Many of the projects proposed under the recent economic stimulus government grants have been criticized as unnecessary, frivolous, and so on. Maybe it's time to look back on a similar period of time in American history, and a similar proposed solution.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects began in 1935 under President Franklin Roosevelt, and were designed to provide productive employment for the unemployed during the Great Depression. In its eight years of operation, from 1935 to 1943, the WPA spent $10.5 billion employing eight and a half million Americans who previously had been jobless, rescuing them -- and the country -- from the straits of the Depression.
Unemployment had been 24.9 percent when Roosevelt took office two years earlier, in 1933. Millions were homeless and wandering the country in search of jobs. Shantytowns sat on the edges -- and often in the midst -- of every city. Many people had no clothes to wear or food to eat.
The New Deal's first relief and jobs programs were aimed at relieving suffering. But as Roosevelt and (native Iowan) Harry Hopkins, who headed the W.P.A., looked around the country, they saw an infrastructure mired in the 19th century - unpaved roads, rickety bridges, inadequate water and sewage treatment systems, national parks and forests damaged by deforestation and erosion. Thus, W.P.A. job programs concentrated on these projects, as well as in building airports, hospitals and schools.
Nearly every community benefited from a WPA project. In Aurelia, for example, the school's football field, Valor Field, was built by WPA workers, and it has served the community well for 70 - plus years. Yet, building a football field or local park was probably criticized at the time. So, too, would have been the public art projects , such as Grant Woods' murals in the library at Iowa State University, although many have been worthy of preservation.
One of the more unusual WPA projects employed persons to visit cemeteries and record the names and birth/death dates from each headstone. That project was probably mocked also, but today, these WPA records have been computerized and can be searched by "amateur genealogists," who have come to value the efforts, as it is now possible to locate burial sites and birth/death dates for ancestors from more than 150 years ago. Ironically, Cherokee County is reportedly one of only a few Iowa counties where this was not done, for whatever reason.
Sometimes "economic stimulus" programs can produce outcomes of lasting value, in addition to the obvious benefits for those employed. We can indeed learn from the past - not just from our mistakes, but from the things that work as well.
- Guest Columnist Douglas Whitney