Janesville30.1°

Making jobs a new deal

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Esther Cepeda
June 6, 2011

As a high school student, I gave little consideration to the faded murals that covered nearly every hallway wall of my school. Depicting the country's Native American roots and a century of technological innovation, they had that 1930s look of big-idea, forward-thinking modernity that's so coolly retro now.


At some point, I learned that these murals were national treasures because they'd been painted by artists employed by the Works Progress Administration, the program that spent $11 billion on employing almost 8.5 million people during the Great Depression.


It's nothing short of miraculous that during a period of such incredible economic instability, the country's political leadership under President Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously sought ways such as federal job-creation programs to get the country back on track.


Of course there were serious tensions between Democrats and Republicans, not unlike those we see today between the two parties. Yet Roosevelt's New Deal had not only a catchy title but specific goals to provide relief for the poor and unemployed, recover the economy to normal levels, and reform the financial system to prevent a repeat depression. It overcame heated opposition from those who feared the package of programs would hurt business, stunt growth and create a welfare state.


Even taking into consideration extensive criticism from both the left and the right that the New Deal's results were mixed and limited, the American people could plainly see their leaders were taking responsibility and action to get people back to work.


In contrast, last Friday's disappointing unemployment numbers -- we're back up to 9.1 percent -- tell the tale of a country that isn't on the path back to prosperity, seems preoccupied with other issues, and doesn't have a clue of how to turn things around. Washington should be picking up history books to find one.


By 1943, when the Works Progress Administration ended, 651,087 miles of highways, roads and streets were built and 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks and 853 airport landing fields had been constructed, repaired or improved. Untold numbers of murals, plays, symphonies, books and architectural gems were created. Most importantly, meaningful work gave an entire country the encouragement and momentum to start climbing out of an unthinkably ugly economic hole.


A new Works Progress Administration might not sound particularly feasible right now -- we're broke and the demand for murals for school children's edification isn't exactly skyrocketing. But people are becoming desperate to know when, finally, there will be more jobs.


America needs a grand, ambitious plan for building a new road to economic recovery. And Roosevelt's ideal of putting people to work by unconventional means is looking less and less quaint.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.



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