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.
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.
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!
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."
"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?