Commentators about the public works programs proposed by President-elect Barack Obama have missed the programs' civic potential.
A look at earlier such programs -- especially those of the 1930s, the era of government activism most often invoked as precedent for our time -- challenges today's dominant views of the New Deal, of the role of government and of citizenship as community service. Revival of public-work citizenship could create a signature for a new administration as important as improvements in the nation's infrastructure.
The iconic statement of modern liberalism is the Roosevelt Memorial, a monument to the New Deal that opened in 1997 on the Washington Mall. It includes two sculptures by the late George Segal of ordinary citizens. In "Rural Couple," a woman sits on a rocking chair with a man beside her. Nearby, "The Breadline" portrays men in an urban environment. Both convey a view of government's relationship to the people: Government is problem-solver and rescuer. In both statues, citizens are drained of energy. Their faces are vacant. Their posture droops. Lawrence Halprin, the memorial's architect, said that he wanted to convey how "FDR faced challenges and was able to effect solutions."
It is not a stretch to see in the memorial the citizenship of today's service society. The idea that the "best and the brightest" serve a deficient populace plays itself out in service projects each year as college students work to help those they see as needy.
Citizenship as public work represents a different civic tradition, one based on respect for the productive potential of everyone, regardless of income or education. The emphasis is on work, not service. The men and women in public work programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), involving more than 3 million young men in conservation projects, acted out of practical self-interests, not high ideals. They wanted jobs. But work also carried distinctive civic overtones. As people made a commonwealth of public goods, they became a commonwealth of citizens, able to apply civic muscle to public projects.
Public work brought people together across differences. As Al Hammer told Nan Kari and me in an interview for our book "Building America," "The CCC got people like me out into the public. It gave me a chance to meet and work with people different than me from all over the country -- farm boys, city boys, mountain boys, all worked together."
Public work was civically educative in other ways. C.H. Blanchard observed that "the CCC enrollees feel a part-ownership as citizens in the forest that they have seen improve through the labor of their hands." Participants also often developed a sense of public purpose. Scott Leavitt of the Forest Service explained that "there has come to the boys of the Corps a dawning understanding of the inspiring and satisfying fact that they are taking an integral and indispensable part in a great program vitally essential to the welfare, possibly even to the ultimate existence, of this country."
Public-work programs were part of many efforts to activate civic energies during the Great Depression. These ranged from unionization of the auto industry to civil-rights struggles, from cultural work in film and theater to rural electrification and projects to halt soil erosion.
These efforts extended far beyond government, but government programs were catalytic, a pattern displayed in New Deal for the Arts, an exhibit (now online) that opened in the National Archives in 1997, about the same time as the Roosevelt Memorial. The exhibit celebrates the cultural work of thousands of writers, sculptors, musicians, photographers, painters and others in government programs. Cultural work provided jobs but also conveyed a message of hope and collective agency that signaled a shift in conventional wisdom. "The people," seen by intellectuals in the 1920s as the repository of crass materialism and parochialism, were rediscovered as the source of civic creativity. "The heart and soul of our country," said Franklin Roosevelt, "is the common man."
After a generation of civic erosion -- what scholar Robert Putnam calls bowling alone -- we badly need to regrow civic muscle for collective action. If the Obama administration designs its programs with civic purposes in mind -- including, for instance, infrastructure that builds civic hubs in communities, and adding citizenship education, once featured in the CCC -- new public-work programs could provide fertile ground.
Harry C. Boyte, author of "The Citizen Solution," is a senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute. He was cochairman of the civic engagement subcommittee in the Obama campaign.