Going into town with my dad as a youngster there were three rows of ramshackle wooden buildings just on the edge of town. When I was first old enough to notice them, they were vacant, sagging and weathered.
When I asked my dad what they were he told me they had been barracks for WPA workers. He said they lived there while working on construction projects in the area, mainly roads, bridges and parks. He also told me it was a program that helped turn the country around during the great depression. It gave men jobs, three meals a day, a place to sleep and money to send home to their families. It gave them hope and a sense of purpose. But most of all, it restored their pride, something that had been sorely missing when unemployment was so high and people were forced to stand in soup lines.
The WPA, Works Progress Administration, was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program to help the country out of the depression.
The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered. When Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA, testified before Congress on January 1935, he estimated that 3.5 million people were on relief. He asked for and received $4 billion for the project, which came to $1200 per worker per year. Only one member per household was allowed in the program and then for only 30 hours per week. This allowed more people to benefit from the program.
Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided almost 8 million jobs. The program built many public buildings, projects and roads and operated large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. It fed children and redistributed food, clothing and housing. Almost every community in America has a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. Expenditures from 1936 to 1939 totaled nearly $7 billion. (Jim Crouch, “The Works Progress Administration)
Over the years I watched the buildings south of town slowly deteriorate. They were never torn down, but eventually fell down. I think people wanted them there as a reminder of how bad times had been, and how they had all survived.
After high school I went on to Iowa State University, a land-grant college and practically a museum for WPA art projects. ISU benefited greatly from the branch of the WPA called The Federal Arts Project, which gave unemployed artists the opportunity to decorate hundreds of public buildings with murals, canvases and sculptures.
Iowa State’s campus includes over 600 public works of art, including the largest public collection of sculptures by Christian Petersen, who was artist-in-residence there from 1934 to 1955. It also has the largest Grant Wood murals in the nation; two WPA projects located in the library titled “Breaking the Sod” and “When Tillage Begins, Other Arts Follow.”
In part because of these wonderful sculptures and murals, ISU is rated as one of America’s 25 most beautiful campuses.
I can still remember the enormous Grant Wood mural covering one entire wall in the library and the beautiful Petersen sculptures scattered all around the campus, including a stunning fountain in front of the Memorial Union Building. Of course I didn’t appreciate then as much as I should have, but then, what college student does?
There was also a beautiful park outside of Ames, Iowa that was built entirely by WPA crews. There were stone walkways, hiking paths, streams, waterfalls and picnic areas. All the trees and landscaping had been done by WPA also. It was one of my favorite retreats when I was in college.
Another novel special program of the WPA was The Federal Writers Project, which prepared state and regional guidebooks, organized archives, indexed newspapers, and conducted sociological and historical investigations. The Federal Theatre Project sent scores of stock companies touring the country with old and new plays, bringing drama to communities where it had only been known through the radio. Also through the Arts Project, musicians organized symphony orchestras and community singing. (Encyclopedia of American History)
By March 1936, the WPA rolls had reached a total of more than 3,400,000 persons; after initial cuts in June 1939, it averaged 2,300,000 monthly; and by June 30, 1943, when it was officially terminated, the WPA had employed more than 8,500,000 different persons on 1,410,000 individual projects, and had spent about $11 billion. During its 8-year history, the WPA built 651,087 miles of highways, roads, and streets; and constructed, repaired, or improved 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks, and 853 airport landing fields. (Encyclopedia of American History)
Maybe it’s time to resurrect the idea of the WPA. Dust off these old ideas and refurbish them as well as the projects they serviced. Our neglected infrastructure has begun to crumble. We need to develop new energy sources that could create entirely new jobs. There are still rural areas in this country that desperately need better roads, housing and schools. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to bring additional literacy and arts to these same repressed areas.
Granted, our economy is different than it was 70 years ago, but think about it; in seven years with $11 billion the WPA restored the lives of 8,500,000 people as well as their families. The WPA literally changed the landscape of America. The entire country benefited in one-way or another from the WPA projects.
Why do we continue to pump billions of dollars into financial institutions that are showing no accountability for what they are given and continue to ask for more? A.I.G. just asked for another $150 billion in government assistance on top of the $85 billion they already received. And by the way, A.I.G. executives had another “retreat” at a luxury resort in AZ this past week. I guess causing your company to fail and then getting money from the government is exhausting. They take our tax dollars and go on a luxury retreat while we taxpayers just have to retreat.