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NYS Lawmakers Envision State-Level WPA Program To Inspire Economic Comeback

Pat Fahy
WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Assemblymember Pat Fahy at the Albany Institute of History and Art. (2017)

With the U.S. economy in tatters, two New York state lawmakers have come up with a plan inspired by the economic crisis brought by the Great Depression.
109th district Assemblywoman Pat Fahy, a Democrat, says the Great Depression included the country’s longest period of unemployment; above 14 percent from 1931 to 1940. She notes that today, unemployment is in the 15 percent range as a result of the economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with small businesses bearing the brunt of the fallout. She says small businesses have also suffered as a result of violent protests stemming from the death of George Floyd.

"The University of Chicago just two weeks ago estimated that 42 percent of the jobs lost under the pandemic will not be coming back. To me that's one of the most jaw-dropping statistics I have seen."

Credit Library of Congress
1940 WPA poster using Little Miss Muffet to promote reading among children.

With 17 million Americans now jobless, 2 million of them in New York, according to Fahy, she and fellow Democrat Senator Rachel May of the 53rd district, are borrowing a page from FDR's old playbook. They aim to create a Works Progress Administration, a short-term public jobs and works program to put unemployed New Yorkers back to work, specifially targeting...  "Low income, low wage workers, youth again, the milennials and younger, as well as people of color. One statistic on this: 39 percent, that is the share, 39 percent of working people who earn less than $40,000 a year have lost their jobs or were furloghed in March/April. That compares to 13 percent of households earning over $100,000."

According to Fahy’s office, roughly $92 billion in today’s dollars was invested in infrastructure and cultural projects in the 1930s. At its peak, the WPA employed nearly 3 million people, and the impact is still felt today in parks, infrastructure, and art.

Fahy envisions the NY WPA "as part of a multi-pronged solution to multi-pronged problems" including: the COVID economic upheaval, social unrest, and unemployment.

The bill's co-sponsor Senator May represents central New York.

"We have beautiful parks and buildings and infrastructure projects to thank the WPA for, and now, in the 21st century, if we have a new WPA it will employ people in the same way in meaningful jobs of lasting value. As in the 1930's we have to marshall government resources to boost employment, and this bill can position us to do it strategically so that we can improve our long-term resilience and our quality of life."

May and Fahy envision programs modeled after WPA initiatives that paired creative Americans with the country’s rich culture at a time of intense need.

Maureen Sager is Director of the Upstate Alliance for the Economy.

"The thing that these original WPA projects did the same thing. That investemnt in artists led to the Abstract Impressionist movement, which put New York at the cultural forefront of the world. It remains there."

The bill also calls for mobilizing a new federal green workforce to enable projects like constructing sea walls, building renewable energy infrastructure, and restoring habitats to benefit both the economy and the planet. Fahy says the legislative session wraps up Wednesday and then lawmakers will wait on the federal government to act. She adds "some speculate state legislators will be back in Albany in July either way."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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