Friday, February 19, 2010

Nostalgic For The New Deal

   What with all the economic uncertainty nowadays, you hear a lot about comparisons between now and the Great Depression. Most commentators assert that the situation is different today so there is not much to learn from President Roosevelt's actions but I'm not so sure. FDR made the case to the public that, since the "Free Enterprise" system had failed completely to provide jobs and economic security to most Americans, it was necessary for the government to step in and do so.
   Regardless of how you feel about whether such action is necessary today, you must admit that FDR's intervention in the economy brought our nation back from the brink by funding numerous employment opportunities for unemployed Americans. His job programs put people back to work doing socially useful things like building infrastructure and doing conservation work but it also funded artists, playwrights and musicians, as well.
   Here is just a recap of some of those programs.

Just like today, large numbers of Americans were desperate for a job and most communities were strained to provide any relief at all.

It was clear that unemployment was a failure of the system and not that of individuals. Even highly-trained workers were unable to find positions.

As job layoffs spread across the country, people took to the streets to demand that government do something to deal with the crisis.

One of the first government employment programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was primarily designed to provide jobs while implementing a general natural resource conservation program on federal, state, county and municipal lands in every U.S. state.

CCC workers operated in almost every state, replanting forests, preventing soil erosion and building park facilities.

The work of the CCC can be seen all over the country. Pretty much all of the stone and timber construction in today's parks were the work of CCC craftsmen.

One CCC project you can still enjoy in the St. Louis area is the Lodge at Pere Marquette State Park in Grafton, Il. This beautiful structure is constructed with a quality that few contemporary buildings have.

The Federal government undertook several large-scale construction projects to upgrade the nation's infrastructure. Huge dam projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority provided flood control and inexpensive electricity to the Midwest. Here we see FDR inspecting another such project, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington.

The most ambitious of FDRs programs was the Works Progress Administration. The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered.

By far the biggest part of the WPA funding went to highway and road building but large amounts were spent on other infrastructure projects, as well.

This diagram was created to illustrate the variety of projects funded by the WPA. Although critics charged that money was wasted on many projects that were not needed, it seems clear that these were not just "make-work" jobs.

WPA School Construction 1936

WPA wokers construct a storm sewer in Georgia.

WPA road project 1936

Constructing a sewer system in Kentucky.

More sewer work.

Signs let the public know that their tax dollars were at work.

Besides construction projects the WPA funded many other types of relief. Here six unskilled colored women report for work at the Training Work Center.

Supervised play given to children of pre-school age in WPA Nursery schools.

WPA teacher trains chorus

The Federal Writers' Project was another attempt to provide employment by funding written work and supporting writers during the Great Depression.

FWP writers were put to work compiling local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children's books and other works. The most well-known of these publications were the 48 state guides to America (known as the American Guide Series.

The Federal Art Project's primary goals were to employ out-of-work artists and to provide art for non-federal government buildings like schools, hospitals and libraries. The work was divided into art production, art instruction and art research. The primary output of the art-research group was the Index of American Design, a mammoth and comprehensive study of American material culture

Altogether, some 200,000 works of public art were created including posters, murals and paintings.

Yet another support for artists came in the Federal Theater Project. This was a New Deal project to fund theatre and other live artistic performances in the United States during the Great Depression. Many popular directors first got their start in the program, including Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Martin Ritt and Elia Kazan.

The prime objective of the Federal Music Project (1935-39) and the subsequent WPA Music Program (1939-43) was to employ professional musicians registered on the relief rolls. The project employed these musicians as instrumentalists, singers, concert performers, and music teachers.

The Federal Music project provided employment for all sorts of musicians, many of which had been greatly affected by the Depression. New works were created and 34 new orchestras were formed.

Wisconsin originated the idea of unemployment insurance in the U.S. in 1932. This unique Federal/State program was administered by the states but provided compensation to laid off workers nation-wide.

This chart maps the economic success of these New Deal programs. As you can see, GDP bottomed out in 1933 when FDR took office but began rising rapidly as Federal spending increased. The only dip came in 1937, when the President was put under pressure to balance the budget. That reduction slowed down the recovery but GDP was at a record rate by the time World War II started.

It's not surprising why FDR is held in such high esteem by so many Americans. Getting that first paycheck gave workers the hope that the economy was turning around and that the future would eventually get better.

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