The Lasting Values of the WPA
by Ellen S. Woodward, WPA Assistant Administrator in charge of the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects
No one can better appreciate the lasting values of the work relief program than we women, for its results affect primarily that which is closest to our hearts–the home.
Every time a man is taken from the demoralizing ranks of the jobless, every time a woman is removed from the humiliation of a breadline, and given work to do, a home somewhere becomes more secure.
This, in a word, is the first aim of the Works Progress Administration: To put destitute people to work at familiar tasks, that their moral fibre may not be undermined and their hopes and ambitions killed, by the forced acceptance of public charity in the form of a dole.
No one, better than a woman, understands the importance to a Nation of preserving its human resources. The proverb, “What profit it a man that he gain the whole world, if he lose his own soul,” may well be paraphrased to read “What profit it a nation to keep its budget balanced if it lose its own life blood–the courage and integrity of its people?”
Obviously, that courage and integrity cannot be fostered on a permanent diet of public dole!
It was with this truth in mind, that President Roosevelt conceived the fundamental idea of a work relief program as an alternative to the dole. It is with this in mind that the Works Progress Administration has labored unceasingly this past year at the titanic task of finding jobs for nearly 4,000,000 of the nation’s jobless who were stagnating on relief. How well the aim has been achieved is shown in the latest figures on work relief employment. On March 7th there were over 3,300,000 men and women at work on the entire program, most of them on the 70,000 WPA projects selected.
This job-finding task has been accomplished only by keeping all other considerations secondary to this single aim of finding projects in each community which could be accomplished with the man-power or woman-power available from the relief rolls of the particular community in which they live.
This aim has been stated repeatedly, yet, there still remains wide-spread misunderstanding of the basic idea behind WPA and how it operates. And this misunderstanding is responsible for much of the adverse–wholly uninformed–criticism hurled broadside at the WPA.
It is particularly important, it seems to me, for the responsible women of the country to understand, not only the philosophy of the works program, but more specifically the character of the projects designed to give employment to women, for unfortunately, it is this class of project which is receiving some of the most vitriolic and uncalled-for criticism.
Before discussing in detail the projects employing women, I want to emphasize one point. No WPA project in your community or in any other community of the forty-eight states, was planned or selected by administrative officials in Washington, except a vary few which are applicable nationally. All other projects are selected, approved and sponsored by local officials or local bodies before they are presented for approval to the State WPA Administrator who in turn submits the proposed project to Washington.
Projects are chosen, as I have indicated, always with the thought uppermost that the specific community has a definite number of specific people to be taken from the relief rolls and put to work, and that they can do this or that type of work.
If your community has no bricklayers or carpenters in need of employment, obviously a construction project requiring much skilled brickwork or carpentry would fail to meet the requirement.
In planning a project to supply jobs for unemployed women, by the same token, the yardstick would scarcely be the needs of the highway or sewerage departments. Widows, school teachers, nurses, and dieticians cannot be put to work digging ditches.
Yet, when some destitute widows whose only training had been in the daily routine of household tasks, were given jobs as “housekeepers’ assistants”, and were sent to the homes of poor people in one of our large Metropolitan cities, to assist with the housework during a mother’s illness or absence, loud were the jeers and cries of “boondoggling.”
Ignoring the primary object of this particular project–to give work to women who sorely needed it–and distorting the secondary aim, to give them something useful to do within their own community; the editors of hostile newspapers branded “housekeepers’ assistants” as “government meddlers in the proper business of the mothers of the land.”
The facts of one of the cases specifically cited were these: a mother who had several small children to care for had fallen ill. The father of the family, who had just begun work on a new job–after months of idleness–was faced with the problem of neglecting either his family in their distress or his job. He had no money to pay for a trained nurse. His plight came to the attention of a WPA supervisor of the “housekeepers’ aid” project, and a woman was sent to his home to nurse his wife and see that the children were properly clothed and fed until she could again resume her duties.
Is this a useless waste of public money? Is not such a service as this–giving new hope and interest to the woman needing employment and saving that family from disintegration and despair–of lasting value to the community? If healthy families and happy homes are a permanent result, there is but one answer!
I have cited this one, rather extreme example, to illustrate my point that the jobs must fit the people to be employed, and that beyond this, the jobs are in themselves, useful and worthwhile. Lasting values cannot always be computed in terms of cash. The fact that over 400,000 women have been shifted from relief rolls to jobs has permanent value to the nation, quite aside from the tangible benefits to be reaped from their tasks. Of course the vast majority of these women are heads of families.
Getting back to the program as a whole, who can best judge whether this work is better than the dole, and whether useful and needed work is being done? I submit that the mayors of our cities are more intimately and responsibly concerned with employment and destitution than any other group of public officials in America.
The United States Conference of Mayors recently asked these questions of the chief executives of 100 cities, with a total population of 25 million, The answer, regardless of political creed, was unanimous and emphatic. It was that the people on relief prefer to work for what they get, and that the fruits of this program are of vast and lasting benefit to local communities.
The so-called “white collar projects” of which most of the women’s work is a part, comprise less than 20% of the entire 70,000 selected so far, Eighty one per cent, to be exact, of all the projects are construction projects, which include the construction and repair of highways, secondary roads, streets, water and sewerage systems, levees, public buildings, playgrounds and parks.
