By Peggy Amsterdam

Sens. John McCain and Tom Coburn recently criticized how some of the federal stimulus money has been spent. They took specific aim at several National Endowment for the Arts grants for arts employment across the country, highlighting two Philadelphia-based groups, Pig Iron Theatre Co. and Spiral Q Puppet Theater.

The $25,000 grant for Spiral Q supported a portion of the salary of the organization's production manager. The $25,000 grant for Pig Iron allowed it to retain the position of associate artistic director and to fund actors' salaries for its world-premiere production of Welcome to Yuba City.

Were the grants worth it?

Well, Welcome to Yuba City played to sold-out crowds and received uniformly outstanding reviews. The Northern Liberties neighborhood, where the show took place, was bustling with activity, including collateral spending at restaurants by the thousands of people who attended.

Meanwhile, Spiral Q's grant supported a position responsible for teacher training, internships, neighborhood parades, and other educational programs. Tracy Broyles, Spiral Q's executive director, said that without the grant, the theater would have had to lay off its production manager and reduce arts-education programming by 50 percent - at a time when there is increasing demand for educational resources from teachers, principals, and community groups serving children in low-income neighborhoods.

These arts organizations pay real wages and provide real health insurance to a group of people who face the same economic challenges as the rest of us. These are our neighbors, and they have mortgages, car payments, and college expenses. And their organizations' activities support other workers in the economy, such as plumbers, carpenters, lawyers, and accountants.

Artists need and deserve work, just as all Americans do. And their industry is a key engine in our economic recovery. More than 5.7 million jobs in this country are generated by the nonprofit arts sector, and that work touches and enriches the lives of all Americans.

The NEA grants represent just 2 cents of every $100 of stimulus money being spent by the federal government. You might debate the value of government job creation - or any job creation - but these jobs represent a tiny fraction of our overall expenditures for that purpose. And it's foolish to suggest that this isn't real work - or that it's unworthy of support from a program established specifically for job creation.