How the New Deal created millions of jobs

Donald Trump promised a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that would create jobs. [1]  Bernie Sanders and other Democratic leaders are talking about a federal jobs guarantee.  Many Americans think this is utopian.

Eighty-some years ago, during the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration showed what is possible.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) put hundreds of thousands of people to work on a variety of heavy construction projects that gave a face-lift to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Roads, bridges and dams were repaired and upgraded. 

Rundel Memorial Library in Rochester, N.Y., funded by the Public Works Administration and completed in 1937

Scores of new schools, libraries, hospitals, post offices and playgrounds were built for an expanding population.  All of these projects were undertaken on a scale inconceivable, even in the most prosperous times.

In April 1935, Congress inaugurated the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which put nearly 3 million people to work, including semi-skilled and unskilled, on projects as diverse as building athletic stadiums, making books for the blind, stuffing rare birds and improving airplane landing fields and army camps.

In its first six years, the WPA spent $11 billion, three-fourths of it on construction and conservation projects and the remainder on community service programs. In those six years, WPA employed about 8 million workers. …

The New Deal paid special attention to the nation’s dispossessed youth.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put approximately 2.75 million idle young men to work to reclaim government-owned land and forests through irrigation, soil enrichment, pest control, tree planting, fire prevention and other conservation projects. …

Thousands of unemployed writers, actors, musicians and painters were given an opportunity to earn a modest livelihood from their artistic talents (many of them to achieve fame and fortune in later years) and to enrich the lives of countless culturally-deprived citizens.  The productions of the WPA Theater Project, for example, entertained a phenomenal audience totaling 60 million people, a great many who had never before seen a play.

Through the National Youth Administration (NYA) the government made it possible for 1.5 million high school students and 600,000 college students to continue their education by providing them with part-time jobs to meet their expenses.

A monumental achievement of the New Deal was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which produced and sold cheap electric power and fertilizer in a seven-state area (about four-fifths the size of England), whose farms were among the nation’s poorest and least productive, and where only a fraction of the inhabitants possessed electricity to light their homes and operate their equipment.

Source: Labor Educator

These were not make-work projects.  We still enjoy the benefits of these projects today.  Here is a summary of New Deal construction projects here in Rochester, N.Y., where I live.

  • Doubled the size of the Rochester International Airport (still in use)
  • Built a high school (still in use)
  • Built a post office with publicly commissioned art (still in use, art still there!)
  • Built a new Art Deco headquarters for the Rochester Fire Department (still in use)
  • Built a 40,000 square foot library (still in use)
  • Commissioned a variety of murals in high schools and public spaces, most of which still exist
  • Improved the local waterworks system
  • Set up a local Federal Arts Project center, that paid unemployed artists to create exhibits, run community art classes, and create art for public spaces.
  • Source: Jack Meserve, Democracy Journal.

What conditions exist today that prevent us Americans from doing what our forebears did then?

There is as much useful work to be done now as there was then.  Unlike then, we have a governmental structure—the one that was set up during the New Deal—that only needs to be rededicated to its original purpose.

It’s true that a new New Deal would cost a lot of money.   But then our military and covert action agencies cost a lot of money.  Congress doesn’t seem to worry about the cost of foreign wars.  There are literally trillions of dollars that the Department of Defense and other government agencies can’t even account for.  We ought to be able to spare comparable amounts for our own country’s needs.

The conventional wisdom is that the New Deal was a failure and that it took World War Two to pull the United States out of the Great Depression.  That’s a half-truth.

Most historical accounts of the New Deal list the people employed on public works projects as being unemployed, while giving Hitler’s Germany credit for ending unemployment by counting even the workers in the concentration camps as part of the employed work force.

But it is true that the New Deal failed to jump-start the free-market economy.  The theory of economists who followed John Maynard Keynes was that public works spending would have a multiplier effect.   Public works supposedly would “prime the pump”; their spending in the free market would encourage the revival of industry.

Grand Coulee Dam on the Colombia River, constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation between 1933 and 1942 to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation water

This happened during the war, which indicates that the trouble with the New Deal was that FDR didn’t spend enough.  “Dr. New Deal” did not spend or borrow nearly as much as “Dr. Win the War.”

But when it comes to that, the reason the United States was able to ramp up war production so quickly was the infrastructure construction projects that went before.

The reason the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bombs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, was because of the hydroelectric dams built on the Tennessee and Colombia rivers.  (Maybe you think the Manhattan Project shouldn’t have been undertaken, but that’s a different issue.)

The real difference between then and now was that the public demanded radical action.  Many Americans were far more radical than President Roosevelt.

The “Share the Wealth” program of Louisiana Governor Huey Long was much more radical than anything President Roosevelt proposed.  The left-wing Progressive and Farmer-Labor parties governed Wisconsin and Minnesota.  The Communist Party had real influence in the labor unions, and about 5 percent of American voters supported socialist or Communist candidates.

Factory workers and farmers (there were a lot more farmers back then) took the law into their own hands to occupy factories and prevent mortgage foreclosures.  Revolution was a real possibility—a possibility that Roosevelt succeeded in averting.

If nothing changes, a breakdown comparable to the Great Depression of the 1930s is likely.  We won’t be able to count on having another Franklin Roosevelt in office this time.  Why wait for a catastrophe to do what is needed?


Living New Deal | Still Working for America.  This is an interactive archive showing the accomplishments of the New Deal.  If you are an American or live in the USA, you might want to check out what the New Deal built in your community.

The Job Guarantee and the Wilted Liberal Imagination by Jack Meserve for Democracy Journal.

How the New Deal Created Millions of Jobs to Lift the American People From Depression by Harry Kelber for The Labor Educator.

How Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Were Pulled to the Left by puakev for Daily Kos.

The People Made the First New Deal | Can the People Make Another? by Richard Moser for Counterpunch.

The New Deal and job creation by Michael Tomasky for The Guardian.


[1] Donald Trump’s infrastructure program was never intended seriously.  The ultimate result will be either nothing at all or some sort of privatization / tax subsidy scheme.  But a trillion-dollar infrastructure program is both needed and feasible.  [Added Later]

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5 Responses to “How the New Deal created millions of jobs”

  1. Ataraxik Says:

    Interesting article.


  2. Bill Harvey Says:

    An excellent quick summary of most of the key points.
    Among William Hartung’s many pertinent articles at TOMDISPATCH:

    Thanks, Phil,


  3. PrayThroughHistory Says:

    Good article. The criticisms I’ve heard of the New Deal is that it created a cartel that eliminated choice of both employee and employer. I guess I see it as pure fascism, the kind Giovanni Gentile dreamed about pre-Mussolini and Hitler. State interference creates crisis, crashes the system, then rebuilds the system with the State in control. What I really wonder about is how the Federal Reserve gets a free pass for failing to stop the Great Depression? Thanks!


    • philebersole Says:

      What you say applies to the National Recovery Act, which is often called First New Deal. Businesses and labor unions were invited to stabilize prices and wages, thereby creating monopolies, but also (hopefully) stabilizing the economy. The NRA and related legislation were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

      All this was separate from the WPA, PWA, Tennessee Valley Authority and other public works programs described in my post.


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