Photo © Chad Ress

When it comes to President Obama’s domestic policy, healthcare reform gets all the attention while Obama’s other main achievement, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — better known as “the stimulus” — is often dismissed by the president’s opponents and supporters alike. Although as much as $150 billion of the $831 billion stimulus was expected to be spent on infrastructure improvements, most people have no idea where the stimulus money went. In a recent photo essay, photographer Chad Ress followed the money to shed some light on those public works. Many of the stimulus projects helped to provide construction jobs while adhering to high environmental and energy-efficiency standards.

Cedar Gateway, San Diego, Silber Architects, affordable housing, stimulus, ARRD, Chad RessPhoto © Chad Ress

The federal government has been very transparent in how it spends stimulus money, outlining expenditures on But the best way to show people exactly where those stimulus dollars have gone is to go out and photograph the public works — big and small — and Ress did just that. In a feature for Harper’s Magazine, Ress’ photos are paired with an article written by Ian Volner, who explains why those stimulus projects aren’t easily identifiable.

Instead of focusing on big signature projects, like the Hoover Dam, that the president could hang his hat (or his campaign) on, the Obama administration targeted ‘shovel-ready’ projects that could get people working right away. As a result, there aren’t many new buildings that people recognize as “stimulus buildings.” As Volner points out in his Harper’s story, the construction projects that are easiest to identify as stimulus projects are road and bridge construction works, because they’ve been marked with those bright orange ARRA signs. “But that also means that the strongest association most Americans have with ARRA is a traffic jam,” Volner observes.

What Ress found are projects like the installation of solar panels on Alcatraz Island, the construction of Cedar Gateway, an impressive affordable housing project in San Diego, and the restoration of wetlands in Huntington Beach, CA, to name a few. Elsewhere, he captured images of workers placing boulders on a grassy hill in California to prevent environmental destruction caused by illegal ATV use. The stimulus also helped to pay for the Second Avenue subway in NYC and stimulus money will help to build a high-speed rail line in California, and the stimulus spent about $90 billion wind, solar and other clean energy projects around the country.

“On the individual level the void between paying your taxes and the where, why and how these funds are spent is quite large, and in many ways is now partly understood only in the abstract sense,” explains Ress. “On some level the human scale has been lost. This project was, in part, about depicting this void and presenting it on a scale more relatable to the individual. With this project, I’m asking these questions: How do abstract political processes manifest themselves in our daily lives? And can this process be represented visually?”

The stimulus wasn’t perfect; some economists — most notable Paul Krugman — have argued that it wasn’t ambitious enough to get the job done. But the real failing of the stimulus was that it has been kept such a secret.

+ Chad Ress

Via Harper’s, Time and the Wall Street Journal