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  • Susanna Williams

A WPA for the 21st Century

Updated: Apr 23


The Great Depression began on October 29, 1929. By May 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Work Progress Administration, the unemployment rate in the United States in 1935 was 20% after peaking at 25% in 1933. The Work Progress Administration (WPA) was created to employ men to build hundreds of thousands of public infrastructure projects including roads, parks, and buildings. Women were employed as secretaries and librarians, and in doing gardening, canning, and sewing. 7% of the national workforce was engaged in sewing. $27 million of the $5 million allocated went to the arts. 5,300 artists were employed by the WPA. People were paid an average of $41.57 a month. Over the eight years the WPA was active, 8.5 million people were put to work.

Today, unemployment is estimated to be at 13% after just a month of coronavirus impact. We are seeing an unprecedented wave of wholesale job loss as our economy shuts down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Restaurants. Bars. Arts. Events. Hospitality. Gyms. Wellness. Brick and mortar retail. Entertainment. Casinos. Personal care. Just about every outlet for discretionary spending has been suspended indefinitely. 10 million people filed for unemployment in the last two weeks in March alone. James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, predicts that unemployment could reach 30% in the coming months, with a 50% drop in our national GDP.

Is it time to revive the WPA?

There is work to be done, but it is the work of civilization, not capitalism. Ellen Ruppel-Shell in her 2018 book, The Job, points out that we have wrongly conflated “jobs” with “work”. A job, she notes, is a subset of work. But jobs, as we are seeing, have their limits. “...there is no end of the work to be done, and the world would be a far better place were each and every one of us able to indulge our natural inclination to do it.”

Work, simply defined, is the set of purposeful tasks that anchor us in the world and give structure to our days. Whether or not that is attached to a business entity that gains profit by selling the product of those tasks to others is another question entirely.

The work of running a household, for instance, isn’t compensated for most people. But there is no question that work is being done.

What is the work, then, that needs to be done to shore up the foundations of our civilization during these uncertain times?

Well, frankly, things haven’t changed that much. We have already seen people stepping up to volunteer to sew face masks. We have people volunteering to deliver groceries and meals to seniors and other vulnerable people. As this crisis continues, we are going to need people to fill old roles in new ways. Imagine jobs like...

Virtual Social Companion- calls to check in on a group of seniors and other isolated individuals on a regular basis

3D Manufacturer- truly small-scale manufacturing in collaboration with other makers

Community Gardeners- people who have access to open space partnering with local grocery collectives to produce food for neighbors

Infrastructure Builders- the current federal administration has promised at least eight different “Infrastructure Weeks” when they would focus on the growing number of infrastructure projects needed to repair

Public Health Workers- boots-on-ground public health reinforcements who check in on people’s health, both COVID-19 related and otherwise. One of the things that COVID-19 is laying bare is how much vul

Virtual Art Therapists- artists who lead groups through activities that help them process this experience

Rapid Response Teams- crisis management personnel who are able to deploy to hot spots around the country with portable infrastructure to address critical local needs, either virtually or around the country.

Through the end of jobs, we are finding new work. The biggest challenge we face is figuring out how to pay the people who do this work so they can sustain their own lives.

The federal government is missing in action during this crisis. Municipal and state budgets have been decimated by the cessation of most revenue streams. We will need philanthropy to step up to help fund this work.

It is time to reimagine the WPA for the 21st century and this very modern crisis.



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