Rebuild America with a new Works Progress Administration

By Tom Nardacci

One of the most memorable conversations I had with my grandfather was when I went to his grocery store to talk to him about a high school research assignment I was doing on The New Deal.

Although kind-hearted and giving, my grandfather wasn’t easy to talk to or connect with. His life was hard; he was a first-generation American who grew up in the Great Depression and witnessed firsthand the horror of war at Pearl Harbor. He became a butcher and built a good life to support his wonderfully close family. He bolstered his neighborhood and city by owning and operating his store for 50 years on our block in Rensselaer.

My grandfather Fred Nardacci in front of his grocery store and butcher shop in the early 1990's

That day I approached him back in 1991, he told me how he and his brother worked in the “CCs,” short for the Civilian Conservation Corps. I had no idea they did this. I listened to him tell me how this work affected his life and family at a critical time. His whole personality lit up as he talked intently about how President Franklin Roosevelt dealt with the national crisis by caring about regular people.

In the past two decades, as America dealt with the aftermath of 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, and now the COVID-19/ coronavirus pandemic, I’ve often thought back to my grandfather’s wisdom and how New Deal programs saved him and this country.

We need a permanent Works Progress Administration in America. We need an ambitious public employment and infrastructure program that permanently employs 10 million Americans.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has warned that unemployment in this country could rise to 20 percent, the same percentage it was back in 1935. After 9/11, 600,000 people were immediately laid off nationwide, primarily in blue-collar jobs. After the 2008 Great Recession, the U.S. lost 2.6 million jobs. Even with the booming economy we have had in recent years, a 3.5 percent unemployment rate still means 6 million people are out of work. And more than 25 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the president declared the pandemic a national emergency.

In times of peace and calm, a WPA would be a source of innovation and maintenance. In the 1930s, the WPA built 4,000 new school buildings, 130 new hospitals, 29,000 new bridges, and 150 new airfields. It laid 9,000 miles of storm and sewer drains and 280,000 miles of roads, planted 24 million new trees, and employed 5,300 artists.

WPA projects ranged from the construction of LaGuardia and Midway Airports, to new roads, sidewalks, and thousands of miles of modern sewer systems.

For decades, this country has been painfully behind in repairing and developing its existing infrastructure and has been too slow to develop new green infrastructure to combat the looming global crisis related to climate change. During these times of national disaster, which will continue to happen, a full-time WPA could be marshalled to more quickly deliver critical responses.

The Federal Art Project bolstered community art studios, and launched artists like Jackson Pollock. The Federal Theatre Project helped begin the careers of Arthur Miller and Orson Welles.

As someone who has spent the past 15 years building private businesses, I have benefited from the stability of the Capital Region’s economy anchored by public employment. While unemployment statistics have been low in the current economy, a crisis such as today’s tumbles the house of cards and bares the harsh reality of the underemployed and people who live paycheck to paycheck. We need to look at a national and global crisis like this with a longer view rather than scrambling for fixes. We can, and should, at the federal and state level, implement a permanent economic fix.

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This opinion piece appeared in the Albany Times Union on April 20, 2020.

Creative firm entrepreneur I Coworking community developer www.aureliuscoworks.com I Believer in small cities & middle markets