Mention government financing public works projects and sooner or later someone's going to bring up the Works Progress Administration.
That conjures scenes from the 1930s, the breadlines and soup kitchens and the wan-faced men selling apples on the street. And also the image of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man elected president in 1932 promising a "New Deal" to end the Great Depression.
Much of our popular memory of the New Deal pictures millions of jobless Americans going to work for the government and building roads, bridges, schools, airports and other public works. And while that was far from being all the New Deal did, it was quite a bit of what the New Deal accomplished in the short term. By the time the agency closed up shop in 1943, it had put 8.5 million Americans to work — a sizable chunk of the workforce in a country less than half as populous as it is today.
Most of that direct employment was organized and done by the WPA, an icon of the "bold persistent experimentation" FDR said would characterize his approach to recovery.
Few episodes in American government have left as permanent an imprint on the national memory. And perhaps none has left so much of a visible legacy on the American landscape. The program literally left its initials everywhere it went — on bridges and overpasses, at airports and water treatment facilities, at schools and libraries and public structures of all kinds, you will find the letters WPA enshrined on plaques and cornerstones.
In fact, the WPA is so closely associated with the New Deal that it sometimes surprises people to learn it was not part of Roosevelt's "First Hundred Days" of legislative accomplishment after taking office in 1933.
The first flurry of legislation, a shotgun blast of new programs and spending, included public projects under the Public Works Administration and the leadership of Harold Ickes, a loyal FDR operative. It was an important part of the larger whole, but it set relatively modest goals and spent money in the millions.
The WPA, which did not arrive in the first year or even the second year of the New Deal, was part of what some called "the second New Deal," legislated in 1935. By then, FDR had been in office for two years and much of his initial momentum had dissipated. Critics saw his vaunted National Recovery Administration as bureaucratic and drowning in details — the ultimate red tape machine. Whether for this reason or for the underlying economic weakness, businesses were still not hiring and millions remained out of work.
But Roosevelt's efforts to date had at least been popular with voters, who gave the president's Democrats larger majorities than they had ever had in the midterm elections of 1934. FDR was able to back up, reassess, and come back with yet another raft of ideas and programs.
The second helping of New Deal in 1935 was a significant package, including the launching of Social Security and eventually the Wagner Act establishing the rights of labor unions to form and bargain for wages and working conditions.
But the impact of those moves lay mostly in the future. For the public at large, the 1935 legislation that mattered most immediately was the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, which among other things enabled FDR to establish the WPA by executive order on May 6, 1935.
Political promises to create "jobs, jobs, jobs" have long since become a campaign cliché. But in the depths of the 1930s, the idea of putting people on government payrolls instead of various forms of welfare was still a fresh idea. And Roosevelt was prepared to try it on a grand scale. The WPA was born with a goal of putting 3.5 million Americans back to work at a cost of at least $5 billion in the first year. That was in an era when the B word for billion was as shocking to the ear as the T word is today.
Harry Hopkins, a longtime aide to FDR, was the WPA's first administrator and served through 1938. The following year the agency was reorganized as the Work Projects Administration and kept running until World War II had returned the nation to full employment.
The program proved broadly popular, as was its campground cousin, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
But there were doubters and detractors too. Some saw it as little more than a new form of "the dole" or a blatant bid to buy the votes of the unemployed in FDR's 1936 reelection cycle. It was also derided for its "make work" projects and for coddling participants who were unworthy or unmotivated. One familiar jibe said that the letters WPA stood for "We Poke Along."
Republicans also complained that WPA jobs were going primarily to Democrats, making the enterprise a giant patronage system. And plenty of controversy attached to the WPA's administration in various parts of the country, with disputes over how much WPA workers should be paid relative to private sector workers and the efforts of some local administrators to pay white WPA workers more than African American ones.
But in the main, Republican opposition was focused more on the creation of Social Security, a more radical venture into structuring a social safety net than the country had envisioned before — one that some conservatives felt would lead to the government taking over the economy. That concentration of fire may have made it easier for the WPA and other programs to go forward.
The WPA has also enjoyed much favorable treatment in the media over the generations, in part perhaps because the WPA included the arts. What was known as Federal Project Number One employed thousands of writers, painters, musicians and various other artists working for the government by creating permanent works for public enjoyment.
The Federal Writers Project produced guides to the cities and states as well as local histories and books for children. It compiled 2,300 first-person accounts from the formerly enslaved. Among the FWP authors who went on to literary fame — and, in some cases, fortune — were Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Studs Terkel and Richard Wright.
Asked to justify spending taxpayer money this way, Hopkins replied: "Hell, they've got to eat just like other people."