Uncommon Sense

November 21, 2012

What is Wrong with Helping Others?

I was watching Ken Burn’s outstanding documentary “The Dust Bowl” last night and more than a few things struck me. Mr. Burns looks at the world through the lenses of ordinary people and one of these, who was a child during the years of the Dust Bowl, remembers a rich person saying that President Roosevelt was a Socialist . . . and Anti-American . . . and needed to be stopped. She also said that if you had asked any of the poor people, they were absolutely grateful to Roosevelt for helping them.

Sound familiar?

The second thing that struck me was one of the ways Roosevelt “helped” was to deploy WPA manpower. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) took taxpayer money and used it to hire people to do jobs the public needed doing and there was a great deal that needed doing in the Dust Bowl. One comment made by one of Mr. Burn’s voices was that the WPA jobs weren’t a handout, in fact they could have fed and clothed those people for less than they were paying them to do that work, but the personal cost to the people would have been tremendous. They didn’t want “relief” or charity, they wanted to work and to preserve their families and their dignity. So they built roads, planted trees as windbreaks (an astonishing number of them!), and built schools and other public buildings.

In addition, the federal government bought up millions of acres of land and reverted it to grass covered prairie and when another dry spell came back in the early 1950’s, the dust storms were far less severe because of that (and more modern farming techniques, promoted by . . . wait for it . . . the federal government).

The WPA was responsible for creating 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges (one shows up in the documentary), 125,000 civilian and military buildings, 800 airports (new or enlarged or improved) plus a great deal more nationally. Some mammoth works were done: The River Walk in San Antonio, Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and LaGuardia Airport in New York. After the war many of these became derelict but most were restored later and enhanced to become treasured venues.

The WPA and indeed the whole “New Deal” has been in conservative cross hairs since their inception.

But what is wrong with hiring people to do work that private enterprise won’t or can’t do. Isn’t this in the public interest? Doesn’t this make life better for everyone? Doesn’t this preserve the dignity of the people who are hard pressed by economic times or by nature?

Couldn’t we use a little of that now?

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