Not even the most unimaginative man could dispute the “permanent value” of such works as these!
Nor indeed, could he fail to see the value of many of the so-called boondoggles or white collar projects, if he knew what they were all about. There are book-binding projects, for instance, engaging hundreds of persons of both sexes, in the useful task of adding actual dollars and cents to the local and county treasuries by extending the lives of thousands of books in schools and Public Libraries.
In 23 states there are projects for the instruction and aid of the blind, the value of which could not begin to be estimated on cost sheets. Women workers predominate on most of these projects, and it is largely the labor of blind or partially blind women who might otherwise have been permanent charges on community relief rolls.
In our work with women, we have a two-fold objective; first, to employ these women on projects according to their skills, and second, to train and retrain them so that through new or increased skills they can earn a livelihood in private employment or run better homes.
More than 65% of all the women in this program are at work in sewing rooms, making garments, quilts and other necessary articles for local needy people. The things they produce constitute substantial savings in local Community Chest and other relief budgets, while they themselves are becoming better seamstresses, designers, cutters. They also are trained one hour each day in a wide range of other household arts.
In the hot, school-lunch projects, women who were on relief are earning a living wage cooking and serving hot lunches to undernourished children. Increased school attendance, added weight and better physical condition of the children are immediate results. Already school authorities in some states are planning to carry on this program at the conclusion of WPA.
WPA library projects have established reading rooms in isolated rural areas and city slum sections where books were never before available. Frequently these libraries also have become community work and recreation centers, with fine and able women from the relief rolls providing remarkable leadership.
The quality of this leadership may be judged by a Home Service Center project in Texas. Here a graduate Home Economist, a registered Red Cross nurse, a music conservatory graduate, an expert accountant and others–all women from relief–trained 150 “visiting home aides” to take a weekly lesson on food, health, clothing, and family budgets to mothers of 1,500 underprivileged families.
I might cite you reams of figures on the extent and effectiveness of nursing service projects under ERA and WPA.
These nurses concentrate on prevention of communicable diseases, maternity cases, health supervision of infants and school children, examination of tuberculars, child health conferences, immunization clinics.
Turning once more, from the human or social aspects of the work relief program to cold, economic facts, we see one readily apparent economic value. That is the benefit to general business conditions resulting from the money released into circulation from the workers’ payrolls.
Of prime importance is the fact that this money is being spent immediately and locally. It is the fastest-moving money in America. The aim of the WPA, of course, has been to distribute as large a proportion of every dollar as possible in direct wages to labor. On the basis of approved projects in this program, $.77 of every Federal dollar goes to labor, but, there remains $.23 to be expended on materials, supplies, equipment and miscellaneous costs.
A certain per cent of every dollar spent on these materials and equipment of course, goes to other workers employed in the manufacturing, mining or processing of these goods. And every dollar started into circulation adds to the sum total of State and national financial recovery.
There is also a thought for the future in assisting these people to work at the vocations which were once their private livelihood. The unemployables of tomorrow spring from the unemployed of today. From being unable to get steady work, the unemployed often become unable to work. They are robbed of their skills by sheer lack of opportunity to practice them
To sum up, then, both the social and economic values of the works program:
In addition to the fact that needy women have found employment on projects which are improving their training in professional and industrial skills or for the all-important job of homemaker, their service has given 1,900,000 undernourished children of needy families a daily meal on the school lunch program and improved their physical condition. The vast public health nursing program her, helped 2,600,000 children. Home visits have reached 3,500,000 homes. Nursing schools have given a better start in life to thousands of tiny tots of preschool age. We recognize the social value of the youth program which has enabled thousands of young people to finish high school and college, and has given thousands of others a chance to put their college training into practical use on some worthwhile project. Nor do we miss the significance of opening up to thousands of illiterate and unschooled, the hitherto unknown world of books, or of projects which are teaching thousands of isolated people to forget toil and hardship and to beat through the shell of shyness and reticence, to learn how to play and sing together in our community recreational centers.
Despite the fact that the needs of specific flesh-and-blood human beings had primary consideration, and projects as such were secondary, hundreds of thousands of miles of roads and streets have been and are being built. Aviation is being spurred by 334 new and improved airports. Great dams, levees, many miles of sewer and drainage systems and five or six thousand public buildings other than schools are on the list. So are thousands of parks, playgrounds and community centers, advances in chemical research, restoration of historic buildings, important archeological discoveries, and location and preservation of valuable historical records.
Every woman has a vital interest in the improvement of school facilities, and in this field, 7,500 projects for school construction or improvement have been approved. I think it is safe to say that there is hardly a county in the United States which is not represented with some school improvement project, from actual new construction to repairs on old buildings and equipment.
These are some of the actual, tangible things which will endure long after the misunderstanding of this program, and we hope, the need for it, have disappeared. The value of this contribution to our well-being is incalculable in dollars and cents.
Source: Woodward, Ellen S., Speech, “Lasting Values of the WPA,” National Archives, WPA Papers, Record Group 69, Series 737, Box 8, http://newdeal.feri.org/texts/499.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org, (September 30, 2014).