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Richard Walker

Richard Walker

The people of West Virginia must be puzzled by the behavior of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has thrown a monkey wrench into President Joe Biden’s effort to get his ambitious Build Back Better legislation through Congress.

Manchin has denounced the $3.5 trillion package as a “reckless expansion of government programs.”

Yet, many West Virginians favor what’s in Biden’s package, such as roads and bridges, child care and maternity leave, Medicare for glasses, hearing aids and dental care, and holding down prescription drug prices.

So, who’s right — the people of this state or their reluctant senator?

History provides an answer.

Biden’s Build Back Better plan has often been compared to President Franklin Roosevelt’s federal programs in the 1930s, called “The New Deal.” The New Deal was much more than Social Security for the elderly and economic recovery from the Great Depression. In particular, it put millions of unemployed Americans to work rebuilding their communities, restoring degraded farmlands and forests, and modernizing the country for the 20th century.

The New Deal transformed the landscape of every American county, state and territory, by means of tens of thousands of public works projects. Many federal agencies were involved, such as the Public Works Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.

They worked hand in hand with local governments to fund and build what communities needed, using local construction companies and jobless men and women.

West Virginia was a huge beneficiary of the New Deal. The federal government gave the state millions of dollars in aid during the 1930s and put 200,000 unemployed West Virginians to work. The Living New Deal project — which is documenting and mapping New Deal projects across the United States — has located more than 250 public works sites in West Virginia that were made possible through Roosevelt’s plan. Hundreds more remain to be discovered.

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The array of improvements to the Mountain State is staggering: firehouses, courthouses and post offices; parks, playgrounds and pools; streets, roads and bridges; public housing and planned communities; airports and hospitals; schools and college buildings; dams and lakes; telephone, power and sewer lines. These were long-term investments, many of which are still paying dividends.

Some notable New Deal projects still in use in West Virginia include Lost River State Park, Tygart Valley Dam, Cacapon State Park, the Morgantown airport, Charleston’s South Side Bridge, a restored Fort Ashby, Droop Mountain Battlefield Park, entire communities (Tygart Valley Homesteads, Arthurdale and Eleanor), and buildings on the West Virginia University and West Virginia State University campuses.

In West Virginia, the WPA alone created or upgraded 20,500 miles of roads, 1,700 bridges, 30,000 culverts, 1,600 schools, 158 playgrounds and athletic fields, 300 miles of sewers and 28,000 feet of runways. Just as important were the WPA’s service projects, which produced 5.2 million articles of clothing, served 29 million school lunches and helped tens of thousands get health care.

Ironically, Manchin praises the New Deal’s efforts in West Virginia on his official website. He singles out the achievements of the Rural Electrification Administration, which extended low-cost electricity to every corner of the Mountain State. Manchin views the REA as a model for bringing internet service to his state today.

Why, then, does he want to nickel-and-dime Biden’s infrastructure and service programs?

In fact, the New Deal was a much greater expansion of federal spending, relative to its time, than Biden’s Build Back Better. That is, $3.5 trillion represents only 1.2% of the nation’s total income over the next 10 years, while the New Deal’s $41.7 billion in federal spending was close to 5% of national income in the 1930s. Was it, therefore, reckless?

The good senator needs only to look around his own state to witness the immense contribution of the New Deal to the well-being of his constituents.

It’s hard to say how many West Virginians remember the Roosevelt era or are aware of the legacy it left them. Nevertheless, they clearly have a better sense than Manchin of what’s possible when the federal government makes a concerted effort to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

Richard Walker is director of the Living New Deal Project and professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written widely on economic development, urban geography and U.S. history.

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