Public Works: The Legacy of the New Deal

Howard Rosen

Much of our nation's infrastructure today is a direct result of the vast public works construction effort undertaken by New Deal agencies and programs during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The thousands of bridges, dams, water and sewer systems, highways, post offices, schools, and hospitals built during this era are the visible evidence of the importance of the Roosevelt era in our public works history.
A less visible but equally enduring legacy is in the way we think about and undertake public works programs. Until the Roosevelt era, there was very little direct federal role in local public works. The contrast has been vividly described by William J. Leuchtenburg, the noted historian of the Roosevelt era (1987, 20):

Whereas before the New Deal, most Americans did not conceive of the national government as an agency that acted directly on their lives, in the age of Roosevelt, they looked toward government in countless ways.
The public works efforts of the New Deal included the expansion of existing programs-flood control and highway construction being prominent among them-and the introduction of such new programs as hydroelectric power generation for rural regions. The projects most closely identified with the New Deal emerged from four agencies: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Moving Beyond Limits
The crisis of the Great Depression challenged traditional notions of the limited role of the federal government. When FDR took office in 1933, there were nearly twenty-eight million people unemployed-many of them having been so for several years. Millions of others who still had jobs nevertheless worried about their economic future. The Depression created a climate of fear that challenged the future of democracy in America. There was a sense of urgency, not only in the first hundred days of the Roosevelt administration, but throughout the months and years that followed. The programs developed to meet this crisis constituted the "moral equivalent of war" that survival seemed to require.
The Depression brought the private construction of new factories and homes to a virtual standstill. Public works construction on the part of state and local governments also collapsed. To meet this challenge, the New Dealers vastly increased the federal funding of public works construction. This funding, however, was increased only enough to cover the amount state and local governments had been spending.

During the late 1920s, federal spending on public works construction averaged $200 million annually. This amounted to about 2 percent of the total public and private spending on new construction. By 1932, the last year of the Hoover administration, the federal amount had increased to nearly $400 million. Until 1930, state and local governments had been spending $2.4 billion annually on public works. By 1933, they were reduced to spending only $700 million.

The New Deal filled the gap by hiking federal funds for public works to an annual average of $1.6 billion from 1933 to 1939. Because private construction in these years had also fallen dramatically-from more than $7 billion annually to just over $3 billion-this meant that federal spending now accounted for fully one third of the total spent on new construction.

The central feature of the New Deal public works program was to provide federal support for state and local public works projects, rather than to substitute federal projects in their place. According to Donald C. Stone, founder of the American Public Works Association and a key figure in developing the administration of New Deal programs:

projects at the local level where people were unemployed had to be the kinds of projects that would put the kinds of persons who were unemployed to work. We couldn't just have some scattering of federal projects around and meet the unemployment problem in the country . . . You had to take the work to where the people are. (Rosen and Pudloski 1992, 45)
New Deal public works programs combined the short-term goal of unemployment relief with the long-term goal of regional economic development:

As FDR himself put it, there was an obvious two-fold objective of public works policy: "to relieve unemployment (and) to develop great regions of our country in the future for the benefit of future Americans." (Daniels 1975, 4)

Try and Try Again
FDR's relief programs began almost immediately with the creation of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in May 1933. Harry L. Hopkins, FERA's chief administrator, oversaw this $500 million program. It was followed by another short-term public works relief program, the Civil Works Administration. The CWA was designed to combat the urgent unemployment problems facing the country during the winter of 1933-34 when, according to Donald C. Stone, "unemployment had begun to peak and destitution was severe" (Rosen and Pudloski 1992, 45). In effect, it federalized state and local officials so that their programs could be considered federally authorized and important local projects could move forward. Officials and contractors were paid directly by federal funds without the money needing to go through local governments.
The Public Works Administration, which began operating in June 1933 with Harold L. Ickes at its head, produced many of the largest and most visible public works projects of the New Deal. Although most PWA projects-and there were thirty-four thousand of them-were relatively small, the program included the completion of Boulder Dam in the Southwest and construction of the Triborough Bridge in New York City. PWA provided some $5 billion in construction grants and loans for the building of literally thousands of schools, hospitals, libraries, and other public buildings; highways; water and sewer systems; electric power systems; and flood control and reclamation projects.

The Works Progress Administration, established in the spring of 1935 with Harry Hopkins as its chief administrator, was an extension of the CWA effort to provide short-term unemployment relief. But, unlike the CWA, the WPA served all categories of unemployed workers-including artists, writers, lawyers, and architects-rather than just blue collar workers and engineers. Some eight million persons found work through the WPA, which spent nearly $4 billion on the relief programs it administered. These programs were proposed by state and local governments. Although there were some examples of what became denounced as "leaf raking projects," WPA workers built hundreds of local bridges and maintained thousands of miles of the country's roads.

The $9 billion spent on New Deal public works programs at the height of the Depression (1933-39) was the amount calculated to fill the gap in state and local government spending. (In comparison, after the outbreak of World War II, spending on military construction would amount to more than $5 billion in 1942 alone.) Although thousands of individual projects were undertaken by these vast new federal programs, there was almost no corruption: "It is quite remarkable that there was no significant graft or serious suspicion of graft in any of the major New Deal public works operations" (Daniels 1975, 7, citing Rosenman 1938, 392). This can probably be attributed to the professionalism and dedication of the New Deal advocates of modern public administration, who consciously sought talented and competent individuals to serve in key positions. Indeed, one of the tangible legacies of the Roosevelt New Deal era was that it brought to federal government service both a large cadre of individuals and a series of institutional mechanisms that would make it possible for the United States to respond quickly to the emergencies of war. Perhaps the most important legacy of FDR's public works programs, however, was simply the survival of individuals, families, and the social fabric of democracy.

A "New Frontier"?
The public works systems built during the New Deal era are now aging and in need of repair and replacement. And while the role of the federal government in short-term relief efforts is today undergoing intense scrutiny, its long-term role in facilitating economic development though public works seems to be assumed. If there is a "New Frontier" in public works, it may involve the best possible maintenance of New Deal and other public works investments that have formed the nation's infrastructure. Providing state and local governments with advanced maintenance technologies may be a legitimate and significant federal role that continues the Rooseveltian tradition in public works.

Daniels, Roger. The Relevancy of Public Works History: The Case of the 1930's. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1975.Leuchtenburg, William. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal." In The Flood Control Challenge: Past, Present and Future, edited by H. Rosen and M. Reuss. Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1987.Rosen, H., and S. Pudloski. "An Interview with Donald C. Stone." Chicago: Public Works Historical Society, 1992.Rosenman, Samuel I., comp. The Public Papers and Addresses of FDR. Vol. III. New York, 1938.

Howard Rosen is Managing Director of Program Development and Director of the Public Works Historical Society for the American Public Works Association in Kansas City, Mo.