Seventy-five years after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, here for the first time is the remarkable story of one of its enduring cornerstones, the Works Progress Administration (WPA): its passionate believers, its furious critics, and its amazing accomplishments.
The WPA is American history that could not be more current, from providing economic stimulus to renewing a broken infrastructure. Introduced in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, when unemployment and desperation ruled the land, this controversial nationwide jobs program would forever change the physical landscape and social policies of the United States. The WPA lasted eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Now this fascinating and informative book chronicles the WPA from its tumultuous beginnings to its lasting presence, and gives us cues for future action.
If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from the Beach Chalet in San Francisco, you have experienced some part of the legacy of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)—one of the enduring cornerstones of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
When President Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1933, he was facing a devastated nation. Four years into the Great Depression, a staggering 13 million American workers were jobless and many millions more of their family members were equally in need. Desperation ruled the land.
What people wanted were jobs, not handouts: the pride of earning a paycheck; and in 1935, after a variety of temporary relief measures, a permanent nationwide jobs program was created. This was the Works Progress Administration, and it would forever change the physical landscape and the social policies of the United States.
The WPA lasted for eight years, spent $11 billion, employed 8½ million men and women, and gave the country not only a renewed spirit but a fresh face. Under its colorful head, Harry Hopkins, the agency’s remarkable accomplishment was to combine the urgency of putting people back to work with its vision of physically rebuilding America. Its workers laid roads, erected dams, bridges, tunnels, and airports. They stocked rivers, made toys, sewed clothes, served millions of hot school lunches. When disasters struck, they were there by the thousands to rescue the stranded. And all across the country the WPA’s arts programs performed concerts, staged plays, painted murals, delighted children with circuses, created invaluable guidebooks. Even today, more than sixty years after the WPA ceased to exist, there is almost no area in America that does not bear some visible mark of its presence.
Politically controversial, the WPA was staffed by passionate believers and hated by conservatives; its critics called its projects make-work and wags said it stood for We Piddle Around. The contrary was true. We have only to look about us today to discover its lasting presence.
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“A must-read for history buffs and government wonks…. Taylor is at his best in describing the different projects and the lives of the people who worked on them. “—USA Today
“Brisk…. Taylor’s American-Made is bigger than its title suggests; he provides a succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers…. he interweaves personal stories with explanations of policy.”—Washington Post Book World
“Vividly rendered—a near-definitive account of one of the most massive government interventions into domestic affairs on American history…. The book is filled with plucky, fast-talking characters who by dint of charm and grit pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to participate.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Eloquent and balanced…. A splendid appreciation of the WPA.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“A paean to the WPA … balanced and engaging.”—Boston Globe
"An immensely detailed book telling the epic story of an equally immense agency, American-Made does an incomparable job of chronicling an important chapter in American history, one which many of us only know from the classroom and some of us know all too well."—New Hampshire Business Review
“A quick read … engagingly written…. There is something here for everyone to learn.”—San Francisco Chronicle
"Well-written and helpfully structured…. Taylor intersperses individual stories to give body to stark statisticsan admiring, as well as admirable, history of FDR’s main job-creation program."—Chicago Sun-Times
"A lively ‘people’s history’ of the WPA."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Vastly informative, popular history at its finest…. A straightforward, relentlessly chronological, clearly written account.”—Dallas Morning News
"Chock-full of facts…. Taylor captures the drama and idealism of the program’s early years."—Time Out New York
“[Taylor] has produced what is likely the most complete account yet of the much-written-about agency, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the New Deal.”—Milwaukee Express
"A lively and uplifting look at hard times—and a government program that worked."—Arizona Republic
“American-Made might be one of the most empathetic stories ever told…. It also is among the greatest.”—Miami Sun Post
“Pertinent and timely…. Filled with both insight and wisdom. It is highly readable, absolutely terrific and highly recommended.”—Tucson Citizen
“Brilliant. American-Made…is the story of how American energy, administration, and improvisation coalesced in one of the country’s finest hours.” —California Literary Review
“The WPA…returned to the nation what FDR called ‘the joy and moral stimulation of work.’ Taylor’s book is both a paean to American resourcefulness and a staunch defense of the New Deal.” —New Yorker
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A Q&A with author Nick Taylor on his new book, American-Made
What were the most unexpected things you discovered during the seven years it took you to write this book?
One thing that really surprised me was how closely the politics of the 1930s and the politics of today resemble one another. The arguments and philosophies of the right and left have barely changed at all. Then, as now, one side insisted that the government can do nothing right and should have a limited role in American life, particularly where business is concerned, while the other saw the government as a way of solving problems the private sector would not or could not solve. I think the WPA demonstrated that government could be put to a good use, and all we have to do is look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to see what happens when the government neglects roles that only it can fill.
I was also surprised by the extent to which the WPA formed the foundations of the modern welfare system. This is the flip side of the coin. The WPA aided families with dependent children, but nobody imagined the extent to which that aid would create ongoing dependency in the system that was finally overturned in the 1990s.
Those of us who love books are particularly intrigued by the Federal Writers Project. In fact the WPA’s devotion to arts programs is notable. Why do you think this was made a priority?
Harry Hopkins saw no point in putting jobless writers, actors, artists and musicians to work building roads and bridges. He saw in them an opportunity to expand America’s cultural frontiers. They had to eat, he said, “just like other people,” thus he created programs in the arts and teaching. These entertained and educated millions, and left a cultural legacy that is among the WPA’s biggest and finest contributions to our history.
Early reviews have called American-Made a “near-definitive account” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and “eloquent and balanced” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). How do you craft a balanced presentation about a controversial program?
By not ignoring the controversy. History shouldn’t be written by ideologues. I thought it was important to chronicle the many achievements of the WPA, but not to overlook its shortcomings or those of the Roosevelt Administration. I had to try to understand where the WPA’s critics were coming from, what motivated their criticism. Sometimes they had a good point. But I also think the evidence is clear that overall, the WPA made a resoundingly positive contribution to our country that remains with us today.
Should today’s state and federal government officials look to the WPA for lessons about how to address today’s problems?
Yes and no. The strongest lesson the WPA has for today’s officials is that investments in people are likely to pay off, and that government is not — and should not be depicted as — the enemy. Government is essentially a humanitarian exercise. People across the political spectrum should recognize where and how to use it to those ends, as the WPA was used during the depth of the depression. Our political life could also use some of the imagination and verve and straight talk the WPA displayed.
Such a huge government-run jobs program, however, is a different story. A lot of things need doing in our country, but unemployment (as I write this, at any rate) is a small fraction of what it was when the WPA existed. The U.S. government became the employer of last resort because we were in a dire emergency. God forbid we should face such an emergency again.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. What can “everyday” people do to mark the event? How about school teachers?
The New Deal was all about “everyday” people, and I believe the way we should remember it is by demanding a government that is intelligently humanitarian in addressing the problems faced by the middle class, a government of deeds, not words. School teachers, I think, can remind pupils that the Great Depression was not only a time of economic hardship but a time of great accomplishment, as we can see by looking at the amazing legacy of the WPA.