“Here’s the Deal,” Joe Biden—We Need a Big Jobs Program Now

A WPA worker receives a paycheck, 1939.

A WPA worker receives a paycheck, 1939.
Priority employment in the WPA went to those in need of relief.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

In his first Inaugural Address in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt confronted the Great Depression with a promise of “action and action now.” Fast forward 88 years. In the face of a worsening pandemic and a sliding economy, Biden made the same pledge: “In this moment of crisis,” he said, “we have to act now…. we cannot afford inaction.”

Biden has moved quickly to propose a supplement to Unemployment Insurance (UI), bigger cash tax credits and an extra one-time payout of $1,400.  Many unemployed adults, however, don’t qualify for UI. Jobless workers without children will get little-to-no help from a larger Earned Income Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit. The extra $1,400 will only stretch so far.

President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins

President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins
A close advisor to FDR, Hopkins was an architect of New Deal relief programs.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

What Biden has not yet proposed is a large, federally subsidized jobs program. His “Build Back Better” plan calls for 18 million good paying jobs, mostly in infrastructure. But he has not yet presented Congress with specific legislation. The nation needs action and action now.

The New Deal’s jobs programs show the way. From the start, Roosevelt made clear that his “primary task” was getting unemployed Americans back to work.

In his First 100 Days, FDR created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and tapped Harry Hopkins to run it. He told the Washington newcomer: Get immediate and adequate relief to the unemployed, and pay no attention to politics or politicians. Three days later, Hopkins got to work and within an hour sent $5 million in cash relief to four million destitute American families.

Hopkins immediately recognized, however, that unemployed workers did not want a handout. They wanted jobs. FERA soon offered not just cash relief, but the opportunity to earn the same amount through work relief. Instead of a handout, it provided the dignity of employment.

Unemployment office, 1938

Unemployment office, 1938
“Jobless men lined up for the first time in California to file claims for Unemployment Compensation.”
Photo Credit: Photo by Dorothea Lange. Courtesy, Social Security Administration

In November 1933, Roosevelt and Hopkins went much further. The experimental Civil Works Administration (CWA) offered the unemployed real jobs that paid the prevailing wage. Within a month, the CWA hired four million to carry out over 4,000 projects.

The program was temporary. Hopkins regretted its end in 1934. He saw the CWA as proof that unemployed Americans wanted to work and as the best model for providing them jobs until they could be absorbed into the regular labor market. With the CWA in mind, Hopkins lobbied for an Employment Assurance Corporation to serve as the employer of last resort.

The Social Security Act of 1935 lacked a permanent job assurance program. Nevertheless, FDR, who disfavored what he called “the dole,” told Congress: “Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers.”

Why Can't You Give my Dad a Job?

Why Can't You Give my Dad a Job?
1937 Photo by Daniel HagermanPublic Domain

The result was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which under Hopkins’ leadership provided millions of subsidized jobs over its seven-year run. The WPA ranks among the New Deal’s most successful programs. It might have lasted longer but for the nation’s shift to a wartime economy.

The New Deal’s history holds valuable lessons for the new Administration. “People don’t eat in the long run,” Hopkins said, “they eat every day.” The most powerful antidote to poverty is immediate employment and decent wages. With adequate earnings, most Americans can keep food in the refrigerator, avoid eviction or foreclosure and meet life’s other necessities.

So, here’s the deal, Mr. President. Just as FDR’s New Deal rested firmly on jobs programs like the CWA and WPA, your program to Build Back Better requires a large, permanent federal jobs program that will quickly put millions of Americans back to work—and by doing so, restore not only our economy but our faith in government as well.

 

The Case for New Deal Art

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.

