The WPA, created by FDR during the bleakest days of the Great Depression—when over 20 million Americans were unemployed—accomplished a lot.
It put 8.5 million Americans to work—many of them unskilled laborers– building 4,000 schools, repairing or building 650,000 miles of roads, 75,000 new bridges, 8,000 parks, 800 new airports, and 125,000 public buildings. Many of these are still in use today. It also planted 24 million trees to safeguard topsoil during the Dust Bowl.
It employed tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers, painters, muralists, architects and other artists. The work of these artists brought hope back to those who were recipients of it. One hundred community art centers were established around the country and thousands of persons found work in museums.
WPA’s National Youth Administration found part-time jobs for young people. The WPA arts program cost only $27 million of the total $11 billion dollars budgeted to WPA work programs, and led to the creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.
Among the 5,300 visual artists employed by WPA was a young painter named Jackson Pollock who worked as a mural assistant. Also, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner got their start with WPA.
In 1935 the WPA employed around 350,000 Black Americans or 15% of its total workforce. Black musicians and actors were paid to perform and others made significant contributions to the preservation of Black culture and history. The Federal Writers’ Project collected interviews and sponsored articles on Black American life in the South including oral histories from former slaves.
Women found work in clerical jobs, gardening, canning, and as librarians and seamstresses.
The WPA was not without its critics. But overall, it helped the economy grow (paid workers had money to spend after all) and gave skills and experience to many workers.
Offering good work, it brought self-respect back to many. Good work does that. Art does that.
See Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work.
Also see Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.
Banner Image: WPA mural, Cohen Building, Washington, D.C. Photo from the Carol A. Highsmith collection in the Library of Congress.
Queries for Contemplation
How readily do we understand artists as workers? Do artists get sidelined too easily in a culture bent on competition and workaholism and capitalism?
The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time
Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter
Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet
Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.
“Matt Fox is a pilgrim who seeks a path into the church of tomorrow. Countless numbers will be happy to follow his lead.” –Bishop John Shelby Spong, author, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Living in Sin