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White Collar Chokes

White Collar Chokes

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Published by Tschäff Reisberg
Observations from a white collar worker about being supported by the WPA for three years.
Observations from a white collar worker about being supported by the WPA for three years.

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Published by: Tschäff Reisberg on May 07, 2011
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05/07/2011

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THE WHITE COLLAR CHOKES
THREE YEARS OF WPA PROFESSIONAL WORK.
BY GRACE ADAMS
T
HE
news from Washington early lastJune, that Congress would soon in-crease the allotments of the Works Prog-ress Administration, made perplexingreading for those of us who still ding,though now a little hesitantly, to a tradi-tion that was once known quite unam-biguously as "liberal." A person whose"social conscience" is a matter of flexible,humanitarian convictions rather than of fixed party policies could hardly sharethe rabid New Dealers' jubilation overthis "victory" of their principles-for bythen it was becoming plain that manyWPA dollars which had been intended tofeed and clothe the needy had been putto far less worthy uses. Yet no one whosememory of the bleak early years of thedepression was still clear could join witha dear' conscience in the bitter denunci-ations of the financial Tories-for point-ing that memory and keeping it sharp wasthe thought of some million desperate,but once proud and competent men andwomen who were destitute by 1935 andwho might still, but for the generous ges-ture of a benevolent government, be sub-sisting meagerly and shamefully uponmunicipal charity.Perhaps WPA funds have been spentinefficiently, perhaps in some localitiesWP A officials are not unlearned in politi-cal chicanery; still it was "primarily" forthe benefit of the "skilled" and "profes-sional" persons who had been "deprivedof their means of livelihood by forces be-yond their control" that the basic the-ories of WP A, as opposed to those of allother relief agencies, were firstpromul-gated. And whenever during the pastthree topsy-turvy economic years the cryhas gone up from'those who must eventu-ally pay their bills that the "white-collarprojects" have been needlessly expensive,there have come from 'Washington suchreassurances as these:"We think our projects are worthwhileand that the people who are working onthem may take a workman's proper pridein their achievement. . . . If the men areto
b " e
given useful, productive work inwhich they may take a genuine satisfac-tion, money must be provided for equip-ment and materials. . . . Our primaryconcern has been with the workers them-selves ... maintaining their morale andskills."Now, to a kindhearted, liberal-mindedperson actually doing useful and produc-tive work of which he can be genuinelyproud-that is, to one who still derives hislivelihood from that free, splendid worldknown to WP A workers, often only byhearsay, as "private industry"-these fewsimple sentences make good sense. Theyalso seem ample justification for anyblunders and extravagances that an or-ganization so huge and so experimentalmay perpetrate. But to the white-collarproject worker himself, automaticallysigning his identification number to atime sheet four times a day and furtivelycashing his ear-marked emergency relief check once a week, such words as "pro-
 
THE WHITE COLLAR CHOKESductive," "useful," "genuine," "skill,""achievement," "morale," and "pride"evoke a disturbing and nostalgic emotion-the same feeling that comes to himwhen he happens to remember the homethat he mortgaged or the possessions thathe pawned in the hope that he would soonbe a self-supporting citizen once more.The white-collar relief worker remem-bers the year of 1935 too-and the fivepinched and despairing years that wentbefore it-much more lastingly than therest of us do. He remembers the be-wildered wonder with which he readthose first heartening dispatches comingout from Washington and realized thatthe national government was preparingto do for him the one thing that at thattime no past employer, no well-meaningrelative, no local charity was able to do.It was-going to make him an "independ-cnt" and a "useful" citizen once more.It was going to see that whatever apti-tudes he possessed should not becomefinally dulled through disuse, and thatthe last remnants of his self-respect shouldno longer be tattered by the regretful re-fusals of employment agencies and thegrudging concessions of relief investiga-tors. He was going to be allowed towork again. He was going to be given a job so well worth doing that the govern-ment itself was ready to pay him "goingwages" to perform it.It turned out though that after he hadtramped dazedly from one hastily assem-bled WPA officeto another, answered thesame questions over and over again, stoodimpatiently in line for days, and waitedanxiously at home for weeks, he was notgiven a job at all. He was given a slip oflimsy paper containing a complex nu-meral, which he learned to call a "dog-tag" but which was known officially as aProject Assignment Number.
In
case the distinction between a joband a project assignment seems as obscureand unimportant to the person who readsabout it to-day as it did to the projectassignee himself three years ago, that dis-tinction must be made clear. No onewho does not understand it can possibly475understand the unique position of thewhite-collar WP A worker or the most sig-nificant and obvious factors concerninghim-why he is a favorite target for bothradio jokes and communistic propagandaand why also private industry even in itscomparatively recuperative months, dur-ing 1936 and 1937, persistently refused tore-employ him. Behind the technic owork-by-projects lies a definite philoso-phy, quickly discernible to anyone famil-iar with the trends which Americanpedagogy and psychiatry have followedduring the past three decades. Behind ittoo lies the compromise of one of the mosthumanitarian of all utopian dreams withthe immediate exigencies of politics andeconomics.
II
The dream-which according to rumorcame to Mr. Harry Hopkins and Mr .Aubrey Williams simultaneously in a din-ing car of the Pennsylvania Railroad-was that the money which the RooseveltAdministration was prepared to spend inhelping industry to recover could be morewidely distributed by diverting it, tempo-rarily, to the altogether worthy purposeof "maintaining the morale and skills" of the most deserving among the nation'sunemployed. The national governmentwould interview its jobless men andwomen, determine the type of work theycould do best, and pay them for perform-ing just such work until private industry,through the impetus given it by thespending of their salaries, would be readyto re-employ them.The realities with which this dream hashad to contend have been so numerousthat few were understood until the worksprogram was well under way; many havenot become clear to WPA officials evennow. The greatest, however, was appar-ent before the original idea was put be-fore Congress.The aptitudes of the unemployed hadbeen as various as the industries and pro-fessions that had once employed them.They hadbeen salesmen, justices of thepeace, paperhangers, electricians, school-
 
