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A poster showing two laborers shaking hands, part of a program in the 1930s to promote the WPA.
A WPA poster promoting the New Deal-era job program.
Getty Images

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Stimulus isn’t enough. Our cities need a post-pandemic New Deal.

With 22 million-plus out of work, we need jobs and public-works vision for the future

Air travel has ground to a halt. Buses and trains carry just a handful of riders. Highways and roadways are eerily empty. Even parks and many public spaces are closed down and cordoned off. This opening montage of a post-apocalyptic movie is reality today, as the novel coronavirus has caused the infrastructure of urban life to shut down.

As our cities experience this uncanny, uncertain pause, there may also be a rare opportunity to reflect and rebuild. In a nation reeling from both a pandemic and the worsening economic downturn that’s followed, even trillions of dollars of government intervention and assistance may not be enough. There’s also long-standing, widespread agreement that our infrastructure—from roads and bridges to trains, transit, and water systems—has been straining from overdue maintenance for years (as a country, we received a D-plus on our last infrastructure report card). In this time of crisis, why shouldn’t the U.S. replicate one of the largest, most successful government works programs in its history, the Works Progress Administration?

Introduced in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt, the WPA was a key part of the unprecedented series of employment and public works programs that his administration launched to fight the Depression, collectively known as the New Deal. This constellation of programs, including the Public Works Administration, employed artists and workers, reforested land and erected the Hoover Dam, and left a lasting mark on the Americans landscape (the Living New Deal Atlas catalogues 16,000 sites still standing). It’s been the yardstick by which subsequent presidents’ public works programs have been judged ever since.

A group of laborers working in New York City as part of the New Deal-era WPA program.
WPA workers in New York City
Corbis via Getty Images

Imagine, during the era of social distancing, American transit transformed, with space for cars given over to bike lanes, walking paths, shared streets, and more valuable pedestrian-first infrastructure. Envision environmental priorities coming first: renewable energy, buildings retrofitted to cut carbon emissions and eliminate natural gas. Investments in transit and affordable housing, at a time when paying rent is more of a burden than ever. We’ve come to love the clear skies being attributed to the current coronavirus-led economic slowdown. Let’s invest money and make it permanent.

Right now, there’s a developing bipartisan consensus around the idea that thinking big about infrastructure investment can be part of the solution to coronavirus: both President Donald Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have expressed interest. While the concept of “infrastructure week” has become a bit of a punchline, since Trump has repeatedly failed to deliver on early promises of rebuilding the nation, he and his advisers have laid out roadmaps and plans for nationwide investments. Now would be the perfect time to start planning for many of them.

Imagine the potential of harnessing American workers, many now desperate for employment, for large-scale projects to reshape our cities. What would the U.S. look like with tens of thousands of workers repairing broken roads; constructing new transit, bike, and rail projects; upgrading our energy infrastructure; and building the nation’s next chapter? Imagine the sustainable vision of the Green New Deal, one already supported by mayors across the county, becoming reality.

The nation has seen 22 million apply for unemployment in the last month, an unprecedented number that’s almost assuredly both an undercount and certain to get higher. The only time the nation has dealt with remotely similar numbers was during the Great Depression. At one point in 1933, unemployment hit 24.9 percent, then representing 13 million people. The first New Deal programs were launched in ’33, and over the next few years, the combined public works projects and other programs lowered unemployment to 9.5 million in 1935, then 7.6 million in 1936.

“The question on everybody’s mind right now is, how are we going to restart the economy?” says Scott Myers-Lipton, a sociology professor at San Jose State University. “Well, the WPA once hired 4 million people in two months. Imagine something like that as a stopgap, a massive public works project that will help us get back to business.”

Any new WPA-style program can’t launch as quickly, due to the pandemic, social-distancing requirements, and need to develop a concrete plan to restart the economy without new surges of infection. But such an infrastructure plan could be developed in concert with a gradual re-opening of the economy. And, in the meantime, there are plenty of unemployed and underemployed architects, designers, planners, and others who can begin imagining, planning for, and gaining approvals for forthcoming projects.

“Architects can work from home without skipping a beat,” says Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). “The technology is there for them to work remotely and work very efficiently.”

A crew of workers widening a street in the ‘30s.
A WPA work crew in 1935 focused on street repairs.
Bettmann Archive

The WPA and other New Deal-era programs also showed what the government can do about health care infrastructure when it makes it a priority. Currently, the battle against the coronavirus has not only exhausted hospitals across the country, but underscored a dire need for better contingency planning, as well as expanded testing infrastructure to help Americans get back to work.

Health care was a cornerstone of the New Deal/WPA program. One initiative, the National Health Survey, discovered that “some 2 million cases of serious illness go entirely without medical treatment every year.” In response, the WPA maintained and supported clinics, sent nurses to low-income neighborhoods, and built medical and dental facilities across the nation.

According to Gray Brechin, an author who helps run the Living New Deal, a website that chronicles the history of these programs, WPA’s success offers an incredibly useful model for today.

“The WPA built hospitals across the country, especially in rural areas,” he says. “The program also vastly increased the staff of nurses. It helped expand the network of orthopedic hospitals, increased access to hydrotherapy clinics for those suffering polio, and even had workers sewing masks, the ’30s equivalent of manufacturing PPE.”

