WPA? Why not?
July 8, 2006 5:54 PM   Subscribe

Why hasn't anyone restarted the WPA as an alternative to welfare?
posted by SpecialK to Law & Government (13 answers total)
Governments in the US sometime do fund things (eg, highway construction) primarily because they "provide jobs" but instead of managing the highway project themselves, the government has the job managed by a private business instead. Means that the profit goes to the stockholders of the business instead of largely to the workers. But it's "more efficient."
posted by salvia at 6:02 PM on July 8, 2006

Also relevant: NCCC is a New Deal holdover that's on the chopping block.
posted by Skwirl at 6:11 PM on July 8, 2006

Because the United States' political framework does not work as advertised.
posted by mwhybark at 6:32 PM on July 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

because working for walmart or mcdonalds helps the people who own the congress make more money ... and the workers can still get a bit from the government when they can't survive on what they make

god, i wish i *was* being snarky about that
posted by pyramid termite at 6:34 PM on July 8, 2006

I'm just spitballing this, but in the first paragraph of Wikipedia's description of the WPA, it notes that it "primarily (90%) employed unskilled blue-collar workers in construction projects." I imagine that the skill required for constructions projects has significantly increased since the '30s. So, in order to facilitate this, the government would first have to provide everyone with training. And the construction industry is already fiercely competitive for jobs. There is, in essence, barely enough work to go around. Giving government projects to unskilled workers, along with free training, would probably anger a large majority of the currently-employed blue collar workforce. And there's no guarantee that those unskilled folks you just helped out would at the polls later on.
posted by MrZero at 6:37 PM on July 8, 2006

Labor unions would implode in seething outrage, and since 50% of politicians butter their bread at labor union tables...
posted by Dreama at 6:42 PM on July 8, 2006

Because the economy, while lousy, is nowhere near as bad as it was during the Depression. The Depression and the political turmoil created by the Depression pressured the rulers of this country to institute such welfare measures. Put simply, they were willing to give a little to avoid losing everything.

If we had 25-33% unemployment, an active, growing Communist movement in the tens of thousands, and broad sympathy for red ideas in the working population, we would have WPA-style measures in place again.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:58 PM on July 8, 2006

Quite simply unemployment is not a problem and there is no real evidence that the WPA worked. It's not that hard to find work in America (see:large influx of immigrants), though a "living wage" versus what's actually paid may be debatable. At the time of the WPA it was pretty much a last-ditch effort to keep the United States from getting worse, if you can call it that. Besides, I am of the theory that we do not want to promote blue-collar manual labor jobs. Would the money that would normally go to WPA be better spent on free higher education? The situation is much different now than it was in the 1930s.
posted by geoff. at 7:01 PM on July 8, 2006

Some argue that the new deal worsened the depression. Why bring back something that didn't work?

A study by Harold L. Cole and Lee E. Ohanian concludes that the "New Deal labor and industrial policies did not lift the economy out of the Depression as President Roosevelt and his economic planners had hoped," but that the "New Deal policies are an important contributing factor to the persistence of the Great Depression." They conclude that the New Deal "cartelization policies are a key factor behind the weak recovery." The say that the "abandonment of these policies coincided with the strong economic recovery of the 1940s."[20] Lowell E. Gallaway, Richard K. Vedder conclude that the "Great Depression was very significantly prolonged in both its duration and its magnitude by the impact of New Deal programs." They argue that without Social Security, work relief, unemployment insurance, and especially without the labor unions, business would have hired more workers and the unemployment rate during the New Deal years would have been 6.7% instead of 17.2 percent.[21]
From wikipedia.
posted by malp at 7:09 PM on July 8, 2006

Because the economy is not lousy.
posted by mattholomew at 7:31 PM on July 8, 2006

Best answer: You're asking the wrong question. You can't focus on just the WPA without looking at the characteristics of the population you are claiming would be WPA material.

Welfare is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If you look at a recent annual report on the characteristics of TANF recipients (specifically Tables 10:5, 10:6 & 10:7) and do the math, you will see that:

1)39% of TANF "families" consist only of kids i.e. no adult is getting money for themselves. Unless we are into child labor, these kids aren't going to be working in a newly revised WPA.

2) 58% of TANF families consist of a single adult and kids. Well if they're poor enough to qualify for TANF, the one adult doesn't have money for day care which will most likely be needed by a good portion of these adults if they are required to work for the WPA. It makes no sense for the government to provide day care monies just so they can work in this "WPA." Especially, when a whole new bureauracracy will emerge to waste some more money as they administer the program. And sure there may be some WPA candidates in this group (those with kids in school), but not as many as I suspect folks are envisioning in this thread.

3)That only leaves about 3% of TANF familes with two adults and kids. 3% isn't even worth discussing.

So you're taking apples and oranges when you compare a potential reconstituted WPA program full of most likely female TANF recipients and the historical WPA program whcih provided jobs mostly for unemployed men.
posted by bim at 7:40 PM on July 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IANAE (I am not an Economist), but one reason governments may choose to provide assistance to the poor in the form of welfare (the government gives someone money with little or no expectation of service) as opposed to jobs (the government pays someone in exchange for their labor) is to avoid competing with the private sector. Almost any task you would ask a workfare recipient to do would compete with an established business and that business would complain. Furthermore, because workfare enterprises are somewhat protected from market forces it is easy for them to undercut private businesses in the same sector (produce goods or services at prices that cannot be matched by the private sector because the workfare enterprise is subsidized) or to be very inefficient (in an attempt to overcompensate, produce goods or services at prices that are not attractive which means that the workfare dollars are being “wasted”).

There are lots of little examples in recent times of this process in action (I am too tired/lazy to find the links to the news stories). Several years ago there was a NY Times story about the fact that NYC required some of its welfare recipients to do some work, which often meant cleaning. City unions and private contractors complained so NYC cut back on the types of cleaning jobs which meant that some people were assigned make-work projects such as sweeping a small area repeatedly. It should be noted that another criticism of this program was that some of the workfare recipients claimed that the city work was taking away from the time they could have been using to find another job.

Therefore, the challenge with designing a workfare program is selecting a task that will not compete significantly with the private sector. Since the labor pool is typically unskilled, that can be very challenging.

During the Depression, several of these problems were less of an issue: (1) private businesses in many sectors had failed so there was no one to “compete” with, (2) the federal government had previously had a much smaller footprint in paying for the construction of public works, so those projects were viewed as less intrusive, and (3) there were significant numbers of skilled labors out of work that could be employed in their fields. Still, many of the same complaints were voiced and this led to a significant number of make-work useless project. However, since the employment picture was so bleak such make-work projects didn’t meaningfully interfere with the recipient’s chances of finding a different job.
posted by Tallguy at 8:13 PM on July 8, 2006

During the Depression it was easy to see that people were out of work because of the poor economy. Now too many politicians just think those out of work people are lazy.
posted by caddis at 9:04 PM on July 8, 2006

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