Five Years of Blogging about Age: Language
This Week in Elder News: 14 February 2009

REFLECTIONS: The WPA

[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.

Category_bug_reflections 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.]

Comments

hello...i vote for your blog on bloggers choice awards 2009.
it will be honour if you would vote for my blog too for foreign language category...success for you!

Gilang
Gigisehatbadansehat.blogspot.com

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?

That's the nub of it. There are lots of people out there - especially on the net - who describe the New Deal as 'evil'. I'm afraid they are at best fools or in some cases they are the evil ones.

Great post. Too often current memes bury the real point of things and revisionist history is a constant danger.

My only question is: Who is going to actually do the construction work this time around? Illegal Aliens I think....so the stimulus will go to South America.

Thank you for bringing the large numbers down to human size by looking at the projects all around us still. Now, if I can get this information to my Texas relatives in a way that looks like they found it on their own. They won't believe this lefty cousin if I send it to them. lol.

Great post and I have said the same thing out here. I see the stone buildings and many are still graceful reminders of the work done back then and wonder how come nobody appreciates today what that still means to us. I suppose the lawsuits are one reason a lot of that cannot be done today. Back then they could just do things and hire 'non-professionals- to work on the crews. My father helped build the Columbia River highway on the Oregon side and construction was not his primary trade. It was a job. A lot was like that. I wonder if we have limited our freedoms too much to do something like that again.

What a small box our federal goverment operates in. We need a paradigm shift. I love the Time Goes By blog.

Pride goeth before a fall...

Always prided myself on knowing much Texas trivia, but you have bested me today!

Now, I will forever hear in my mind,

"Hey, General, don't bogart that joint, mi amigo! Pass it over to this ol' wounded soldier!"

Great post. Thanks for the reminder. My uncle (age 87) worked on the WPA. It was a godsend to him & his mom (my GM)who was widowed at a very young age with 7 children. He remembers it as a wonderful uplifting time in his life. Dee

This is the best description of how to address the malaise across this country I've read. Now if we could just somehow get it distributed to to our President and all those in Congress -- and they would actually read it -- maybe they would get the point there are far too many people in this nation who need help -- NOW!

Since I live in Texas and am a "know-nothing", I suspect nothing I might add would be useful, or welcome here, but I will give it a try.

(By the way, I may not be a Texan much longer as I have my little ranch up for sale, as do 1/3 of my neighbors. We cannot afford the taxes anymore.)

When there aren't any more taxpayers left, (ie producers) who exactly do you think will pay for all of these super programs?

In my beloved West Virginia, the WPA was the benefactor that not only provided jobs during VERY hard times, but also built many of the bridges throughout the state. It gave our small town things that are still standing and being used every day -- a city park that provided the only place for the kids to play, the high school football team a football field, a basketball court for the high school basketball teams to play on, and a swimming pool for everyone. I grew up using these minor miracles and understanding how grateful our people were for the helping hand.

Right on article! I still DO live in Texas (Austin--I wouldn't live anywhere else in this state), and am surrounded by WPA projects. I live in an upstairs-downstairs apartment built during that time, with native limestone walls chock-full of fossils. Many of the bridges spanning the Colorado River were built then, as were most of the State Parks--Buscher, outside Bastrop, Longhorn Caverns, et al.

My dad grew up on a farm in Elgin, 20 mi. east. He was born in 1920, thus in his teens and early 20's throughout the Great Depression. When we lived out of state and visited Austin while I was growing up, he would drive past brick bungalows and duplexes he built as a WPA construction person. All of those improvements are still standing, still strong.

Were the US to reproduce even half of the work generated by the WPA, we would be well on the road to recovery.

Amen to the praises for the WPA. It was my Mom's first job, and the CCC employed one of my uncles. The county parks around here are ornamented by stone lodges and shelters built by WPA workers. Both my parents remember the itinerant bums coming up to the door asking for a meal from their mothers during that Depression. What a different world.

I grew up next to Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, CT. The WPA built that course, using the rocks they cleared from the land to build the clubhouse. I learned a lot about life on that course.

I also shudder to think what would happen if we didn't already have so many public libraries already. Can you imagine trying to promote such things under the economic climate of the last two decades?

I have lived in New York all my life and h ave been deprived of all the great WPA projects(that I know of) But the Bronx Hgh School Of Science had some beatiful WPA art Murals on its walls. And I remember my mother taking some art classes during the depression. Dont know where she got the time but she was a very good artist what little she did. If you know of anyprojects in Manhattan or the Bronx, outside of the postoffices'I would appreciate hearing about them from you

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