While leaders on both sides of the Atlantic do their best to channel the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt–bailing out banks, proposing massive public works projects, even promising mortgage relief for financially troubled homeowners–a March 24 gathering at 11 Downing Street brought together Britain’s political and cultural establishments to learn about the legacy of a lesser-known figure of the New Deal: Harry Hopkins. An Iowa-born social worker, Hopkins headed FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). “Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit,” he famously observed. “Give him a job…and you save both the body and the spirit.”
Beginning in April 1935, long after FDR’s first hundred days had run their course without putting much of a dent in unemployment levels, the WPA lifted more than 8 million Americans off the relief rolls and into work. WPA workers built schools, parks, post offices, zoos, even golf courses, as well as airports, highways and dams. Tucked away in Roosevelt’s executive order establishing the agency was a provision for “small useful projects designed to assure a maximum of employment.” From such modest beginnings was born Federal One, the WPA arts program comprising the Federal Writers’ Project as well as projects in music, theater and the visual arts. A tiny fraction of WPA spending, at any one time the arts program never employed more than 45,000 people, of whom fewer than 7,000 worked on the Writers’ Project. With alumni who include Nelson Algren, Arna Bontemps, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Martha Gellhorn, Zora Neale Hurston, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel and an unknown, unpublished, out-of-work Chicagoan named Saul Bellow, it is hard to argue that the money wasn’t well spent.
Still, the WPA might seem like an unlikely source of inspiration for Britain, which after all boasts not only a welfare state that puts America’s social safety net to shame but a thriving and long-established government-funded arts sector that includes the National Theatre, the BBC, the British Museum and a superb network of regional museums, opera companies, galleries and theaters. With annual government support of nearly £600 million (about $878 million), the British could be forgiven for thinking they had nothing to learn from America, where funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) peaked at just $176 million in 1992 and has been in decline ever since and where every dollar of federal support for the arts prompts bitter opposition.