A New WPA

As expected, Republicans voted down President Obama’s Jobs Bill. What next? New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg is calling for a new WPA.

“The President’s plan — and, by the way, we wouldn’t have minded if it passed, I voted for it — has a lot of good things… but it doesn’t have the immediacy factor [of mine],” he said.

Lautenberg’s legislation, called the 21st Century WPA Act, wouldn’t be exactly like the WPA that gave Lautenberg’s own father a job during the Great Depression. Rather, it would award funding to projects that would give jobs to people unemployed for more than 60 days; have a continued economic benefit after their completion; and would devote a “high” portion of each dollar spent to employee pay. The legislation suggests — but does not limit departments to — a variety of projects, including the construction of water treatment plants, schools and firehouses, highway repairs and maintenance, building weatherization and trail maintenance.

I’m always a little amused by how people across the board, conservatives included, like the idea of a WPA. I think it’s because there’s living memory of how it saved people from poverty and desperation and put the country back to work. Not busy work, either. We still see WPA plaques, cite WPA research– the infrastructure built by the WPA is still sound. There’s WPA sidewalks in Lippit Park.

Lautenberg proposes a tax on millionaires. I always wonder why some call this kind of tax a ‘punishment’. Jeeze, I should be punished with a million or two a year and I won’t gripe about taxes since I don’t gripe about the taxes I pay now.

But consider– do not millionaires drive on streets? Do they not call the fire department when they have a fire? Do they not hire workers who went to public schools? I think they will get their money’s worth.

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5 thoughts on “A New WPA

  1. Even Mr. Lautenberg, a multi-millionaire many times over, is not quite old enough to remember the WPA, and I was not born yet. However, simplistic answers to complex problems usually create more complex problems than they solve. Firstly, was not the WPA found to be unconstitutional by the then Supreme Court and ended? I suspect a new WPA plan would need to be so finely crafted to avoid the constitutional issues that the good intentions would be so perverted, overly regulated, very expensive and bureaucrat loaded to be wasteful and mostly ineffective. The WPA was a boon to rural areas such as mine. The program built our first then modern High School, paved street that had never been paved, cut down trees for lumber, put in flood control structures, railroad tracksand supported music, arts and crafts. But, times have changed. Labor costs were less than $2/day in cash and food and bunk houses. Concrete was local, and no labor unions intervened. Construction was simple, basic and very primitive compared to modern techniques. There was electricity, but no fiber optics cables or environmental laws of who could do what where. Bridges were more massive than safe, and very basic. Some held up well, and some did not. The world today and the stuff of the world is as much different from the Depression world, as the Sepression Era world was from 1776. Technology does not require unskilled labor; laws and policies require complex solutions and materials. We do not need a Depression Era WPA, we need a space age retooling of people and skills. A 50 year old unemployed, unskilled, uneducated factory worker will not be easily retrained to build bridges, paint bucolic scenes, or work on satellite comminications. The world has changed and the solutions needed exceed Mr. Lautenberg’s perspectives.

    • I don’t believe the WPA or the similar PWA were ended by the Supreme Court-the National Recovery Act and the AAA(agriculture,not auto service)were found unconstitutional.
      I have to say the WPA enabled some great American art,and not the garbage like “Piss Christ” or Mapplethorpe filth.
      The American Guide series of handbooks on states and some cities were produced and still giva a great,albeit dated picture of our country.
      I know growing up in NYC there were and still are some terrific public buildings built under the WPA that combined form and function at a level we don’t see here anymore.
      The downside was that some writers,artists,and playwrights who were communists leeched off the WPA and then crapped on their own country,
      Nothing is perfect.

  2. While I like the idea, I think we saw with ARRA that states use this kind of program to cut their own spending (so it’s a net-zero), or they misuse it by scrambling to do ‘busywork’ projects that require the least planning (repainting lines in the street before repaving the street).

    Also, there are two big categories of folks who need employment that a ‘New WPA’ won’t help much: Those who are not motivated or trained well enough to even shovel asphalt (and there are a LOT of them), and folks who would have been bound for white-collar office jobs who wouldn’t even think of applying for a job that involved eight-hour days repaving a street.

    I work near Brown campus and I’ve seen ‘now hiring’ signs in front of foodservice places for months. The business owners are saying that they can’t find people qualified enough to make change for customers, reliable enough to arrive and work regularly, or they’re not applying because they’re overqualified and not willing to work ‘low end’ jobs.

    I just don’t see it doing what it’s supposed to do. That said, I think there are reforms to the way we handle infrastructure funding and unemployment insurance that would make the current situation better.

  3. Observer is correct.

    It was the NRA that was ruled unconstitutional.

    The WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps lasted for years, and created untold thousands of parks, swimming pools, sidewalks….the sidewalks around my house have little brass plaques stating that they were made by the WPA, and it gives the years.

    As for not being able to find workers: what this tells me is that the job does not pay enough. Hate using the term, but it truly is Econ 101: if you can’t get anyone decent to apply, you’re not paying enough. Raise the wage, you’ll get the applicants you want.

    And taking a low-end job can mean that you end up in that low-end job for the rest of your life. Once you drop down, potential employers look at you funny. This puts a lot of workers in a very sticky situation. And a lot of employers don’t want to hire ‘overqualified’ workers b/c they realize that the worker will bolt at the first opportunity. Of course, most people working a low-end job will bolt at the first opportunity.

    The situation we’re in is tough. I see way too many empty stores. Yes, we’ve overbuilt, but that’s not the whole of it.

    However, let’s also bear in mind that it’s still not the Depression. By the time FDR took office, the economy had been in the tank for nearly 4 years. Unemployment ran to 25%. People were losing farms. Times were desperate, beyond what most of us can imagine. We’re not there, but we could be. All we have to do is follow the GOP’s austeriy plan, and we’ll be smack dab in the middle of 1933 again.

    What did Hoover do in office? He cut spending, he worked to balance the budget. He claimed this would instill confidence in the business community. Does any of this sound familiar? It would, if you are paying attention to GOP rhetoric.

    No one (except pundits) is saying that a jobs bill will solve our problems. It won’t. It can’t. No, the intent is to ‘prime the pump.’ Put money in more people’s pockets. They’ll spend it. That will make employers think about hiring. That will put more money into circulation. The economy is subject to inertia. A large push is needed to get the massive ball rolling, but given enough push, it will start to roll by itself. Gov’t–and only gov’t–can provide that first push.

    Businesses won’t hire until they see demand increasing. Demand won’t increase until they hire. To break the vicious cycle, the gov’t needs to step in and provide the initial impetus. It won’t just happen.

  4. We COULD end the two(ot three?)wars that we’re still engaged in.
    This is the first wartime recession in modern memory.
    We can still hunt and kill terrorists,nut why occupy or even maintain a large presence in countries that don’t exactly welcome us?
    And it’s time Korea,Sinai,Bosnia,Macedonia,Japan,Germany and other places saw an exodus of our armed forces.If those folks can’t handle it by now,screw them.
    It would sure free up some money.
    I’d like to see government spending that benefits THIS country before we take care of everyone else.
    I’m not for wasteful use of tax revenue,but targeted use.

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