The most ambitious, visionary and progressive New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration enlisted millions of unemployed Americans on major public works projects and subsidized countless artists, writers and other cultural figures. At just 22, a very young (and avowedly Communist) Jimmy Wechsler argued in The Nation (December 18, 1937) that the view that the WPA’s workers were mere “boondogglers”—and that the program was only “nourishing parasites”—was wrong. He carefully compiled statistics on how much the program had already achieved: “29,000 miles of new roads, 1,099 school buildings, 1,440 recreational centers, and 3,350 miles of new trunk and lateral sewers,” and so on. His rebuke to the WPA’s opponents taunts the real boondogglers of our own age, willing to allow the infrastructure of this country to crumble while millions are un- and especially under-employed.
The activities of the WPA are indeed varied—more varied than this brief survey can show. Its workers ply houseboats on the Yazoo River in Mississippi in order to bring books to inaccessible, remote communities, serve hot lunches to school children, probe traffic disasters in a campaign to make the highways safe in Kentucky, and build new flax-processing plants in Oregon. A panorama view of the WPA adventure cannot reveal its full human background nor properly establish the continuity of effort, it can only suggest the breadth of the program and the imagination behind it. No partisan can pretend that all has been sweetness and light in the fulfilment of the projects. So sweeping an enterprise was doomed to suffer from bureaucracy and confusion. But the enemies of work relief do not protest primarily against flaws in execution. What they fear is the impact of a dynamic federal program which, without the stimulus of private profit, has nevertheless registered sober achievement. They cherish the notion that the unemployed are really unfit or unwilling to work. And above all, they recognize that work relief is both more costly and more ennobling than a niggardly dole. Through WPA the unemployed have redeemed the idea of work relief; the “boondogglers” have made good.
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