“Women’s Contributions to American Progress,” Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe appear in a mural panel by Edward Millman.
Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls, Chicago, Illinois  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Registry

President Roosevelt and his circle believed in the value of the public realm and public service, so they made government investment in public goods such as parks, schools and civic buildings a pillar of the New Deal. Along with its immense building programs, the New Deal brought a level of government support for public art never seen before-–or since. This is reason enough to celebrate the legacy of New Deal art.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Arts Project of the WPA are the best-known programs, but there were others: The Public Works of Art Project of the Civil Works Administration, the Art and Culture Projects of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, and the Treasury Relief Arts Project. Together they produced tens of thousands of artworks, most of which still adorn public places and brighten the lives of Americans to this day.

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson

“Espirito Santo Grant, Old Cuba Road” by William Henderson
In 1938, Henderson completed the six WPA murals begun by Gerald Cassidy for the US Courthouse in Santa Fe, New Mexico  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal art programs employed thousands of unemployed artists during the Great Depression, establishing careers and sometimes literally saving lives. Some of America’s greatest artists worked under the New Deal, such as early 20th century giants like Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton and Maynard Dixon. Followers of the famous Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros, like Bernard Zakheim, Victor Arnautoff and George Biddle, produced inspirational murals. Postwar Abstractionists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Phillip Guston and Lee Krasner came out of the New Deal, as did a host of artists of color such as Sargent Johnson, David Park, Charles Davis, James Auchiah, Gerald Nailor, Jo Mora, Lusi Arenal, Dong Kingman and Isamu Noguchi.

“Ohio” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.

“Ohio,” Mural by WPA artist Paul Meltsner displays the social realism popular during the New Deal.
Bellevue, Ohio Post Office  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

New Deal artists were not just diverse and prolific, they had wide license to exercise their inspiration and talents. As a result, the quality of New Deal art deserves respect for its aesthetic brilliance and originality. A recurrent thread of celebration of American life runs through much of public art of the era, but New Deal artists frequently infused their works with social commentary and criticism. Because people today understandably question art that includes dishonorable people and practices from America’s past, hasty judgement of New Deal murals frequently miss their qualities and subtleties.

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949

"Scenes of Indian Life" by Allan Cafran Houser, 1949
Native American artist Allan Houser and other Indian artists were invited by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts to paint murals at the Department of Interior Building in Washington, DC.  Source
Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Full appreciation of New Deal art can also be impeded by the dominant painting styles of the time, Social Realism and American Scene, which have long been out of fashion. Social Realism has often come under attack for its celebration of manual (and masculine) labor and resemblance to Soviet art, while American Scene painting is dismissed for being nostalgic and vernacular. Only recently has art of the New Deal-era enjoyed a revival in the art world.

New Deal art is all around us yet too often poorly maintained, unmarked or inaccessible to the public. A growing number of these artworks are jeopardized when the buildings that house them are torn down or renovated. Our society needs to value and protect the New Deal’s legacy of public-spirited art. Furthermore, we sorely need a new New Deal to support struggling artists of today so that they may create diverse and inspiring imagery for the future.

The Living New Deal offers recommendations to communities and institutions dealing with challenges to New Deal artworks.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.

Mural Panel, “From Slavery to Reconstruction,” 1934. Aaron Douglas, an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, painted “Aspects of Negro Life,” a four-panel mural, for the Public Works of Art Project.
Shomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939

“Cotton Pickers,” Linden, Texas Post Office mural, 1939
Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff trained with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and taught at Stanford. New Deal murals portraying Native Americans and enslaved people can be considered controversial today, but are often misconstrued.  Source
Photo Credit: New Deal Art Registry

 

Just Scratching the Surface

WPA concrete bridge

WPA concrete bridge
Escambia County, Alabama, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

The work of the Living New Deal is a lot like an archaeological dig.  Archeologists discover lost civilizations with the benefit of new Lidar technology, but we come upon exciting new finds digging through old journals, newspapers and archives.

I recently exhumed an obscure 1939 WPA report from the UC Berkeley library. Far more than dry statistics, the report illustrates how the New Deal transformed the lives of small town and rural residents alike.