The scope of the WPA’s accomplishments in the health care field were vast, exemplifying the type of wartime mobilization needed in the fight against the novel coronavirus. Here’s an excerpt from a 1939 speech by Florence Kerr, a WPA regional director, that puts its accomplishments into focus:

In the first three years of the program, WPA built over 100 new hospitals and improved 1,422. It has provided technical and clerical workers for city health departments. It has organized and helped conduct maternal and child health clinics in hundreds of communities. ... During a three-year period over 3,500,000 people were treated in WPA clinics. Nurses were provided at nearly 900,000 immunizations. Into poor homes trained nurses have been sent by WPA on nearly 5 million visits.

Brechin said advocates and boosters of the New Deal constantly spoke of “increasing the health of the country in the broadest possible terms,” part of what he calls the “lost ethical language” of the program. Improving health, both physical and economic, was a measuring stick for success.

A black-and-white image from 1937 of a crew of workers fashioning medical equipment from copper.
Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers making copper utensils for Pima County Hospital in Texas, March 26, 1937.

Many of those involved in the New Deal came from the Settlement House movement of the early 20th century, a reformist push to help social welfare and provide day care, education, and health care to low-income Americans.

A federal program that paired infrastructure investment with a broad reinvestment into our hospitals, clinics, and rural health centers would come along just as the nation needed work, and was recovering from an era-defining pandemic. It would also provide opportunities for architects and designers to utilize their skills as a form of national service.

“We lost about 30 percent of architecture positions during the Great Recession,” says the AIA’s Baker. “Absolutely, this current crisis will mean fewer positions in firms.”

Think of what all those architects—backed by broad federal support and funding—could do to improve our cities and our neighborhoods. Baker says that one of AIA’s priorities has been making older buildings more energy efficient. Why not get out-of-work architects busy redesigning and upgrading federal facilities and other structures to create more sustainable workplaces that are healthier and more efficient?

“Infrastructure investment has been kicked around for the last four years, when we had labor shortages in construction and not enough architects to hire,” Baker said. “That maybe wasn’t the time for something like this. Today is exactly the right time. There will be cutbacks in design employment, low interest rates mean it’s a great time to take on debt, and we all project increased government investment going forward.”

The ability to tailor hiring to those who need jobs was another strength of the WPA that we should be replicating today, says Sandra Opdycke, a professor at Vassar College and author of The WPA: Creating Jobs and Hope in the Great Depression.

A group of older women sewing as part of a New Deal-era jobs program.
A group of elderly women work on projects at the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They are enrolled in a 1936 WPA sewing project.
Corbis via Getty Images

“We usually say the worker needs to adapt to the economy,” she says. “During the WPA, they said adapt the economy to the worker.”

That view shouldn’t be limited to architects and those in the engineering and construction industries. Opdycke points to the investment in public arts and murals during the WPA, which employed thousands of artists and painters. Many were hired to produce public service announcements and ad campaigns. Imagine programs to beautify parks and public spaces, or to repair and restore subway platforms or build new and beautiful transit infrastructure, such as bus stations. Public transportation has also suffered greatly during the economic shutdown, and would benefit from an infusion of dollars and design know-how. Another New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), employed thousands of Americans to develop natural resources; from 1933 to 1942, these workers planted 3 billion trees and helped create 800 parks across the country. Imagine a nationwide effort to make sure every American has green space within walking distance (currently, a third of city residents lack such access).

“The WPA really focused on projects that were critical and important, and not always things private industry was likely to fund,” says AIA’s Baker. “These things tended to have more social value, and tended to be forward-looking and provide a great benefit to the public and large, even nearly 100 years later.”

Any WPA-style program to overcome the crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic needs to start not just with grand ambition, but with the kind of oversight, accountability, and transparency that were hallmarks of the New Deal era programs, says Myers-Lipton. But a potential program could also make such a comprehensive difference when it comes to jump-starting the economy and making it a better one. Kevin DeGood, director of Infrastructure Policy at the Center for American Progress, argues that these investments can raise wages and address equity and environmental concerns.

Infrastructure investments could help bring American cities into the 21st century, with new transit, renewable power, and broadband infrastructure; we can make the vision of a more sustainable, self-sufficient, and equitable United States, the core of the Green New Deal, a reality.

Rick Jacobs, CEO of Accelerator for America, a partnership among local leaders that’s been formulating blueprints for a national infrastructure plan, says such a coronavirus-focused stimulus bill could help mayors and regional leaders build upon their grassroots knowledge.

“Local government can be the petri dish of innovation,” he says. “Look at the success of the TIGER grant program, part of the Recovery Act. That showed the federal government getting involved with the local governments, and finding that the success was in locally driven initiatives.”

Think of what we could accomplish. A jobs bill that provides work for millions of Americans who need it, doing the proud work of building the infrastructure the U.S. needs now, in terms of a more robust health care system, as well as what we need in the future. We can finally repair roads, bridges, and water systems. We can create new transit systems and pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructure in cities. Amid the government’s failure to grasp the scope of this crisis and engage it head on, we can embark on a visionary plan that invests in the future and shows we can still accomplish incredible, important work as a nation.

The United States could also become more ready for the next crisis, just as the WPA established quick-response teams that helped Americans overcome disasters. In early 1937, floods ravaged communities up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, natural disasters called “thousand-year-floods.” WPA programs sent 18,000 workers to the scene in days, according to Opdycke, and in the following weeks, 150,000 workers were helping relief efforts in 11 states. As we ask why the government wasn’t ready for the current disaster, we should be doing all we can to make sure we’re ready for the next one, whatever form it takes.