Why It's Time for Dr. New Deal (Again)

News at Home

Ralph E. Shaffer and Walter P. Coombs, professors emeriti at Cal Poly Pomona, can be reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

Speaking Thursday night in New Orleans George W. Bush raised the federal ante to clean up and rebuild after Katrina to a staggering quarter of a trillion dollars. He no doubt intends to fund that through another tax cut for corporations and the wealthy. That will surely make Bechtel, Halliburton, General Electric and numerous other Wall Street giants richer yet, but there is a more practical and time-tested way to deal with the problem of reconstruction. We need another dose of medicine from Dr. New Deal (a term used by Franklin D. Roosevelt) in the form of a modern WPA.

In the midst of an economic hurricane known as the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt moved quickly with public works programs not only financed by the federal government but operated by that government as well. Millions of Americans, unemployed because the market system failed in 1929 and was unable to right itself without massive government aid, went to work on the federal payroll, engaged in the type of work that is needed not only in New Orleans but throughout the Gulf Coast area hit by Katrina.

Roosevelt knew that the unemployed did not want relief handouts. They wanted the dignity of a job and the feeling that what they did was useful service to their community and the nation.

The principal agency involved in that program was the Works Progress Administration - WPA, for short. Led by Harry Hopkins, a former social worker rather than a businessman, the agency and its predecessors paved roads, created playgrounds and athletic fields, hired teachers to instruct children when the local community couldn't afford them, installed sewer lines and sidewalks, built public buildings and airports, and engaged in work similar to what needs to be done on the Gulf Coast.

WPA was actually the third such work relief program under FDR. Nine months after his inauguration in Mar., 1933, with upwards of fifteen million Americans unemployed, five million had gone to work for a WPA predecessor. They were paid wages as federal employees, not given "relief" handouts. FDR was adamant--the unemployed should earn a living, not live on the government dole.

From 1935, when WPA replaced the temporary agencies, until America's entry into World War II, millions more found meaningful employment while feeding their families and rebuilding a crushed economy and nation. Cities throughout America still have the WPA logo in sidewalks put down in the 1930s or early 1940s. The agency also hired thousands of artists, musicians, actors and writers as it recognized the need to add a cultural dimension to its work.

WPA did much to improve the nation's aging infrastructure and Congress cheerfully provided the funds, considered an investment in America's future. By eliminating middlemen in the form of the Halliburtons of that era, the nation received the full value of its investment.

Rearmament and the Second World War ended the need to find work for the unemployed. Archconservatives decried FDR's humanitarian program as a socialistic venture, refusing to recognize the human need. Instead, they offered a Scrooge-like belief that those who didn't have a job really didn't want to work. They were happy to scrap WPA, hoping that the lesson of the Great Depression -- that government has an obligation to step in when the market system fails to meet its responsibilities -- would be forgotten during the coming prosperity.

They were wrong. Herbert Hoover, this time in the guise of George W. Bush, has failed again. Rather than saddle the nation with an astronomical debt that future generations will have to bear, it's time to return to Dr. New Deal's solution.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees with no homes to return to and no jobs to support them will be more than willing to pick up a shovel, run a WPA bulldozer, or set up school in a barn if necessary to support themselves and return this nation to normalcy.