U.S.

Will a New WPA Create Boondoggle Jobs?

While comparisons to past decades and former presidents have been a bit overplayed of late, especially around the inauguration, bear with us a moment while we mention the dark days of the 1930s again. Back then, with unemployment nearing a record 24 percent, Franklin Roosevelt announced plans to get Americans back to work, creating the now-iconic Works Progress Administration (as well as its predecessors, the Civil Works Administration and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration). From 1935 to 1943, Uncle Sam wrote checks to more than 8 million men and women who were building bridges to somewhere, laying down golf courses and creating images of America that remain indelible: New York's Triborough Bridge (recently renamed for Robert F. Kennedy), for example, and Minneapolis's Walker Arts Center.

Despite these lasting projects, the real goal of the WPA was to keep people employed. That meant constructing the parks, schools and roads that still dot our national landscape. But not all the jobs were on a grand scale; sometimes, local priorities took hold. In our nation's capital, more than 100 men were paid to scare off pigeons. In Brooklyn, men and women worked as fire hydrant decorators. And in Boston, the government sponsored a project to make fish chowder. Indian tribes were paid to create new totem poles and other artifacts. "Rhythmic dancing"—whatever that means—was also sponsored, as was craft-making, or what the Boy Scouts might have called "boondoggling." In fact, the term "boondoggle," meaning any job or activity that is wasteful or trivial, was inspired by just these sorts of WPA projects. The best example from the FDR years? Government-funded research on the production and efficiency of safety pins.

These aren't the kinds of projects discussed with admiration and nostalgia when history teachers assign the New Deal. But they kept America from sinking deeper into the Depression, if only because they paid the same wages as the other, perhaps more significant jobs. FDR made this goal his priority, and a newly inaugurated Obama is already homing in on a new New Deal, one that keeps unemployment below double digits by focusing on refurbishing the United States. Last week, he approved an economic recovery bill by House Democrats that would spend two years putting more than 4 million Americans to work. In response, private corporations and city governments have already prepared more than 30,000 "shovel-ready" projects that need federal funding. But what sorts of careers will these be?

"As we know from watching Congress debate the recovery plan, lawmakers have a great ability to let [random projects] slide through," says Nick Taylor, the author of "American Made," a history of the WPA. "But you would hope that these new jobs would at least be interesting."

For now, the $825 billion economic recovery plan doesn't get too specific about the gigs that might be available to the unemployed. But with $90 billion allocated for infrastructure investment, you can expect better times ahead if you're a construction worker, a transportation expert or just about anyone who works at an airport. Retrofitting federal buildings with modern technology to save energy costs is a priority, as are expected contributions to greening the country more broadly ($19 billion has been set aside for clean water, flood control and environmental restoration investments) and ensuring that the United States builds on its digital capacity. Unlike the original WPA, which wrote checks directly to employees, the new bill is set up so that 90 percent of the projects will be privately run by corporations or nonprofits, who will send in proposals or bid on existing government contracts. Instead of the federal government assigning jobs, qualified workers will be sought out by project managers, which likely means less boondoggling.

"Previously, we've had no-bid contracts. We've had cronyism," says Ross Eisenbrey, the vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. "But the new plan gives time for people to put out proposals and to conduct a normal contracting process, so there's no reason to expect corruption."

It's worth noting that pigeon catchers weren't in FDR's original plan, so you may still have a chance if you were hoping to, say, get paid to scare Canada geese from airports. It's more likely, though, that a modern WPA will help workers who already have specific skills and can fill the jobs corporations have open after winning municipal contracts. "Most of this work is not rocket science," Eisenbrey adds, mentioning the nearly 800,000 skilled construction workers currently unemployed. What will these men and women build? Unlike 70 years ago, we should expect largely incremental improvements to existing structures rather than new projects built completely from scratch.

"Since so many of these new plans involve laying pipes in the ground, retrofitting buildings or improving public transportation," says Peter King of the American Public Works Association, "we're not going to be able look at different places and say, 'This project came from this investment.'"

So while we may not end this economic downturn with a slew of new parks and pools, we could end up with other unexpected benefits: for example, completely public wireless Internet access; a shorter commute on newly decongested highways; or, for those who live in cities, subway cars that aren't so crowded. Taylor says that the focus on infrastructure spending gives urban bicyclists a chance to win their long-running battles for greater access and respect by hiring people to build bike paths and trails, update buildings with storage racks, even hire lesser-skilled employees to attend the bikes while they're separated from their owners.

The modern equivalent of safety pin research might involve the series of tubes we call the Internet, though any sort of academic project approved would have to be complicated enough to trip up committee members who might be voting on it. King suggests that architects and designers have a new opportunity to construct buildings that are both artful and energy-efficient. Like compact fluorescent light bulbs, he says, extra investment would cut energy costs over time, making projects a shoo-in as part of a plan focused on improving American infrastructure. That said, sustainable architecture or beautiful bike racks would be a far cry from the artistic expression funded by the original WPA, which provided the equivalent of $400 million today to programs in theater, writing, music and art and supported artists such as Ralph Ellison and Dorothea Lange.

Alas, financing the arts isn't a priority in the new recovery plan, so bohemian types might want to consider teaching, fire-fighting or policing, all public sector jobs that will get a boost along with the infrastructure investment. Not interested? The WPA was often criticized (and occasionally challenged in court) for not providing the sort of employment that Americans were seeking. Conservatives lambasted the program by calling it "We Poke Along." Only in retrospect, and with the sheen of Walker Evans' photography, has the WPA gained glory. That's because a recovery plan that creates careers rather than stuffing bank accounts with a few hundred dollars in stimulus money that Americans will likely hoard means more than the actual job descriptions. "We're making it easier for business to do business, and we're creating a more vibrant economy," reflects WPA historian Taylor on what the future might hold. "In government, this is just called 'spending.' But if America were a private corporation enhancing itself, this would show up as an asset on the balance sheet."

Now get to work, Congress, so we all can work, too.