On this day in 1935 Franklin Delano Roosevelt inaugurated the WPA -Works Progress Administration. In the depths of the depression this new venture provided millions of jobs for unemployed Americans. This happened just a few weeks after I was born over 86 years ago. Our family was fortunate to be living on the land. Farming continued and although there was little cash, we were employed and had plenty of food. The WPA was a lifeline to millions not so fortunate.
WPA was ridiculed by many as a waste of public money. However, many of us today are benefiting from the parks and recreation facilities that were built in the years between 1935 and 1943 when this endeavor ended. Some of the critics of this support spoke of the workers as mostly shovel leaners. Some would say they would observe the work crews as having lots of their workers simply leaning on their shovels while watching some of the others work. Probably if the critics were to hang around for a while, they would see the shovel leaners pitch in for a while while some others became shovel leaners. So here is my defense of the shovel leaners.
During my college years in the 1950's I had several construction jobs. I helped build a Rochester Gas and Electric building in Sodus, New York. In Fairport, New York I helped install a water pipe line. In upstate New York I helped lay concrete across the Montezuma Swamp for the New York State Thruway. These are my "creds" for having legitimate experience with public works projects. I am not ashamed to say I spent some time shovel leaning! As a laborer working with a shovel or other hand implement for as long as 12 hour days there is not a way that you can keep up this repetitive motion without a rest. I challenge even the most fit among you to sustain shoveling continuously hour after hour without a rest. In my experience some of the most hated supervisors were the drivers who would be on your case if you took at least a moments rest! I vividly remember one day being assigned a tamping job. Not with the current day powered vibrators but with a hand tamper lifted and dropped by hand. I was working away with a rhythm that I knew I could sustain almost indefinitely. Not good enough for the boss. He comes over and says here is how to do it. He grabs the tamper and proceeds to do a series of rapid thumps for about 10 seconds and then hands me the tamper and says that's how to do it. Yeah! Anyone can do that speed for ten seconds. Let me say that I was pissed. I got the job done, but I assure you not at the speed of the boss who goes back to his job site office and push paper!
Let me assure you that I have no love for anyone of the team on the job that fails to carry their share. However, if one is an outside observer you can't be too quick to criticize individuals unless you get the whole picture. To this day there are still skeptics of the benefit of the WPA. However, I think history has shown the benefits far outweighed the cost and gave millions of Americans a leg up in a difficult time. Fast forward to the present. We are on the cusp of having a massive infrastructure spending by our Federal Government. It is controversial! I, for one, see it as a lifeline for generations to come. An investment for my grand children and great grandchildren. Sure the there will be some shovel leaning but that will only be a minor part of the cost.