In January 1935, facing an unemployment crisis not unlike today’s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in his State of the Union address that the exigencies of the moment demanded a massive, unprecedented public works program that became the Works Progress Administration.
Though no two economic crises are identical, there are important lessons to be drawn today from Roosevelt’s audacious experiment, as the nation now confronts the highest level of unemployment since the Great Depression. In announcing the WPA, Roosevelt was careful to align the program with the traditional American values of independence and self-reliance. Drawing a sharp contrast between relief, which he deemed “fundamentally destructive to the national fibre,” and his public works program, he insisted that his proposed plan was fully consistent with the “traditions of America.”
"Work must be found," he declared, "for able-bodied but destitute workers."
Four months after his State of the Union address, Roosevelt created the WPA, a program that went on to employ 8.5 million Americans. With an initial budget of $4.9 billion that surpassed total federal spending in any peacetime year prior to 1933, it was, according to New Deal historian William Leuchtenberg, "the largest single appropriation by any government in the history of the world."
Employing over 3 million people at its height in 1938, the WPA enrolled roughly a third of the unemployed in its eight years of existence. Despite its hefty price tag, by then the WPA had gained the support of 90% of Americans.
Large-scale government doing good
The WPA left an enduring imprint on the American landscape, visible in 40,000 new public buildings, 124,000 bridges or viaducts, 572,000 miles of rural roads and more than 1,000 tunnels. Its projects included New York's LaGuardia Airport, Oregon’s Timberline Lodge at Mount Hood, and the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Bold in scope and creative in execution, the WPA was a model of large-scale government serving the public good. What might a modern-day WPA look like? Here are four issues it should address:
►The COVID-19 pandemic. Public health experts agree that the key to a successful response to the coronavirus pandemic requires testing, contact tracing and isolation of the infected. But according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University, the public health workforce needs an additional 100,000 contact tracers to track infections. Yet the larger problem is that public health in the United States is perennially underfunded — a problem exacerbated by local and state health departments losing nearly a fourth of their work force since 2008.
►Long-deferred infrastructure needs. The aging American infrastructure is in dire need of repair. Assigning the infrastructure an overall grade of D+, the American Society of Civil Engineers noted particularly severe problems with drinking water, roads, dams and levees. The United States also needs to modernize and secure its electrical grid and expand access to high-speed internet, where it lags far behind other countries. Bringing the infrastructure up to global standards would employ millions.
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►Surging youth unemployment. In an economy in which 33 million people have already filed unemployment claims, young people tend to be concentrated in the economy's most precarious sectors. Those under 25 are 93% more likely to lose their jobs than those who are 35 or older. With less wealth than previous generations, coupled with crippling educational debt, young people are particularly ill-equipped to weather the storm. A program modeled after Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration, which under WPA auspices provided employment and work training to more than 4.5 million youths, would do much to address the problem.
►The deepening environmental crisis. With climate change already a grave threat to both global health and the global economy, the time for vigorous action is now. Investing in clean-energy infrastructure and addressing other environmental issues (such as hazardous waste sites, access to clean air and water, and underdeveloped public transit) would create millions of jobs — an ideal project for a 21st century WPA.
A WPA for our time would not be cheap. But the cost of failing to act boldly may, as Roosevelt so wisely recognized, prove far higher in the long run.
Jerome Karabel, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of "The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton."