A reader sends along this photograph, from Kansas, courtesy of Ellen Drimmel, whose father was frequently employed by WPA.

When we read of the New Deal sponsoring “make-work”, what do we think of? One word you certainly get a lot is “boondoggle”—which didn’t appear at all in the New York Times in 1933 or -34, but suddenly began appearing in 1935, with the debut of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), shot up in the 1936 election year, then all but vanished after Roosevelt won a thumping re-election.

What’s a boondoggle? A Boy Scout’s make-work project—braided leather, for decorating the uniform. Takes skill, looks nice, but doesn’t do much good in the end. Was that WPA in a nutshell?

For people who think of the Federal Theatre Project and other stylish, vaguely lefty projects (“You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?”), maybe that is WPA in a nutshell.

But that’s a poor representation of the program. Here’s a clearer one (or it’ll be clearer once you’ve clicked on it), showing total amount spent on each of the kinds of projects WPA undertook.

WPA was about building, and principally about building roads, and not about pinko Elizabethans much at all.

Still, it’s possible the roads and all the other building projects were pretty much boondoggles too, right? Like LaGuardia Airport?

Or the Triborough Bridge?

Or any of many less glamorous roads from farm to market that WPA built or widened?

Aw, but that’s cherrypicking, right? Isn’t there anything systematic we can say about the value of all that infrastructure?

Maybe. Alexander J. Field argues the 1930s—or, more precisely, 1929-1941—were “the most technologically progressive decade of the century”. Later productivity increases owed to shifts that occurred in the ’thirties.

A large part of the infrastructure required for economically successful postwar housing construction was put in place during the 1930’s, as the consequence of the use of public funds to improve the road transport system. During the 1920’s, infrastructure, particularly streets and highways, did not keep up with the burgeoning sales of private vehicles. Public expenditures during the 1930’s substantially remedied this, in a manner that has impacted the productivity of the housing sector as well as that of the economy as a whole.1

Jason Scott Smith writes, “Supporters of federal public works projects observed that these programs contributed to overall economic growth, accounting for 20 percent of the increase in national income between 1950 and 1970 by one measure.” Maybe that overstates the case (without knowing what the measure is, it’s hard to say). But when we think about evaluating WPA, we ought not to think “boondoggle” or “make-work”; we ought to think of the buildings we live and work in, and the roads we travel between them.

Which is not even to mention the Public Works Administration (PWA). I mean, have you seen pictures of the Hollywood High School library?

1Alexander J. Field, “The Most Technologically Progressive Decade of the Century,” American Economic Review 93, no. 4 (November 2003): 1399-1413; quotation on 1407.

Figures on WPA project spending from “Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43,” Table X, p. 122. These are total funds spent, 1935-43.

Project photos from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal Network.