476
HARPER'S MONTHLY MAGAZINE
teachers, dentists, real estate agents, milli-ners, machine operators, tailors, furriers,actors, plumbers, plasterers, clergymen,architects, butchers, officemanagers, com-mercial travelers, reporters, nurses, weld-ers, barbers, dressmakers, laundrymen,and everything else that several milliononce self-supporting individuals couldhave been. To have kept all ofthem pro-ficient at the only trades they knew theAdministration would have had to gointo business with a vengeance and be-come a rich and suffocating rival of thevery industries it was attempting to re-vive. This was obviously impossible.So the first requirement for relief work wasthat it should in no waycompete withany other work then being done through-out the nation. The unemployed wereto be put back to work-but at taskswhich, by commercial and narrowly prac-tical standards, should be valueless.With the manual laborers this require-ment raised no great difficulties. Inevery community throughout the nationthere were roads that needed leveling,parks that needed sprucing up, publicbuildings that needed improvements.So during 1935 almost two million per-sons, in large cities as well as countryneighborhoods, were set to work withrake and shovel and trowel. And therefor the purpose of this article they mustbe left-to the ministrations of the politi-cians and the mercies of the cartoonists;for like the originators of the WPA pro-gram our "primary" concern is with thesevenhundred thousand men and womenwho during the past three yearshave beenemployed on white-collar projects."We don't think," said administratorAubrey Williams, "a good musicianshould be asked to turn second-rate la-borer in order that a sewer may be laidfor relative permanency rather than aconcert given for the momentary pleas-ure of our people." And neither, byimplication and WPA's specific design,should anyone who had evermanipulateda slide rule or carried a brief case orpounded a typewriter or served goods orfood acrossa counter, be asked to performthe only kind of work that in our day isknown as "manual."Intellectually this was a high ideal.Yet considered in strictly practical terms,what exactly is "work" whose ultimateobjective is neither permanency, normonetary value, but momentary pleasure?It is not, as'WPA'smost callous critics in-sist on calling it, plain loafing. It is ex-actly what the WPAofficialshave officiallydesignated it-a "cultural project."Though theseofficialshave made "proj-ect" one of the most commonly usednouns in our contemporary vocabulary, itwas not they who first took this word,which for centuries had referred, and bydefinition should refer, to an indefinitefuture, and by persistent repetition madeit descriptive of activities already per-formed. This had been done for themby the designers of that most typicallyAmerican of pedagogical philosophies-progressive education.When the fortunate youngsters of thenewer education imitate for their transi-tory enjoyment, and under the benevo-lent guidance of their teachers, the ac-tions which their elders execute for moreremote and ulterior ends-daubing withpaints, modeling with clay, organizingtoy bands, printing two-page newspapers,building make-believe boats, and drama-tizing their own imaginative thoughts-they are never described asaccomplishingindividual tasks; they are always said tobe working collectively upon a project.And so are the seven hundred thousandmen and women in WPA's professionaldivision, whether their activities concernpainting murals, asking housewives abouttheir budgets, taking measurements of historical buildings, making scrapbooksof the Sunday rotogravures, acting incircuses, playing in dance orchestras, orcompiling bibliographies and translatingscientific treatises that no commercialpublisher will ever print.Some activities such as band concertsand vaudeville performances lend them-selves naturally to the project methodand, therefore, seem to be carried on un-der WPA sponsorship in the same way

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