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The WPA and Me

By       Message David Glenn Cox     Permalink
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How many times have you read the following, "The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression?" Recently during a discussion about the WPA a gentleman told me, but the world is different now. Back then America was full of farm boys who could build roads and bridges with strong backs. Today it is full of programmers and systems analysts.

Concrete and steel remain while paper and paint fade away. The memories of former generations pass on until it is only the concrete and steel that remind us of what they did. Baseball legend Whitey Ford attended a school that didn't offer a baseball program so he began playing baseball in the WPA league. Unemployed musicians on Bourbon Street gave music lessons and some traveled with stock companies of actors that performed stage plays for the public.

The WPA sponsored dances and paid musicians to play at them. Under the TRAP program over 225,000 pieces of art were created to adorn public buildings some of these pieces are now valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. What is interesting is the theme of their art because their theme was you! In Burbank California is a fresco titled "The People of Burbank" in Enterprise Alabama there is a painting titled "Saturday in Enterprise" and in Saint Johns Oregon are murals titled "Development of Saint John's.

We remember most bridges and roads and huge dam projects but the WPA also built golf courses and community swimming pools. In Kansas fifty WPA workers lived in tents and ate food cooked by other WPA workers to build an eighteen-hole public golf course. Who paid to design the golf course? The WPA did and who paid the lifeguards at the swimming pools? The WPA did the WPA employed actors, musicians, artists, teachers, bookkeepers and writers. The Federal Writers project paid unemployed writers to create pamphlets and tourist information.

Education was a large part of the WPA workers might show up for a job and be given a shovel or a broom but by attending free classes offered at night they could move up to a carpenter or a welder or a foreman or a technician. The WPA built over seven hundred airport landing fields but more than just to pour concrete and walk away the WPA also trained aircraft mechanics and ground people as well.

So yes, the world has changed a WPA today could offer classes in computer repair and programming. They could streamline and update public computer files. Everybody can do something, children in New Orleans were given art lessons and children still need art. They were taught classes in sewing or cooking or swimming lessons. The WPA rebound schoolbooks, made mattresses, taught dry cleaning and taught sign painting.

The CCC taught forty thousand men to read and write because these programs were designed to give people jobs but also to give them skills and opportunity. Because with skills and opportunity comes hope not campaign promise hope but real hope through accomplishment. Eighty percent of all the money spent on the WPA was paid out to the workers in salaries but they got more than just a paycheck and America got more than just a public works program.

From training as nurse's aides to the circus for five years the WPA even operated their own circus that toured the country with a fifty-five-piece band and employed a young actor named Burt Lancaster to be a clown. Imagine being a child in 1935 and having no money when the free circus comes to town. Imagine being a parent in 1935 and having no money to take your kids to the circus when the free circus comes to town!
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Herbert Hoover began the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932 as a stimulus program but it was too small to accomplish much of anything. When a stimulus is too small it is like pissing on a forest fire. It feels good, it's a relief and you can say that you tried something. Hoover's RFC made loans to business and industry but was bogged down with bureaucracy and questionable loans to political supporters.

The new administration took two billion in RFC funding and created the Homeowners Loan Corporation, which bought distressed mortgages from the banks and refinanced them. When you applied for refinancing you were given a case manager and if you were unemployed you might receive a referral to the WPA. You see not everyone was hired, it wasn't a just show up and get your check program. Hiring was prioritized; men with families and then single women without families and only one member per family could work for the WPA.

These programs worked like a network the WPA provided jobs and job training. The CCC employed young men eighteen to twenty six and got idle youth off the streets and out of the house. The Homeowners Loan Corporation provided home refinancing to over a million families in less time than the current administrations program has provided permanent assistance to half that number.

They built natural gas pipelines that employed engineers and draftsmen and surveyors to design and lay out the grid. Millions of Americans worked for the WPA who never lifted a shovel full of dirt or got concrete on their boots. They did everything from play harmonica to feed elephants from umpiring baseball games to managing shuffleboard tournaments.

One WPA project was beautification of national cemeteries another was the beautification of public parks. Some offer today that the New Deal didn't have the Republican noise machine to deal with or vocal Republicans in Congress. Most of the nation's newspapers were in Republican hands and Republicans in Congress were just as vocal then as they are now as they called sewer and sidewalk projects boondoggles. The President answered, "If we can boondoggle ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for years to come."
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On the Republican side Roosevelt was the most hated man since Judas Iscariot to which he answered, "I ask you to judge me by the enemies I've made, they are unanimous in their hatred for me and I welcome their hatred."

"Sometimes I get bored sitting in Washington," FDR said, "hearing certain people talk and talk about all that Government ought not to do -- people who got all they wanted from Government back in the days when the financial institutions and the railroads were being bailed out in 1933, bailed out by the Government. It is refreshing to go out through the country and feel the common wisdom that the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining."

So when I read, "The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression" I ask myself how we got ourselves out of the last Great Depression? When I hear people say that we can't do that or the Republicans won't let us I think, how do you know until you try? Has any politician uttered the words "Jobs Program?" Has any politician said the letters WPA?

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that I (more...)
 

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