The report, Progress of the WPA Program, contains everything the Works Progress Administration accomplished in two rural counties—Mahaska, Iowa and Escambia, Alabama, and two cities—Erie, Pennsylvania and Portsmouth, Ohio. In all four places, government put hundreds of men, women and youth to work providing needed infrastructure and services to their communities in order to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama
The WPA laid 15,000 feet of sidewalk to this city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

With the help of a nationwide network of volunteers, the Living New Deal’s growing website now documents more than 16,000 sites nationwide—parks, airports, city halls, stadiums, sewers, schools and more. The WPA report reveals that we have just scratched the surface, however. But since New Deal projects are rarely marked or mentioned in local histories, few, if any, of the New Deal’s improvements to their towns and counties are known to today’s residents.

The result is that many Americans mistakenly believe that the federal government does little or nothing for them or their communities, as Paul Krugman writes, even though the evidence of what good government can do is literally right under their tires and feet.

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park
Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1937
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

A map of Mahaska County, Iowa, for example, shows hundreds of miles of rural roads that the WPA graded and paved, enabling farmers to get their produce to market in all weather. Another map of Portsmouth, Ohio, shows the levees and five new pumping stations that saved the town from frequent flooding of the Ohio River. New storm drains did the same for Erie, PA.

During this time, 400 Erie women—many of them heads of households—sewed more than 200,000 garments to be given to the poor, while some 700 people were engaged in sixty-five orchestra and choral groups. Workers for the Federal Writers Project compiled historical information on a played-out coal region near Oscaloosa, Iowa, whose largely Welsh residents were given music classes. Oscaloosa’s Edmundson Park has so many WPA features, it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1935 and 1939, WPA expenditures in Iowa’s Mahaska County alone totaled $1,150,434—$20,595,724 in today’s dollars.

As extensive as the information in this report is on the WPA, it does not include the work of the PWA, CCC, or other New Deal agencies that benefitted rural as well as urban economies and ultimately lifted the country out of the Great Depression. Much of what government built through local labor still benefits millions of people today, some 80 years on.

With more digging, reports like Progress of the WPA Program as well as unpublished manuscripts, can be unearthed at libraries, town archives and historical societies across America. The Living New Deal is uncovering some of the best evidence anywhere of what a true government for the people once achieved—and could again—and making it freely available. Your support makes our work possible.

A Better United States, c. 1937

Newsreel

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)

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.”

(You can judge for yourself by watching these newsreels on the Living New Deal website. The trove of forty-seven films gleaned from the National Archives includes A Better West Virginia,  A Better Chicago, and A Better New Jersey. Some are longer, such as We Work Again, a film about African Americans, and Work Pays America, a survey of WPA accomplishments.)

School Lunch Program

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

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

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.

Marta Gutman is professor at the City College of New York and a founding editor of PLATFORM, https://www.platformspace.net where a version of this article originally appeared. [email protected]

New York City Never Stops Eating

1st Avenue Market, Manhattan, ca. 1937

1st Avenue Market
Manhattan, ca. 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

When the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), the literary arm of the WPA, closed down in 1943 — after a prolific few years that saw hundreds of publications issued — massive amounts of research materials and unfinished manuscripts were put away, unused. Now, more than seventy years later, many of those documents are seeing the light of day in the form of books, documentaries, and exhibitions.

In September, the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) launched an exhibit, Feeding the City: The Unpublished WPA Federal Writers’ Project Manuscript, 1935-1942, drawn from the unpublished manuscript written and edited by members of the New York City unit of the Federal Writers’ Project.

Writers at work, Federal Writers Project

Writers at work
Federal Writers Project
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

“What did New Yorkers eat? Where did the food come from? How was it marketed?

The New York City Municipal Archives exhibit provides the answers to these questions, just as just as the Municipal library (located in the same facility and closely associated with the Archives)  provided answers to WPA researchers and writers who did research there during the Projects’ heyday.

The display, which runs through March, 2019, offers vintage recipes, oversized, bold photographs of New Yorkers shopping for groceries, and excerpts from the unpublished manuscript, which complemented other FWP projects that were planned to chronicle America’s food culture.

