Bringing Back the WPA

The New Republic, March 15, 1975

PEOPLE HAVE two main complaints about jobs these days: there aren’t enough of them, and most of those that do exist are pretty unsatisfying.

In an effort to increase the number of jobs, Congress has beefed up the funding of the 1973 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).  Under CETA, auth­or­ity now exists for about 300,000 public service jobs.  The program works much like revenue sharing.  Federal funds are allocated to cities, counties and states accord­ing to a formula that takes into account their unemployment and income levels.  The localities then assign the funds to public agencies that want to hire additional people.

There are amazingly few strings attached.  Workers hired with CETA funds must have been unemployed for at least 30 days (this is to discourage cities from laying off regular employees and then rehiring them with federal funds, as some financially squeezed cities are nonetheless doing).  Preference must be given to those on welfare and to Vietnam veterans.  The agencies must try, or at least promise to try, to find permanent slots for half the new people they hire.  And the salaries must be at pre­vailing levels, up to a maximum of $10,000.

Beyond this, the only limit to what localities can do with CETA funds is their own imagination.  The act says merely that jobs must be of the public service variety, which it defines as including, but not being limited to, “work in such fields as envi­ronmental quality, health care, education, public safety, crime prevention and con­trol, prison rehab­ilitation, transportation, recreation, main­tenance of parks, streets and other public facilities, solid waste removal, pollution control, housing and neigh­borhood improve­ments, rural development, conserva­tion, beautification, veterans outreach, and other fields of human betterment and community improvement.”  This extraordinary carte blanche opens up all kinds of possibilities for dealing with the nature of work itself.

MUST JOBS BE stifling, boring and frustrating?  Can they not allow for creativity and pride of accomplishment, especially when freed from the constraints of the profit system?  Up to now, most localities have used their CETA funds in rather predict­able ways — for typists, security guards, maintenance personnel.  But in a few cities some imaginative ideas have cropped up.  Perhaps most intriguing among these is San Francisco’s plan to hire artists and gardeners.

Putting artists on the public payroll is not, of course, a wholly original idea.  Italian principalities did it during the Renaissance, and the Works Progress Administra­tion (WPA) did it during the 1930s.  Lately, however, most federal aid to the arts has been channeled (through the National Endowment for the Arts) to institutions such as symphonies, museums and opera companies, rather than to individual artists and performers.  The notion that artists are workers — indeed, that they constitute a chron­ically underem­ployed sector of the labor force and are thus deserving of government attention—has not gained wide accep­tance.

For its part San Francisco has long been a mecca for artists, writers and craftspeople of all sorts.  It has also had an active, if sparsely funded, Neighborhood Arts Program run by the San Francisco Art Commission, a city agency.  This program, which re­ceives a small portion of the city’s hotel tax revenue, has sponsored workshops and art festivals and generally tried to encourage neighborhood cultural activities; one of its most popular services is the free printing of flyers for nonprofit cultural events.

About five years ago young artists in the predomi­nantly Latino Mission district began to rediscover the mural as an art form.  Brightly colored murals of varying quality started appearing on the walls of buildings in the Mission.  Some had Latin American motifs; others were purely decorative; one or two carried a political message (the most blatant, ironically, is the one in the Bank of America’s Mission branch, which depicts a dark-skinned laborer holding a booklet that proclaims, “Our sweat and our blood have fallen on this land to make other men rich”).  At one point in 1971, when the city had some surplus federal funds from the Supplemental Train­ing and Employment Program (STEP), it briefly hired about a dozen muralists at $80 a week.  Otherwise the muralists have worked on their own, surviving, as one of them put it, by “free-lancing and free-loading. “

This background helps explain why San Francisco was ready, when CETA funds became available last year, to pour some of the money (thus far about 11 percent of the city’s CETA allocations) into hiring artists.  There were other fortuitous circum­stances as well.  John Kreidler, a young administrator, who had worked with the Department of Labor and the Office of Management and Budget before dropping out of the Washington scene, happened to be an intern at the San Francisco Art Commission when the CETA program was getting underway.  Kreidler knew how to write proposals, and the head of the city’s manpower office, Eunice Elton, an admirer of the WPA arts projects, knew how to expedite them.

Elton liked the fact that the Art Commission, unlike other city agencies, was small and easy to deal with.  She also relished the idea of producing some visible and lasting creations with the city’s CETA money.  Together the Art Commission and the manpower office worked out a plan to hire 113 artists in two stages.  These would include muralists, painters, ceramists, photographers, filmmakers, archi­tects, poets, playwrights, community historians, musi­cians, dancers, actors, theatrical technicians and gardeners.  They would be given the civil service classification of “curatorial aides,” paid $270 biweekly, and put to work for at least six months.

When notice of the first 24 openings went out last December, there were more than 300 applications; for the 89 jobs announced last month, more than 3,000 people picked up application forms.  The selection process was arduous and painful.  After an initial screening the most qualified applicants were inter­viewed by selection committees made up of staffers from the Art Commission and the manpower office.  “The credentials of almost all the applicants were remarkable,” said one of the interviewers.  “A great number had graduate degrees and excellent portfolios.  Most had been surviving on low-skill jobs, food stamps, unemployment or welfare.  The main thing we looked for, in addition to the quality of their work, was their ability to communicate their skills to other people.  We didn’t just want them to work in studios.  We wanted them to help with workshops, classes, public produc­tions.  We also wanted self-starters, people who’d work with a minimum of supervision.”

