I recently finished reading Furious Improvisation, which I would highly recommend, by the way. It’s about the arts aspect of the WPA, and it’s really a very interesting read, although it can be a bit dry and dense in places. But if you’re interested in the WPA, or the Depression, or art, really, you should definitely check it out.
One thing about the book which I thought was really interesting was the overview of the roots of the WPA. Faced with economic catastrophe, Roosevelt had to come up with something, and the WPA was one of the solutions. At the time, it was heavily criticized, and people fought against it as a waste of money, a socialist program, and a handout. But, it really wasn’t, and in retrospect, many people recognize the WPA as a good thing.
Roosevelt explicitly stated that he did not want to create a charity. His goal with the WPA was, yes, to create jobs, but not just that. He definitely had a vested interest in getting unemployed Americans employed partially because he was concerned about socialism, and he thought that idle hands could be easily wooed into the fold of socialism or communism. He also, of course, thought that getting Americans back to work was a good thing. And, he wanted the WPA to be used for things which were actually productive. Rather than creating make-work, he wanted WPA workers to do something which would benefit America as a whole. We actually continue to use and benefit from things built by WPA workers, from dams to trails in state parks, so clearly Roosevelt had a good think going on there.
Even the arts wing of the WPA was designed to be productive. Aside from getting those renegade already almost socialist artists back to work, it was designed to bring art to the people. The theatre program, for example, was intended to allow people who had never had a chance to see live theatre before to see stage performances. And the arts program also included extensive documentation of the lives of real Americans, the writing of guidebooks, and a variety of other pretty cool projects. It really had a profound impact on American art and culture.
Reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder what has changed in America. I’ve always been a pretty big fan of the WPA, because I thought it was a mighty fine idea, and I think that it definitely had some benefits even if it wasn’t always perfect. Yes, a lot of money was spent, but that money was used in a productive way which helped real Americans all over the United States, and it continues to pay out for many of us; the WPA accomplished a two fold goal of creating substantial infrastructure improvements (and getting us ready for war) and of getting unemployed Americans back to work.
Psychologically, I think there’s something to be said for working for the WPA as opposed to collecting unemployment. Both are sources of income which can be used to keep people housed, fed, and clothed, but one involves income in return for productive labour, which I would think would be more psychologically rewarding than simply accepting a handout. Roosevelt certainly seemed to think that way, and I figure that as long as the government is going to be handing out money, it might as well get something back.
So why is it that when we were faced with another economic crisis 80 years later, we chose to pour huge amounts of money into…the banks? The banks that got us into the mess in the first place? I would argue that we need some major infrastructure improvements, which many states cannot actually afford because they are stretched so thin. So here’s a chance to get unemployed people working, deal with infrastructure problems, benefit actual Americans, and generally improve quality of life in the United States. Why didn’t we opt to do this? What about America has changed?
I am far from a conspiracy theorist or an idealist, but I must say that the last few months have been a tremendous disillusionment for me, as an American. I always laboured under the admittedly naive belief that America was run by the people, and that it would stump up during tough times. But, in fact, we really are controlled by corporate greed and the lust for money; the voice of the people doesn’t matter, and hasn’t mattered for a long time. The welfare of the people is definitely not the concern of the government, because otherwise it would have approached this crisis radically differently. It would have actually helped Americans.
Instead, the government chose corporate welfare, handouts of billions of dollars with no accountability, and a substantial deficit which we are going to be paying off for years; which future generations will be paying off. It’s a deficit which provided no real benefits to most Americans, unless you honestly believe all of that claptrap about “too big to fail.” The government has done nothing to address the very real and immediate problems caused by systemic poverty in the United States, the tremendous gulf between rich and poor, and the fact that our society is, in a lot of ways, teetering on the edge of collapse. The people may be pretty damn apathetic, but they aren’t entirely stupid, and they are starting to get restless, as well they should.
I only wish that Roosevelt had pushed through a national single payer health plan, because at this point, we are never going to get one.