The New Deal & the Legacy of Public Works


Almost completely ignored in the press this year has been the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. Social Security, public housing, school lunches, deposit insurance, labor relations standards and banking regulations are among its many enduring legacies. On this anniversary, it is worth looking at the public works programs that constructed roads and buildings that still exist in every county in America.

In a nation where a quarter of the adult population was unemployed, the immediate goal of the New Deal was to provide temporary relief for Americans who were destitute and put them back to work. The failure of the Hoover Administration to either curtail the Depression or inspire people created a political climate for dramatic action.

During FDR’s first 100 days – called the “First New Deal” by historians – a truly impressive list of legislation was passed. Prohibition ended, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created eventually bringing electricity and development to an impoverished area of the South, and controls were placed upon industrial practices, Wall Street, labor relations and farm output. The Civilian Conservation Corps, which ended up planting two billion trees across the country, was founded. A historian would be hard pressed to find a more energetic first 100 days of any administration.

Yet one of its most far-reaching accomplishments was the Federal Emergency Relief and National Industrial Recovery acts which created the bureaucracy to institute public relief by funding large-scale public works. Under the system, states applied for grants from the federal government. Over the next ten years, the government would spend nearly $9 billion dollars though the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The depth and social unrest created by the Depression provided motivation for New Deal officials to act quickly and decisively. The official who was the center of the action was Harry Hopkins. A hyper-competent social worker who had created a program to deliver services to mothers with dependent children in New York City and founded the American Association of Social Workers, Hopkins jumped into his role as head of federal relief with tremendous vigor. After a five-minute meeting with Roosevelt on his first day of work in May of 1933, he was dispatched to a cockroach-infested building on New York Avenue where, by the end of the day, he had dispensed with $5.3 million in aid to eight states. In a year’s time, Hopkins had created a jobs program that spent a billion dollars and provided badly needed jobs to over three million people during the cold winter of 1933 (the average wage was $13 a week). He spent money quickly – perhaps too quickly, some maintained – but his focus was to respond to FDR’s demand to quickly create jobs and alleviate misery in the country.

But Hopkins was not a welfare statist. His career as a social worker had taught him that individuals did not want to be “on the dole,” living off the largesse of the state. By finding work for unemployed breadwinners, Hopkins believed he could keep families strong and enable them to retain their pride despite the hard times.

This psychological aspect should not be underestimated. The Depression was more than a huge decline in GDP, vast unemployment and lost industrial output – it was a great identity crisis for a nation that placed great value on self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Look at New Deal art (another achievement of the New Deal are all the beautiful murals still in existence created by government funded artists) and you will see a glorification of labor. Frescos from San Francisco to New York depict colorful scenes of men hard at work.

Today bureaucrats stress cost-effectiveness ratios, but New Deal reports were most concerned with how many jobs a project provided. Conservative critiques of the New Deal for a mixed record of achieving economic growth often miss this critical point. The official report of WPA projects in San Francisco, for example, lists as its main achievement how “the program contributed to the continuance of the normal standards of living of the working man’s family in San Francisco and maintenance of the courage and morale of the ordinary citizens through a most distressing period.” Expenses for projects are listed not just in dollar amounts spent but also in the number of “man hours” provided to workers.

When Roosevelt ran for re-election the first time in 1936 (“Four Years Ago and Now” was his campaign slogan), he could claim six million jobs had been created in the last three years. He could point to a doubling of industrial output and the creation of a Farm Credit Administration that on an average day saved 300 farms from foreclosure. Still, eight million people were still out of work in 1936 and the public works programs, historically audacious they were, did not solve many of the nations entrenched economic and social problems. Roosevelt himself did not want his public works programs to compete with private industry or to create dependency on the state.

Yet, looking back at the WPA and its companion public works agencies, the list of lasting contributions to the nation’s infrastructure are indeed impressive: 78,000 bridges, 650,000 miles of roads, 700 miles of airport runways, 13,000 playgrounds, hundreds of airports built and 125,000 military and civilian buildings were constructed. The roads and public works constructed by the WPA and PWA ended up being lasting infrastructure investments.

However, perhaps the New Deal’s most enduring achievement was creating a sense of unity at a time of unparalleled economic crisis. Whereas the nation had previously elevated Horatio Alger -style self-reliance, the New Deal tapped into the creative industrial potential both of common unskilled laborers and thousands of skilled and creative workers. It created a sense of pride among millions who for the rest of their lives could point to public buildings they helped design and build, as well as the roads they laid out and paved.

The 1930s produced the Hoover and Grand Coulee dams, the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, La Guardia Airport and the San Antonio River Walk. Besides some luxury high-rises, high-tech sports stadiums with retractable roofs and edgy art museums, what great things have we achieved lately?

Andy Sywak is the articles editor for

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