WHAT ARE THE ARTISTS doing?  The muralists, who were among the first batch hired, are of course painting murals.  “I’m doing exactly what I was doing before, except I’m getting paid for it,” says Patricia Rodriguez, a member of a three-woman team called Mujeres Muralistas.  Mike Rios, another muralist, says murals could spring up all around San Francisco and “make this a really enchanted place.” One virtue of murals, he adds, is that “they get art out of the museums and private homes, out of the private ownership trip, into the streets where people can experience it again and again.  Dogs and cats, too.”

Also among the first group of artists hired is a ceramist who’s giving pottery classes at a museum; a painter who heads a recycling center that transforms discarded materials into instructional tools; a filmmak­er and a photographer who are documenting the many creative activities in town; and a theatrical technician who helps local drama groups set up their productions.  The second wave of public service artists, just beginning work this month, includes several former members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and a Chinese musical ensemble that also plays jazz.  They, plus assorted other performers, will put on lunch-hour shows in factory areas, on the docks and other places where people work.  Several writers will compile oral his­to­ries of San Francisco’s many ethnic communities.  Architects will help design neigh­borhood cultural centers.  And the poets? “They’ll work with literature teachers, hold workshops for kids in school, organize anthologies of local poetry, and give readings all over the place,” says Roberto Vargas, associate director of the Neighborhood Arts Program and himself a boxer turned poet.  “For example, I’d like to get poetry into the gymnasiums.  There are a lot of boxers in there who are really poets.  Look at Muhammad Ali.”

The gardening project, which will employ twenty people, is an extension of an exist­ing community garden program.  The gardeners will teach children and adults how to build gardens in school yards, housing projects, parks and vacant lots.  “It’s import­ant that people learn how to make compost and grow more of their own food,” says Ruth Asawa, a well-known sculptress who’s been active in city gardening and arts programs for many years.  “City-grown food not only tastes better and fresher, it saves energy used for transportation. “ Asawa sees the CETA program as a long-needed opportunity to demonstrate the social value of creative work.  “We shouldn’t talk about art so much as about making people feel good.  That’s what artists do.  Artists reach people, they involve people, they make us all feel good.  That’s really important, especially as the econo­my gets worse and as work becomes more com­puter­ized and alienating.”

Unlike the old WPA, CETA provides money only for salaries; equipment and sup­plies must be scrounged from other sources.  The other major difference between CETA and the federal arts projects of the 1930s is that CETA is totally decentralized.  This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.  Where local govern­ments are imagin­a­tive, they can spawn truly creative work; where they’re unimaginative, not much will happen.  Seattle now has fifteen openings for artists; Tacoma, Portland and Los Angeles are considering similar projects.  But how many cities have the political cour­age to put artists on the public payroll without curtailing their freedom of expression?

AS UNEMPLOYMENT RISES, Congress is likely to put more money into CETA.  Senators Harrison Williams (D-NJ) and Jacob Javits (R-NY) are pushing a bill to create a million public service jobs at a total cost of $7.8 billion.  Other legislators, as well as President Ford, are calling for smaller though substantial increases in the number of public service jobs.  Whatever the number ultimately approved, a deeper question is: will these jobs merely provide a temporary boost to the economy, or can they have a more lasting impact on the way America puts its citizens to work?

There is much work that could be done to make people feel good, both bodily and in spirit; to make our lives fuller, less dependent on nonrenew­able energy sources and on mass-produced gadgets that pollute our habitat and regularly self-destruct.  Some of this work would fall under the heading of art; all would fall within CETA’s broad definition of public service.  We could, for example, pay people to insulate homes, build and install solar energy equipment, rebuild aging railroad beds, manufacture and operate jitneys and mini-buses, set up free health clinics, and teach us how to reuse much of the junk we throw out.

Up to now, neither private industry nor government has seen fit to compensate large numbers of people for performing this kind of work.  But one of the fringe benefits of a depression is that it allows a country to rethink its work patterns, to release human energies that remain untapped during periods of prosperity.  CETA with the free rein it offers local governments, is one mechanism that might release these energies; others might be created that would rely more on individual initiative than on public agencies.

Sen. Javits, for example, is looking at a Canadian program that permits groups of citizens to design a work project and then seek government funding.  Another plan would allow individuals to take “job vouchers” to the employer of their choice.  Employers collecting the vouchers would be reimbursed by the government and would use the reimbursement to pay the workers’ salary.  In effect the worker would hire the employer and they would mutually design the job.

If imaginative job programs do take root, the final test will be whether they outlast the economic slump.  One is reminded of Lewis Mumford’s plea in this journal (Dec. 30, 1936) at a time when it seemed that the WPA’s Federal Art Program was about to be abandoned: “Can it be said of us that we could afford art when we were, as a nation, in dire need, and that we were ready to make art an outcast and a hanger-on as soon as the income of the country began to rise again?  That is too bitter a paradox for a generous intelligence to accept.”