MARTY RUSSELL: History shows government jobs programs work

By Marty Russell

Before President Obama even utters a word Thursday night in his national address on job creation I can already hear the critics: “Here we go again, another stimulus package,” “The government shouldn’t be in the business of creating jobs, that’s up to the private sector,” and “Turn it to the football pre-game show.”
The president is expected to announce another round of federal spending to create jobs through infrastructure projects such as building or repairing roads and bridges. It’s a big gamble but not unprecedented, just like the current economy. Remember the Great Depression? Millions were unemployed then as well and, despite all his efforts, Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt had been unable to stimulate growth in the private job sector.
So, in 1935, by executive order, FDR created the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. Roosevelt’s plan was widely criticized as well with charges of socialism and attempting to divide the wealth equally.
In his State of the Union address that year, FDR responded by saying, “We have not weeded out the overprivileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged …Americans must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares … We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power.”
And so Congress approved more than $11 billion – more than $170 billion in today’s dollars – over the eight-year life of the WPA to create jobs for more than 8.5 million Americans. Those workers built more than 651,000 miles or roads and highways, more than 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings including libraries, more than 8,000 public parks and more than 850 airport runways. In addition it hired artists, writers and even actors to paint murals, write manuals and take the theater to places where it had never been seen.
It was criticized as a ploy to win FDR’s re-election leading to the passage of the Hatch Act in 1939 prohibiting federal employees from certain political activities. And critics, like today, also pointed out the cost, including one widely-circulated (but untrue) assertion that it cost $2.97 for a WPA exterminator to kill one rat.
But the country got new roads, bridges, murals and parks, many still in use today. And, as FDR pointed out, Americans got to keep their dignity by working for a living instead of just taking a handout.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by email at marusse1@olemiss.edu