When Work Relief was Murder

August 31, 2010
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Work relief on a scale as massive as the WPA struck Americans of the 1930s with numbed amazement – it was radically bigger than any such effort up to then. It immediately triggered appalled reactions in essays, radio, fiction and pop music. Tunesmiths already riffed on the plight of unemployment, but with the WPA came songs like “Pink-Slip Blues” (the original ‘pink slips’ were the bureaucratic notices that told workers their time on WPA relief was up) and “WPA Blues.”
    Louis Armstrong teamed up with the Mills Brothers to record “W.P.A.” with the classic lines, “Sleep while you work while you rest while you play/Lean on your shovel to pass the time away…/The WPA.”
    In fiction, what better way to sell a novel than by combining a timely topic with a whodunit? That at least was the idea of the 1937 novel by Alexander Williams titled Murder in the WPA. In that, a bewildered agent is told to find out who killed a WPA supervisor in New Jersey. As the plot unfolds, it reveals many suspects: disgruntled employees (some who got the pink slip), political rivals, and more.
    Political cartoons skewered the WPA at every turn. Studs Terkel recalls in Soul of a People how Chicago Tribune cartoons on the front page mocked WPA workers as boondogglers, a term for thumb-twiddling taken from old westerns. If the humiliation and stress of being out of work wasn’t enough for you, just pick up the newspaper.

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