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The New Deal & the Great Depression
Politicians of all stripes love to brag about how many jobs they create. 'I'm the biggest job creator around,' they say, or maybe, 'I know how to create jobs, but my opponent has no idea.' Whether or not you think the federal government has a legitimate role in providing work, there's no denying that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal created jobs and delivered employment for those without it.
By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd president of the United States, came into office in 1933, the country had already suffered through three years of the Great Depression. The economy was destroyed, one in four Americans was out of work, and most everyone had lost hope. FDR's program of economic recovery was called the New Deal. The New Deal aimed to address the problems of the Great Depression by implementing several different programs. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was just one important program of the New Deal that we will focus on in this lesson.
The Public Works Administration
In the first year of the New Deal, 1933, the Public Works Administration put thousands of Americans to work on various construction projects around the country, and they ended up building some of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States.
The PWA was a massive public-works construction project overseen by Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. The federal government earmarked about $3.3 billion in funding to hire out-of-work Americans to strengthen the nation's infrastructure. Workers for the PWA were paid with public moneys to build roads, schools, airports, post offices, government buildings, dams, sewage plants, hospitals, port facilities, and court houses all across the country. The Roosevelt administration garnered the money for the WPA from new taxes totaling around $220 million, an amount that was just enough to fund the interest payments on the sum the government had to borrow to pay for the program.
Roosevelt's goal for the PWA was two-fold:
- The works programs would reduce unemployment. Americans would no longer need government relief, but instead they would work on the various construction projects and earn a modest paycheck.
- With this paycheck, workers would spend money, thus helping other businesses and, as the theory went, stimulate the economy as a whole. New Deal officials called this strategy 'priming the pump,' which was an allusion to what a farmer had to do to get his well pump working.
The Effects of the PWA
Though the PWA undoubtedly helped on an individual basis, it simply didn't employ enough people to put a recognizable dent in the unemployment rate, which included tens of millions of Americans without work. And because the Great Depression was so massive, a relatively small public works program couldn't give a big boost to the overall economy.
But, giving the unemployed a job and a small but steady paycheck was very significant for those suffering in the Great Depression. Psychologically the impact was profound. One woman, for instance, said this about her husband's work with the PWA: 'We aren't on relief anymore. My husband is working for the government.' Politically, it resulted in an increase in support for FDR, as those with government jobs formed the so-called New Deal Coalition.
Another important effect of the PWA is more visually apparent. PWA workers built some of the most recognizable sights in America. For instance, PWA personnel built the three major dams in the West. The Grand Coulee, the Boulder (later renamed the Hoover Dam), and the Bonneville dams made possible the industrial and agricultural growth of California, Arizona, and much of the Pacific Northwest.
The Boulder Dam made drinking water available to southern California and provided irrigation for Imperial Valley, one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. The Grand Coulee and the Bonneville Dams on the Columbia River provided the Pacific Northwest with cheap electricity, which laid the foundation for the region's enormous economic and demographic growth in the decades to come. It isn't, then, an exaggeration to say the PWA was a central builder of the modern American West.
In addition to hundreds of schools across the country, PWA workers built the Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel in New York, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in California. If you've ever driven from the Florida mainland to Key West, you were driving on a causeway built by the PWA.
Finally, money from the original PWA appropriation in 1933 went to construct the World War II-era aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise, as well as the heavy cruiser Vincennes. In this way, the PWA built much of modern America and made possible many of the construction landmarks we see today.
Let's review what we've learned…
Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, helped craft the New Deal, which created many federal programs to combat the problems of the Great Depression. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was aimed at employing the unemployed and boosting the economy and was overseen by the Secretary of the Interior under Roosevelt, Harold Ickes. PWA workers engaged in a variety of construction projects and earned a modest paycheck as they built some of the most significant landmarks in the country, including the major dams of the West and important bridges, schools, airports, hospitals, and the like.
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