Breezy but well-considered account of the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal’s signature jobs program.
Taylor (Laser: The Inventor, the Nobel Laureate, and the Thirty-Year Patent War, 2000, etc.) writes popular history, which means that academics may find his fast-paced narrative lacking in complex ideas. He peppers descriptions of major policy clashes with profiles of destitute people whose lives were literally saved by going on the workforce program. The book is filled with plucky, fast-talking characters who by dint of charm and grit pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to participate in the nationwide effort to put the jobless to work. Taylor’s principal hero is Harry Hopkins, the tireless, charismatic FDR aide who steamrolled bureaucratic opposition to get the WPA up and running, then saw it through to the end, at the expense of his health and personal political ambitions, until it was ultimately derailed by the onset of World War II. The author paints a colorful, compelling picture of how miserable life was for most Americans after the stock market crash of 1929; his portrait of government competence and visionary goals contrasts pointedly with the radically restricted ambitions of today’s politicians. He gives airtime to critics who found the WPA anti-business and anti-American, who invented the term “boondoggle” to describe the government’s sometimes wasteful methods for getting people back to work. He also shows those voices drowned out by the concerns of starving citizens and reminds us that the WPA built some of the nation’s most beloved pieces of infrastructure, from San Francisco’s Cow Palace to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Readable and vividly rendered—a near-definitive account of one of the most massive government interventions into domestic affairs in American history.