The American Pageant (12th Edition)

Chapter 34 – Page 786

Our Critique

786 “Congress authorized the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. The objective was employment on useful projects.”

The WPA had huge total funding—an amount equaling almost one-half of the US national debt in 1935. Notice how Bailey tends to judge it by its intentions, not its results. He says, “The objective was employment on useful projects.” Three big problems existed with the WPA. First, as Bailey admits two sentences later, “Not every WPA project strengthened infrastructure.” In other words, “boondoggles” abounded. Second, the WPA was immediately politicized—whoever had the most political clout got the most cash.

Frank Kent, reporter with the Baltimore Sun, watched this process in action: “Every city and state needs its portion of this incredibly great sum. They all want as much as they can get. Failure to secure its proportion places a state at great disadvantage. It means heavier local taxation.” Thus mayors and governors “are obliged to woo Mr. Roosevelt. They must have the money and he has it to give.”

The third problem with the WPA is that it became so politically corrupt that reporter Thomas Stokes won a Pulitzer Prize exposing how WPA workers spent time campaigning to elect Democrats. Stokes’s investigation revealed, in his words, that the WPA was “a grand political racket in which the taxpayer is the victim.” Many WPA offices, Stokes discovered, were “open and flagrant” in soliciting votes for key Democrats.

“It was a keen disappointment, Stokes said, “to find that the WPA was being exploited for politics and to ponder the ultimate effects to our Democracy if such a large group, dependent upon the administration in power, should be hereafter utilized and organized politically.”

786–87 “Not every WPA project strengthened the infrastructure: for instance, one controlled crickets in Wyoming, while another built a monkey pen in Oklahoma City. Predictably, missions like these caused critics to sneer that WPA meant ‘We Provide Alms.’ But the fact is that over a period of eight years, nearly 9 million people were given jobs, not handouts.”

Bailey does admit to one of the three key problems with the WPA—it often supported make-work projects that added little value to the economy. But notice his positive conclusion on the WPA—hey, it gave “nearly 9 million people” jobs. That view is short-sighted for two reasons. First, those nine million WPA workers, often with make-work jobs, had little security because they had to play politics to survive. In New Jersey, for example, Frank Hague, the WPA director—a corrupt but candid man—answered his phone, “Democratic headquarters.”

The WPA files in Washington, DC, for New Jersey alone are loaded with comments from WPA workers that said the following: “At Atco they collected two dollars from the WPA workers for the campaign.” “The WPA [workers] had to vote for him (Freeholder Emil McCall) or lose their jobs.” No wonder freshman congressman Frank Towey of New Jersey announced at a Democrat rally in Newark, “In this county there are 18,000 on the WPA. With an average of three in a family you have 54,000 potential Democratic votes. Can anyone beat that if it is properly mobilized?”

Second, the jobs created at the WPA were offset by the jobs lost by taking taxes from people who otherwise would have spent that money on products that would have given people employment. Every dollar spent on the WPA had to be taken from a dollar of taxes. We see nine million people doing various jobs—some useful, some not—but we don’t see the jobs not created because the people paying the taxes never had a chance to buy shirts, shoes, or cars—all of which would have created jobs.

At best, the WPA shifted spending from people spending their own money to government spending other peoples’ money. And the make-work projects and the corruption suggest the government did not spend the money as well as people could have spent their own money, which helps explain why the Great Depression persisted under FDR.