Thursday, November 14, 2013

Isaac's Efforts to Extend a Helping Hand

Political Cartoon from the County Capital


The hardships of the late 1800s in agricultural regions are difficult for today's Americans to imagine.  Farmers were grinding up the grain they had put aside for the next planting season's seed, mixing it with water to feed their starving children.  Isaac Werner wrote to the presidents of the surrounding Farmers' Alliances, urging that funds be collected from members to provide assistance to their most desperate neighbors, but nearly everyone was struggling just to care for their own families and to survive long enough to raise the next year's crops.  There were few places to turn for help, although counties did have limited funds for the most desperate.  (Click on cartoon to enlarge.)
Groups of these desperate men organized marches, headed for Washington, D.C. to ask for help, but many of these marches failed because the participants were too weak to walk the distance and too lacking in funds to provide food for the walkers.  A wealthy man named Jacob Coxey subsidized a march, which he called the Army of the Commonweal in Christ but which newspapers generally referred to as Coxey's Army.  Because of his financial ability to provide food and organization, Coxey and a portion of his men reached the nation's capital to ask for jobs.  They were desperately poor, not lazy beggars asking for a handout.  However, they were barred from entering the capital and Coxey and another man were arrested for walking on the grass, their pleas for work essentially ignored.
Shovel handle
Today, most Americans take for granted the social safety nets funded by the government.  We cannot imagine a time when a young married couple would have committed suicide as she was in labor with their first child, slashing their own throats because they were starving and felt they had no place to turn.  Yet, this story was reported in the County Capital to which Isaac subscribed.  Many of our current social programs now offering the assistance this young couple did not have are rooted in the political goals of the People's Party of the 1890s.
During another economic period of unemployment and widespread hardship in America, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an order which led to the creation of the Works Progress Administration, later called the Works Projects Administration.  He entrusted its specific shaping to his close adviser, Harry Hopkins, and it is considered the most ambitious undertaking of the New Deal.
Old WPA shovel
Recently my husband and I were cleaning out our garage, and I took the responsibility of going through my father's old tools, cleaning them and oiling the dry wooden handles and rusty metal blades.  As I applied oil to one especially dry shovel handle, I noticed something carved into the wood.  My father often marked his tools, so as not to get them mixed up when he was working with  neighbors.  I assumed that the initials were his, until I realized that the letters were actually WPA.  When I finished with the handle and began working on the metal part of the shovel, I discovered WPA engraved into the corner of the blade. 
Between 1935 and 1943 the WPA provided employment for millions, paying wages consistent with the region in which the jobs were offered.  Hours were limited, and workers did not get rich--but they survived.  In addition, things like roads, government buildings, conservation projects, and public health projects benefitted citizens.  In the arts, musicians, actors, artists, and writers found work through the WPA.
Bottom right corner of blade see WPA
It was the approach of W.W. II and the need for employees in the war effort that diminished the need for the WPA, and Congress ended the Administration in 1943.  While it helped many Americans, it was subjected to some of the same criticisms heard today regarding our present forms of government assistance.  False and exaggerated reports were circulated about the excessive waste, and one congressman called the WPA a "seedbed for communists."  Complaints were made about politics having more to do with the distribution of projects and funding allotments than the needs of citizens in those regions.  And, just as today, needy workers were often viewed as being in their situation because they were lazy.  Even Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird reflects that sort of criticism when a local loafer is described as "the only person fired from the WPA for laziness."
Close-up of engraved WPA
I do not know how the WPA shovel came to be among my father's tools.  In 1935 my father would have been twenty years old, and I do know that tree belts to control wind erosion of the loose sandy loam soil were planted in our area, including one just north of my family's hereditary home.  Could that have been a WPA project?  Whether my father or anyone else in his family worked for the WPA or whether the shovel I discovered ended up in his possession in some other way, I do not know.
What I do know is that farmers of Isaac's time who couldn't feed their families wanted work, not handouts, and the political goals of the People's Party included government work programs in their political platforms.  Many progressive programs that have been implemented over the years have their inceptions in these People's Party ideas.  Recently, jobs to improve America's aging infrastructure were suggested to help climb out of the recession at the close of the Bush administration and to improve the current economy.  What I also know is that most living Americans cannot imagine the degree of desperation that past generations suffered, without any place to turn for help.
Holding that old WPA shovel in my hands reminded me of all of that!


The Blog Fodder said...

We are not so far from this same situation again. Safety nets are being shredded everywhere.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

I thought I would share an interesting conversation going on about this blog on facebook. Helen wrote: "Lyn, our old 'outhouse' was built by WPA." I replied that my research had disclosed that "sanitation projects" were one type of employment, but I was surprised to learn that family outhouses were included! Rodney replied: "Ture, my granddad had a WPA outhouse on his property. The original Pratt County Lake was built with the men of the WPA." This is proving to be a popular blog, and I hope more people share their WPA stories!!