In the late summer of 1935, two and a half years into his first term, President Franklin Roosevelt was finally launching a serious program to put Americans back to work. The Works Progress Administration was an admission that the piecemeal and temporary programs that preceded it had failed to spark the economy back to life. It was also a rebuke to a waffling private sector that blamed “uncertainty” for its failure to add new workers. Conservatives raised an outcry about the WPA’s $4.8 billion first year cost. They offered no programs of their own but complained about the government’s infringement on the rights of citizens.
Sound familiar? It’s a template for what we face today. The big difference is that legislation creating the WPA passed easily upon Roosevelt’s promise, made to a joint session of the Congress, that its cost would be “within the sound credit of the government.”
There was another difference, too. The difference was passion, and it wasn’t Roosevelt’s. The man in charge of the WPA was named Harry Hopkins. He was an Iowan who angered opponents with an unfiltered tongue that he deployed in fiercely defending the New Deal. That summer, as the WPA was getting underway, Hopkins rode a train from Washington to Iowa City, Iowa. With him was a colleague who recounted his passion in a memoir.
Hallie Flanagan wrote that Hopkins talked irrepressibly about what could happen when the American government and the American people made the most of their shared partnership. He spoke of the government’s gifts of land to veterans and settlers, its grants of rights of way to railroads, its investments in infrastructure such as roads, waterways and harbors, its franchises that nurtured public utilities. In all of these things, government not only acknowledged a direct responsibility to individual citizens but also created and expanded industries, created jobs and increased buying power.
He saw the same possibilities in the new jobs program. It would put the unemployed to work at a time when the jobless rate was around 20 percent. At the same time it could transform the country. Rural areas especially were stuck with roads and bridges from the 19th century, and had no electricity or running water. Enough needed doing, he said, that it would put every unemployed person to work for the next twenty years. “What’s a government for?” she quoted him asking, if not to step in and help rebuild the country at a time of need. Working people, he said, were happier, and “were not happy people at work the greatest bulwark of democracy?”
They reached Iowa City and Hopkins spoke at the University of Iowa to an audience of farmers. He described to them some of the same visions he had about what the WPA could do to rebuild America. At a high point of his speech, a voice in the audience called out, “Who’s going to pay for all that?”
Hopkins never shrank from a challenge, and he didn’t now. He took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves and leaned across the lecturn toward the audience. “You are,” he said. “And who better?” He described American greatness, from “this great university” where they were gathered to the country’s natural bounty of forests, fields and rivers. “This is America, the richest country in the world,” he said. “We can afford to pay for anything we want. And we want a decent life for all the people in this country. And we are going to pay for it.”
America did pay for the WPA. The agency spent $11 billion and put 8.5 million men and women to work before the jobs produced by World War II made it irrelevant.
And it realized Hopkins’s vision of transformation. The WPA literally rebuilt America, giving it modern roads and bridges, new schools and hospitals, better health through improved sanitation, airports that advanced the civil aviation industry. At the same time other New Deal programs put electricity and running water within reach of all Americans and helped create transportation, irrigation and navigation systems that made the United States a country to be envied by the world.
Hopkins spoke more bluntly than politicians do today. He endured partisan fury for it but his passion never flagged. His vision for what America can do, and should do for its own people, has never been more relevant. But no one today seems able to describe it, or to even want to. That is a terrible pity.