Politics & Government

FDR's New Deal jobs: construction, writing, singing and bird scaring

On August 4, 1934, approximately 20,000 people gathered at the future site of the Grand Coulee dam to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt give a speech.
On August 4, 1934, approximately 20,000 people gathered at the future site of the Grand Coulee dam to hear Franklin D. Roosevelt give a speech. Seattle Times Archive / MCT

A U.S. senator once asked Harry Hopkins, top aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whether federal jobs programs were a wise idea "in the long run."

"People don't eat in the long run, senator," Hopkins retorted, "they eat every day."

Like the Obama administration's federal stimulus plan, Roosevelt's New Deal relied heavily on feeding people by giving them jobs.

Under programs such as the Civil Works Administration (CWA), Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA), the New Deal spent billions of federal dollars to create millions of jobs that varied widely in scope.

There were jobs building aircraft carriers, schools and post offices. New York City's Triborough Bridge and Washington state's Grand Coulee Dam are monuments to jobs programs during the Great Depression. Youths employed by the CCC planted more than 1 billion trees in state and national forests and parks.

Closer to home, federal jobs programs built or contributed to the building of C.K. McClatchy High School, the water towers behind City College, the site of the Safeway supermarket on Alhambra Boulevard and the rock gardens in Land Park.

Jobs were provided in areas where previous public works projects had never ventured. Writers and singers were hired to write and sing. Archaeologists were paid to excavate and preserve American Indian burial grounds.

When someone asked Hopkins if it was a wise use of taxpayer money to create such jobs, he shrugged and said, "Hell, they've got to eat, just like other people."

There were also a lot of goofy make-work jobs. People were hired to hold balloons outside public buildings to scare off messy birds, or to count dogs.

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