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store , Manhattan, 1937

Waiting on customers in an Italian grocery store
Manhattan, 1937
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Had it been published, it’s not hard to imagine the book and its promotional catchphrase, “New York City Never Stops Eating,” adorning bookstore displays.

Two books published recently, America Eats: On the Road with the WPA (Bloomsbury, 2008) and Food of a Younger Land (Riverhead Books, 2009), used the material the WPA collected to show America’s eating habits nearly a century ago.

Federal Writers’ Project units were formed in each of the 48 states, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and major cities. The Project’s writers, editors, and researchers told the story of America through travel guidebooks and other publications. The NYC Unit was one of the most prolific units.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.

Description of foodstuffs at a Sicilian grocery.
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had some role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

It’s fitting that the exhibit is shown at the Municipal Archives building, itself part of a larger story of the WPA writers’ relationship to the city and particularly to Rebecca Rankin, the City’s reference librarian from 1920 through 1952 who led the way for the formation of the Archives. According to Assistant Commissioner of DORIS Kenneth R. Cobb, when the FWP project closed down, 6o cartons of the FWP’s materials (including 13 boxes from Feeding the City) were sent to the Archives to “to have and hold forever,” at least partially due to the help Rankin provided to the writers, along with her commitment to progressive principles. (For more on Rankin, see this NYC DORIS article.)

The Municipal Archives houses a trove of other FWP and WPA materials. Among them are documents collected for the FWP’s Ethnic Heritage books. The Italians of New York and an English and Yiddish version of The Jewish Landsmanschaften of New York came out in 1938 and 1939. A book about Spanish-speaking New Yorkers was planned but never published. Those research materials reside in the archive.

Also in the care of the Archives are photographs taken by the WPA in 1939 and 1941 documenting every city building, surveys and architectural descriptions of houses of worship within the five boroughs, reports on child nutrition and education, and more.

To see the exhibit, visit the NYC Municipal Archives 1st Floor Gallery, 31 Chambers Street, Manhattan. The gallery is open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Thursday: 9 a.m. to 7p.m.; Saturday: 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

The Municipal Archives preserves and makes available New York City government’s historical records.

Potatoes: A layout for the never-published book.

Potatoes
A layout for the never-published book.
Photo Credit: WPA Federal Art Project Photo. Courtesy, NYC Municipal Archives

Feeding the City

Feeding the City
FWP writers went to the city’s ports, warehouses, restaurants, and wholesale markets to interview New Yorkers who had a role in feeding the city.
Photo Credit: Susan DeMasi

 

Bruce Park Swimming Pool – New Martinsville WV

This swimming pool, with a unique design (above ground, concrete), is in New Martinsville, West Virginia. It was operational until just a few years ago. I swam there often as a child. Unfortunately, though it is still in existence, the pool needs repairs, and the town council refused to spend the money on the project, to the chagrin of constituents. It was built by the WPA. See the attached news article for a photo and history. The signage is original to the period.

Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport Improvements – Roanoke VA

Opened on it’s current location in 1929, the Roanoke Regional Airport began operating with two dirt runways and a single small hangar.

In 1937, with the condition of the airport deteriorating, the City of Roanoke bought the property. Using funds and help from the Works Progress Administration, the runways were paved, and the hangers were upgraded.

During this time, it was declared a National Defense Project, and federal funds were funneled into upgrading other factors of the airport. Renovations were completed on December 15 1941, when the airport was dedicated.

Alma D’arte Charter High School – Las Cruces NM

1883 – 1937 : Dona Ana County Court House
1941 – 1984 : Las Cruces Junior High School or Court Jr. High School
1993 – present : Mesilla Valley Youth Foundation Court Youth Center
2004 – present : Alma d’arte Charter High School

1883 – 1937 : The Dona Ana County Court House on Court Avenue served as the site of all legal matters in the County, including hangings. The building was razed in 1937 when the County received Works Progress Administration funds to build a new court house and a new junior high school.