Revisiting the WPA to Remind America of Its Potential


| 3/1/2011 12:25:05 PM


Tags: WPA, the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ,

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This article was originally published at New Deal 2.0  

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In remarks at the FDR Library on the 75th anniversary of the WPA, Gray Brechin gave this speech reminding us of the multifaceted impact of this successful government program. 

As you all know, we Americans have been marinated in a fundamentalist ideology for the last 30 years. You know the drill: government is so inefficient and corrupt that any taxes we pay for it are extortionate and wasted. There’s a corollary to that so often repeated that it’s become common wisdom despite the fact that it’s flat-out wrong. It goes: “Everyone knows that the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, the War did.” The latter cliche has served to belittle stimulus initiatives undertaken by both Presidents Roosevelt and Obama. But it’s also more generally used as argument-ending proof that government stimulus programs to create jobs and get the nation out of an economic crisis are futile or actually prolong the catastrophe. The implication is that only a good worldwide bloodbath can do that — ironically enough when all limits are taken off of government spending. (In fact, as Amy Goodman reported, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner said that President Bush told him that “the best way to revitalize the economy is war and that the United States has grown stronger with war.”)

These twin mantras are repeated by people who have no idea that they use the New Deal every day. They ride over New Deal roads, enjoy public parks, cross bridges and drive through tunnels, use airports, hospitals, and libraries, and some even send their kids to schools and colleges built by New Deal agencies. We take for granted the public health that comes with clean drinking water that my grandparents could not. The PWA totally rebuilt the Chicago waste water system so that Chicagoans no longer had to drink their sewage. Much of this was put in place 75 years ago in the depths of the Great Depression in order to get out of it. Contrary to what we’re repeatedly told, those programs worked; they employed millions of men, women, and youth, collectively lifting the country rapidly out of the Depression. Moreover, post-war prosperity was largely built upon the back of New Deal public works, which were then new. They are seldom, if ever, acknowledged for contributing significantly to that prosperity.