The New Deal and the WPA
Eric Carl Eberle
The Great Depression created unprecedented human and economic suffering. Conditions were so hopeless that a second American Revolution seemed nearly inevitable. Innovative economic thinking was imperative to stem the potential violence and despair. The New Deal was the plan President Roosevelt and his advisors developed to combat the massive problems. The New Deal was more than a slogan; it was a tremendous amount of federal aid administered to relieve the victims of a failed economic system and to preserve their self-respect. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was an important part of the New Deal relief.
Depression was nothing new to farmers; they had coped with it since the early 1920s. A dairy farmer could only get a penny for one pint of milk. By the early thirties, prices fell so low that many farmers destroyed their crops and livestock in a futile attempt to raise prices. Drought and erosion created further tragedy. Farmers were evicted by the tens of thousands. They then traveled to cities looking for jobs, only to discover that there weren't any.
It was not only farmers who were in peril. In the 1930s, more than 46 million people, about thirty-five percent of the population, received relief. Unable to find work, many disillusioned and influential leaders promoted radical change. Capitalism had failed; they argued that communism was the answer. The potential for extensive violence loomed.
Veterans, unarmed and dressed in rags, staged a protest march. General Douglas MacArthur claimed that the veterans were a mob bent on revolution. Although there was no evidence to support his claim, MacArthur led cavalry tanks and a column of infantry to fight the protestors. The veterans were stunned that men wearing uniforms had acted against them.
The "dole" became an unpopular solution. Roosevelt had conflicting views of it. He said, "to these unfortunate citizens aid must be extended by government; not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of social duty." Yet he also said: "The dole method of relief for unemployment is not only repugnant to all sound principles of social economics, but is contrary to every principle of American citizenship and of sound government. American labor seeks no charity, but only a chance to work for its living." A work relief program was clearly his answer to the dilemma. His statement, "We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed, but also their self-respect, self-reliance, courage, and determination," reflected his decision.
The earliest work relief programs were the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Public Works Administration (PWA). The CCC hired mostly young men to work in long-neglected parks and forests. The PWA hoped to create jobs and stimulate the economy by giving projects to the private
sector. But lack of long-range funding and planning created inefficiency. When those programs were phased out, rioting again threatened.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) incorporated the most successful aspects of the CCC and PWA with the advantage of being much larger in scope and imagination. The WPA was innovative in many ways. For the first time, men, women, blacks, and whites, received equal pay for equal work. The pay was little more than relief, but it gave hope for future equality. The legacy of the WPA is still present in the Chicago area. The unique Zoo Rookery, an uncovered outdoor exhibition space for aquatic birds at the Lincoln Park Zoo, was built by WPA workers. Most of the original Brookfield Zoo was built with WPA funds and workers. The famous Theodore Roosevelt fountain in the center of the zoo was created by WPA artists. Like many public buildings, the Geneva Post Office is decorated with a WPA mural.
It is difficult for people today to understand the hunger, anxiety, and despair created by months and years without regular work and family income. It was a decade of missed opportunities, shattered careers, and unfulfilled hopes. Yet, there was no revolution in America because of farsighted leaders and the courage and spirit of people who wanted not a handout but a job.—[From Anthony Badger, The New Deal; Carl Condit, Chicago 1910-29; Edward Ellis, A Nation in Torment; Ernest R. May, Boom and Bust; Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago; Edwin C. Rozwenc, The New Deal; Arthur Schlesinger, The Coming of the New Deal; and Works Progress Administration, Achievements of WPA Workers in Illinois, July 1, 1935-July 30, 1938.]