[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
Sometimes, like now, I think those macro-economists, to turn a phrase, can’t see the trees for the forest. That is, they talk in big, big numbers, and averages, and means and median, but they miss the important little things, like people.
For example, the macro guys considering President Obama’s economic revival package, tell us that its hundreds of billions and maybe a trillion will consist of so much spending on infrastructure and so many billions in tax cuts that if their models are correct maybe two or three million jobs would be created in two years, give or take.
While the macros are arguing whether that’s enough or too much to jump-start the economy, Democrats tell us that we need a stimulus (I hate that word) to prevent another Great Depression while Republicans charge it won’t work because such spending didn’t get us out of the Great Depression anyway, as if tax cuts did.
But the argument misses the whole point of economics, which is to provide food, clothing and shelter to the ill-fed, ill-clad and ill-housed.
I don’t really know whether the great jobs programs of the New Deal got us out of the Depression. But it doesn’t matter. More important than the macro arguments, is what the much-maligned Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps did for virtually every state and hundreds of towns in America, and the millions of men, women and children it helped during the hard times. Those benefits are still being seen and felt 60 years later.
When I lived in right-wing, anti-federal government Texas (which hasn’t changed much) it came as a shock to the know-nothings when I wrote that their beloved Alamo in downtown San Antonio was restored with the help of the WPA. And the city’s beautiful River Walk was the muddy San Antonio River until WPA workers fixed it up with landscaping, stone work, and walkways and lovely stone bridges that still stand. Today, the River Walk is at the center of the city’s life, with restaurants, shops and barges that ply the river serving dinner to tourists.
While browsing the web in search of more information about the WPA, which was renamed the Works Project Administration in 1939, I discovered that the WPA also built the obelisk of the San Jacinto monument outside Houston, which marks the battle in 1836 that gave Texas (and much of the west) its independence from Mexico.
If I may digress, I like the true story about how a slightly wounded Sam Houston and the captured General Santa Anna, made peace sitting under a tree smoking dope.
But closer to my point - that it’s the little things that count a lot - was this note that I came across from the University of Georgia Libraries, commenting on its collection of photographs that
“...chronicle the various WPA projects which took place in Georgia. The projects were the same in most all of the states and included basic work such as street building and repair.”
One such project was a beautiful, stone monument to the town of Cassville, which was burned to the ground in Sherman’s march across the state.
The WPA, born in 1935 at an initial cost of $4.8 billion, was at the time, the largest “relief” program in American history (now it’s called “stimulus”). By 1941, when spending on the coming war pulled America out of the lingering slump, WPA had cost $11.4 billion and put eight million men and women to work building 1,634 public schools, 105 airports, 3,000 tennis courts, 5,800 libraries, 3,300 storage dams, hundreds of miles of roads, sewer lines, while the CCC built roads through national and state parks, fire towers, and scores of campgrounds, many of which are in use today.
I doubt if George Bush even suspected that his weekend retreat, Camp David, which Franklin Roosevelt called Shangri-la, was built by the WPA as a recreation area in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland. Do baseball fans know that WPA workers built Doubleday Field, in Cooperstown, New York, in 1939 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s pastime on that hallowed ground?
The architecturally unique bridges of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut were built by the WPA. Not until 1937 did New York City get an airport, La Guardia Field (named after the city’s New Deal era mayor), with its beautiful art-deco main terminal, all built by WPA labor.
Indeed, while the WPA mostly worked with bricks and mortar and steel, building theaters and city halls, the WPA gave work to men and women of the arts when no one else could. The WPA Arts project gave us murals by Jackson Pollock in Pennsylvania. Dozens of artists were paid to paint murals in post offices and city halls many of which are still there, or have been transferred to museums for permanent display.
The WPA Theater Project, hired out-of-work actors and stage-hands who traveled the country putting on plays, concerts and vaudeville shows in hundreds of towns where people had never seen such a thing. And the Writers Project, which included Richard Wright and Saul Bellow, created dozens of wonderfully written state, city and regional guides, many of which I used as a reporter to learn about the places I covered and lived.
The WPA, I should add, hired women, although the agency’s boss, Harry Hopkins, frowned on giving work to both a wife and to leaving children unattended. About 15 percent of the workers were in the Women’s Division and they received equal pay, which was the local prevailing wage, from $19 to $94 a month, for a maximum of 30 hours of work each week. The WPA also provided jobs for 350,000 blacks, and helped dent some color barriers. And the WPA’s Education Division gave work to teachers who taught reading to thousands of illiterate blacks and whites.
But, as I said, I’m more interested in the littlest things. So I found this, an undated report on “hot lunches for a million school children,” by an assistant administrator of the WPA:
“One million undernourished children have benefitted by the WPA’s school lunch program. In the past year and a half 80,000,000 hot well-balanced meals have been served at the rate of 500,000 daily in 10,000 schools...
“School attendance has increased and classroom work has improved in every school in South Carolina where the school lunch projects operate...In Greenville County...children who were weighed at the beginning of the project and weighed again at the end of each five week period...showed an average weight gain of from three to eight ponds per child for the first five week period...”
Did the WPA get the nation out of the Depression? Does it matter?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Chester Baldwin solves the crime in Just Another Dusty Day.]