide in Word and Picture,” 1937 Idaho was the first state guidebook in the American Guide Series created by the Idaho Federal Writers’ Project. At the time Idaho had less than half a million residents and few people were planning to go there.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives,
One thing that should never be regretted is the American Guide Series itself. Not only do the guides provide invaluable historical source material and interesting routes for tourists, they also express trenchant but subtle criticism of injustice in our country. The writers exposed racism, anti-unionism, poverty, and inequality when they saw it. Without comment, they let the statistics speak for themselves. But their message was clear: this country could and should do better by its people.
The idealism and open-heartedness with which the FWP explored our country’s diversity, geography, and challenges led me to want to follow in their footsteps. So far, I have completed eight photo essays with the guides as a travel companion. I cannot think of a better way to see this country.
Vermont Guide to the Green Mountain State
Photo Credit: Courtesy Fern Nesson
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.