Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was instituted by presidential executive order under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of April 1935, to generate public jobs for the unemployed. The WPA was restructured in 1939 when it was reassigned to the Federal Works Agency.

By 1936 over 3.4 million people were employed on various WPA programs. Administered by Harry Hopkins and furnished with an original congressional allocation of $4.8 billion, the WPA made work accessible to the unemployed on an unparalleled scale by disbursing funds for an extensive array of programs. Hopkins argued that although the work relief program was more costly than direct relief payments, it was worth it. He averred, "Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit."

While responsibility for such unemployable people as children, the elderly, and the handicapped was remanded to the states, the WPA provided literally millions of jobs to employable people, enrolling on average about two million a year during its eight-year stint. Far fewer women were enrolled than men. Just 13.5 percent of WPA employees were women in 1938, its top enrollment year.

The WPA was charged with selecting projects that would make a real and lasting contribution — but would not vie with private firms. As it turned out, the "pump-priming" effect of federal projects actually stimulated private business during the Depression years. The WPA focused on tangible improvements: During its tenure, workers constructed 651,087 miles of roads, streets and highways; and built, repaired or refurbished 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks, and 853 landing fields. In addition, workers cleaned slums, revived forests, and extended electrical power to rural locations.

Work was provided for nearly a million students through the WPA National Youth Administration (NYA). The Federal One projects employed 40,000 artists and other cultural workers to produce music and theater, sculptures, murals and paintings, state and regional travel guides, and surveys of national archives. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a program designed to address the problem of jobless young men aged between 18 and 25 years old. CCC camps were set up all around the country.

The WPA`s positive results for the public good and its popularity helped Franklin D. Roosevelt to garner a thumping electoral victory in 1936, even though the agency employed no more than about 25 percent of the nation`s jobless.

Meanwhile, New Deal critics in Congress accused the program of waste, political maneuvering, and even subversive activity; they took their chance to prune the program when unemployment figures dipped a little in 1937. When unemployment rose again the following year, funding was brought back to previous levels. However, 1939 saw more cutbacks. The Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of June 30 eliminated the Federal Theater Project, cut back WPA pay and limited enrollment to 18 months. Reacting to charges of politicking by WPA employees during the 1938 congressional races, the Hatch Act of August 1939 prevented federal workers from participating in a broad array of political activities.

With wartime prosperity rising in the 1940s, the WPA became more difficult to justify, and on June 30, 1943 the agency was terminated by presidential proclamation. All told, the WPA had employed more than 8,500,000 individuals on 1,410,000 projects with an average salary of $41.57 a month, and had spent about $11 billion.

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The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America by Mark Kurlansky.
Award-winning New York Times-bestselling author Mark Kurlansky takes us back to the food and eating habits of a younger America: Before the national h...
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor.
If you’ve traveled the nation’s highways, flown into New York’s LaGuardia Airport, strolled San Antonio’s River Walk, or seen the Pacific Ocean from t...