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American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Workby Nick Taylor
Author Q & A
Q: What were the most unexpected things you discovered during the seven years it took you to write this book?
A: One thing that really surprised me was how closely the politics of the 1930s and the politics of today resemble one another. The arguments and philosophies of the right and left have barely changed at all. Then, as now, one side insisted that the government can do nothing right and should have a limited role in American life, particularly where business is concerned, while the other saw the government as a way of solving problems the private sector would not or could not solve. I think the WPA demonstrated that government could be put to a good use, and all we have to do is look at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to see what happens when the government neglects roles that only it can fill.
I was also surprised by the extent to which the WPA formed the foundations of the modern welfare system. This is the flip side of the coin. The WPA aided families with dependent children, but nobody imagined the extent to which that aid would create ongoing dependency in the system that was finally overturned in the 1990s.
Q: Those of us who love books are particularly intrigued by the Federal Writers Project. In fact the WPA's devotion to arts programs is notable. Why do you think this was made a priority?
A: Harry Hopkins saw no point in putting jobless writers, actors, artists and musicians to work building roads and bridges. He saw in them an opportunity to expand America's cultural frontiers. They had to eat, he said, "just like other people," thus he created programs in the arts and teaching. These entertained and educated millions, and left a cultural legacy that is among the WPA's biggest and finest contributions to our history.
Q: Early reviews have called American-Made a "near-definitive account" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and "eloquent and balanced" (Publishers Weekly, starred review). How do you craft a balanced presentation about a controversial program?
A: By not ignoring the controversy. History shouldn't be written by ideologues. I thought it was important to chronicle the many achievements of the WPA, but not to overlook its shortcomings or those of the Roosevelt Administration. I had to try to understand where the WPA's critics were coming from, what motivated their criticism. Sometimes they had a good point. But I also think the evidence is clear that overall, the WPA made a resoundingly positive contribution to our country that remains with us today.
Q: Should today's state and federal government officials look to the WPA for lessons about how to address today's problems?
A: Yes and no. The strongest lesson the WPA has for today's officials is that investments in people are likely to pay off, and that government is not — and should not be depicted as — the enemy. Government is essentially a humanitarian exercise. People across the political spectrum should recognize where and how to use it to those ends, as the WPA was used during the depth of the depression. Our political life could also use some of the imagination and verve and straight talk the WPA displayed.
Such a huge government-run jobs program, however, is a different story. A lot of things need doing in our country, but unemployment (as I write this, at any rate) is a small fraction of what it was when the WPA existed. The U.S. government became the employer of last resort because we were in a dire emergency. God forbid we should face such an emergency again.
Q: This year is the 75th anniversary of the New Deal. What can "everyday" people do to mark the event? How about school teachers?
A: The New Deal was all about "everyday" people, and I believe the way we should remember it is by demanding a government that is intelligently humanitarian in addressing the problems faced by the middle class, a government of deeds, not words. School teachers, I think, can remind pupils that the Great Depression was not only a time of economic hardship but a time of great accomplishment, as we can see by looking at the amazing legacy of the WPA.
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