Why we need a bold new jobs program

America can't afford to waste its human resources as the Great Recession lingers on. Obama should look to the WPA

Topics: U.S. Economy, War Room, New Deal 2.0,

Why we need a bold new jobs program

To those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance… I stand or fall by my refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed… [W]e must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then to take wise measures against its return.

- Franklin D. Roosevelt

With unemployment still hovering at over 9 percent nationwide, and with some economists and historians arguing that the present economic crisis should not be referred to as the “Great Recession,” but as the “Great Depression II,” a good deal of anticipation has arisen over what President Obama will propose in his message to Congress on Thursday. Despite widespread Republican opposition to further government spending, many economists and business leaders — not to mention liberal members of the Democratic Party — argue that what the country desperately needs is another stimulus package. A jobs program could provide hope and relief to the millions of long-term unemployed, restore confidence, and stem the U.S. economy’s steady slide back into recession. Even the ever demure Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has indicated that “putting people back to work” must be made a priority if the country wishes to avoid long-term damage to the economy.



Just over 75 years ago, in the midst of a long-term unemployment crisis not unlike the one we face today, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7034 to create one of the largest federal employment programs in American history: the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Roosevelt created the WPA in part out of his conviction that when the private sector fails to provide basic economic security in the form of employment to millions of Americans, it is right and proper for the government to step in to pick up the slack. Like President Obama, FDR presided over an economy that was expanding, in fact at a much faster rate than the meager growth we see today. But the growth was not strong enough to absorb the many millions still looking for work. Even though the unemployment rate had fallen by more than five percent since his assumption of office in 1933, FDR was not content to sit on his laurels and wait for the long hoped for return to full employment. So the president did what the American people expected him to do: he took action.

Over the course of its eight-year history, the WPA employed approximately 8.5 million people, the vast majority of whom worked on projects aimed at rebuilding America’s wholly inadequate 19th century infrastructure. That infrastructure was marked by feeble bridges, unpaved roads, little or no water or sewage treatment facilities, and tens of thousands of decrepit schools and other public buildings. Thanks to this massive effort, millions of Americans (including engineers, architects, and other skilled workers) gained meaningful employment and through their labor transformed the face of the nation. In New York City alone, for example, the WPA constructed the Triborough Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, FDR Drive, LaGuardia Airport, and the Belt, Grand Central, and Henry Hudson Parkways. It also rebuilt the Central Park Zoo, landscaped Bryant Park and Hunter College, and built or renovated hundreds of schools throughout the city — not to mention put thousands of unemployed city teachers back to work in the newly constructed classrooms.

As this incomplete list of projects for New York City alone shows, the WPA was no “make work” operation, but a national endeavor aimed at transforming the nation’s economic infrastructure and bringing the United States into the modern world by making use of our most precious resource: human capital. By the time it was finished, the WPA had constructed nearly 600,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 airfields, 500 water treatment plants, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 other state, county, and local government buildings. It was also widely popular among working Americans who wrote tens of thousands of letters to the White House thanking the president for his determination to counter the demoralizing effects of unemployment.

The infrastructure built by the WPA and other New Deal agencies helped lay the basis for the massive economic expansion that took place during World War II and the post-war years. All of us have benefited immensely from this visionary effort to simultaneously rebuild America and the American workforce. But after roughly 70 years, much of this infrastructure is in desperate need of replacement or repair.

If the president and Congress are serious about meeting the worst economic crisis this nation has endured since the Great Depression, remaining competitive in the global economy, and avoiding the atrophy of skills that comes after years of an idle workforce, then they should embrace the opportunity to rebuild America and the American workforce with the same sort of bold vision that inspired an earlier generation. With infrastructure that is now ranked a dismal 23rd among the world’s industrialized states, and with millions of skilled and unskilled workers in desperate need of a job, this is no time for half measures. In light of this, isn’t it time for the president to establish his own jobs program — by executive order if necessary — and to insist that Congress provide the funds needed to support it? The American people would no doubt support such a move. They understand that the real crisis in America is a jobs crisis, exasperated by a failure of leadership in Washington and the false obsession of Republican party extremists with cutting government spending at a time when we can least afford it. They are also tired of crumbling roads, burst levees, and collapsed bridges. They have heard enough talk of cuts, cuts, cuts when, in the spirit of the New Deal, they would much rather heed a call to “build, baby, build.” Surely, as FDR said in his first inaugural, the time has come for “action and action now.”

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>