In the Face of Mass Unemployment, We Need a 21st Century WPA
How can we help the unemployed get good-paying work, advance toward a green world, and get more workers into unions? And at the same time rebuild what has been shattered by two generations of neoliberal attacks—a belief that government's role is to build a more just society?
A 21st century WPA.
In the Great Depression of the 1930s the Works Progress Administration was one of the main New Deal agencies that put millions of unemployed back to work on public infrastructure projects. The WPA and Civilian Conservation Corps together employed over 10 million total over the course of their existence.
The WPA also put some of America’s greatest artists, writers, and musicians to the task of telling a more democratic history of the country, painting murals in public spaces, teaching art and music to young people, and documenting and uncovering untold histories, including those of slavery.
The WPA, the largest of the New Deal work initiatives, has come to be shorthand for a variety of agencies including the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the WPA’s own Federal Art Project. Together they created jobs where the capitalist market had utterly failed and used the catastrophe to pursue projects of economic and cultural importance.
But you don’t need me to give you a history lesson. You can just look around.
If you pass a school or a post office, or walk through a park, cross a bridge, or even walk on a street or turn on a faucet, you are likely the deserving beneficiary of investments made during the New Deal. If you live in the Tennessee Valley, you have electricity because of the Tennessee Valley Authority, still the largest publicly owned power provider in the country.
BUILDING INFRASTRUCTURE ON A BIG SCALE
In the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government launched a series of building projects on a scale never seen before, touching virtually every city and town across the country. In Massachusetts alone, the WPA built or renovated over a hundred schools. A hundred parks. A hundred post offices. Eight bridges. A couple of courthouses. Fifteen cemeteries. All of these are part of the unrecognized fabric of life built by working people in the 1930s.
The cultural infrastructure is no less impressive. More than 200,000 works of art were created by WPA artists; thousands were murals that still adorn our federal buildings, city halls, and public schools.
While many works of art celebrated American industry and might, the WPA made ample space for different approaches. A controversial mural by Communist Victor Arnautoff depicting the life of George Washington, at a high school named after the first president, showed him as a slave owner and a key figure in the genocide of Native Americans.
Reprinted many times over the years, the WPA Guides, produced by historians and writers, are considered by many the finest guides to the history, sites, and cultures of American cities and states.
Much of what came to define modern art and popular music was nurtured by the WPA's employment of young artists and musicians. The names of those who found work in the WPA read as a list of the postwar culture scene: Berenice Abbott, Louise Nevelson, Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera, Mark Rothko, Phillip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Zora Neale Hurston.
Many have rightly highlighted the racial inequality perpetuated by some New Deal programs. Social Security deliberately excluded domestic workers and agricultural workers—both jobs with high numbers of African Americans. In the South, Black people were regularly denied work on federal projects. Federal housing policies reinforced segregation.
In program after program, we see the influence of Southern Democratic politicians—and acceptance by their Northern counterparts. But it is also true that WPA programs alone provided crucial employment for some 250,000 Black workers and unimaginable opportunities for Black artists and musicians, and Black politicians were hired into high government positions in unprecedented numbers.
GOVERNMENT AS EMPLOYER
Today, millions of workers want and need to work. In this crisis, only the government can play the role of employing the unemployed on the scale needed, of hiring people directly, not waiting on private business.
Some economists think the focus of government spending right now should be only on protecting incomes—through unemployment insurance, for example—because the economy was booming before the pandemic hit and will rebound quickly. But people want and need work now and many businesses that were flourishing before are likely not to reopen.
Instead of highly expensive and inefficient tax incentives that largely enrich the wealthy, a modern WPA would, like its predecessor, be a relatively inexpensive way to directly employ workers once it is safe to do so.
THERE'S PLENTY TO DO
Those modern WPA workers will not want for projects. Because of nearly two generations of disinvestment in public life, there is more to build and repair than ever.
Our schools are competing with our roads and bridges and public transportation systems for which ones can crumble faster. We have, for example, upwards of 50,000 bridges nationwide that are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Water systems, levees, libraries, post offices, parks, and city halls have been mothballed or torn down or poorly patched up due to our failure to maintain what we've built—and much of that was built in the 1930s.
A WPA that would launch thousands of projects in neighborhoods suffering from unhealthy physical environments, in long-neglected areas, often where African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants live, would work for racial and economic justice. And a new cadre of artists, writers, and musicians could shift the cultural paradigm reflected on our museum walls, in our books, and in the music we listen to and cement what the right wing would like to deny: the United States is becoming unstoppably and gloriously multicultural.
GREEN FROM THE START
The first WPA was mainly about new construction. A 21st century WPA would modernize and maintain existing buildings and infrastructure, including the hundreds of thousands of projects built during the 1930s. Preservation and reuse of existing structures is more climate-friendly than the carbon-costly construction of new ones.
Such a WPA could be part of a Green New Deal, the program introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.
A powerful example of what a program of green public works could look like is the non-profit PUSH Buffalo’s remarkable program of training young people in the methods of green rehabilitation of existing structures. That program, alongside PUSH Buffalo's urban gardens, its cooperative business incubator, its affordable housing programs, and its alliance with unions such as the Laborers, is an example of how to cultivate sustainable non-gentrified cities.
That’s a local program, like the best labor and climate movement collaborations. But we need something more dramatic and national. Unions could lead in making the case for a nationwide effort to take what we have and repair it, improve it, and make it last sustainably, for another century. A new WPA would give unions the chance to lead on defining a labor-friendly climate movement.
MORE UNION MEMBERS
Unions should also see the fight for a new WPA as an opportunity to build the ranks of public employee unions, our last redoubt of union density. The first WPA received justifiable criticism from some unions for paying wages below prevailing wages in some regions. The Workers Alliance, a Socialist Party effort, successfully organized WPA workers in some places, such as Washington State. But most WPA workers were nonunion.
Unions would have to insist that in a new WPA all workers would be allowed to unionize without interference. Given that public employment has been a key source of well-paying jobs for people of color, a new WPA could also advance racial justice.
The central reasons for a 21st century WPA are the material improvements it would bring to the lives of workers and their communities. But we should not undervalue the long-term importance of a project like this. The first WPA generated support for the possibility that government could improve lives. Indeed, as historian Eric Foner has argued, the New Deal brought about a new definition of social citizenship, whereby “freedom” was now understood to include economic security for every citizen.
But where the left saw a new birth of freedom, the right saw the dark shadow of centralized tyranny. From the 1960s onward a right-wing revolt was built slowly and steadily, taking over the Republican and then the Democratic Parties by the 1980s and 1990s. It took 30 years of steady work by the right wing to undermine the belief that government could do good.
A new WPA could leave a built legacy we will be taking political inspiration from for another century. A new WPA could help repair what the right intentionally broke: a belief that government, and public workers, are essential parts of building a decent society.
Max Page is vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a professor of architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.