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The Works Progress Administration
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This entry is a composite of material from several sources. The WPA was the most important public works program ever implemented in the U.S.A.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by Executive Order #7034 on May 6, 1935. President Roosevelt had the authority for this Executive Order via the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. The WPA was created to offer direct government employment to the jobless. The unemployment rate was about 20% at the time the WPA was created. The WPA lasted until June 30, 1943. The unemployment rate then was possibly below 2%, with many Americans working in the armed services, defense industries, etc. The WPA–during it’s 8 years of existence–employed over 8.5 million different Americans, and reached peak employment of over 3.3 million in late 1938.
In 1943, it was said: “Never before in the history of the human race has a public works program, whose principal object was the mitigation of need due to unemployment, reached the magnitude of the Work Projects Administration (note the name change, which occurred in 1939). This is true, however you measure it–by persons employed, money expended, or volume of results.” (Joanna C. Colcord, Director of the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, in The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, p. 15)
Indeed, the variety and volume of work performed by the WPA is mind-boggling. Variety: In addition to their well-known infrastructure projects (e.g., roads, bridges, airports, dams, water mains, sewers, sidewalks, schools), there were also WPA projects involving theater, writing, music, sewing, food distribution, archaeological digs, historic and environmental preservation, disaster relief, and more. Volume: Here are just some of the the totals for the WPA’s work projects:
*Half a billion garments & other articles produced in sewing room projects
*1.2 billion school lunches served
*650,000 miles of new or improved roads (enough roadwork to go around the Earth 26 times)
*124,000 new or improved bridges
*1.1 million new or improved culverts
*39,000 schools built, improved, or repaired
*85,000 public buildings built, improved, or repaired (excluding schools)
*8,000 new or improved parks
*18,000 new or improved playgrounds & athletic fields
*2,000 swimming & wading pools
*4,000 new or improved utility plants
*16,000 miles of water lines installed (enough water line to extend from New York to India…and back again)
*24,000 miles of sewer lines installed (nearly enough to circle the globe)
*950 airports/airfields built, improved, or repaired
*1,500 nursery schools operated
*225,000 concerts performed
*475,000 works of art
*276 full length books
SOURCES FOR THESE TOTALS : Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 134-36 (available for download at: http://lccn.loc.gov/47032199), & Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR put the Nation to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2009 paperback edition, pp. 523-24.
It’s been my observation that whenever the government–especially the federal government–performs an action, or creates a law or program, that is designed to help those in need, a flurry of criticism and panic ensues. This can be seen throughout America’s history, during attempts to end slavery, or give women the right to vote, or prohibit small children from working in mines, or in the legislation to create Social Security, or Medicare, or the recent attempts to see that more Americans have access to affordable health insurance or have extended unemployment benefits while unemployment rates remain high.
The WPA, i.e., the federal effort to provide work for the jobless during a time of extremely weak private sector job growth, was no different. Speaking about work programs for the unemployed in 1935, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said “we have a class of people in this country that just cannot understand anything spoken in humane terms, but they will understand you when you speak to them in terms of tons of steel, thousands of brick, and so forth…” (Smith, p. 105–see reference list at bottom).
So, the WPA–like many other New Deal programs–was under constant political attack. Some people felt that certain programs of the WPA, like the Federal Theater Project, were akin to communism. Others felt that those who worked in the WPA were lazy “shovel leaners,” who did nothing more than dig ditches and fill them back up again (in actuality, the WPA workers did dig ditches and fill them back up again–but critics omitted the part about a water main or sewer line being installed before the ditch was re-filled). Some derisively said the WPA stood for “We Piddle Around,” or “We Poke Along.”
On May 8th, 1938, Harry Hopkins defended the New Deal (including the WPA) from criticism–made by former President Herbert Hoover–that the New Deal was leading America towards fascism. Hopkins said of the New Deal:
“Is it dictatorship to operate a government for all the people and not just for a few? Is it dictatorship to guarantee the accounts of small depositors and keep phony stocks and bonds off the market? Is it dictatorship to save millions of homes from foreclosure? Is it dictatorship to give a measure of protection to millions who are economically insecure and jobs to millions who can’t find work?” (“Hopkins Denies Relief Waste In Reply To http://wpatoday.org/WPA_History.html Hoover On Fascism,” Washington Post, May 9, 1938, p. XI). Hopkins was, of course, referring to New Deal policies and agencies such as FDIC, the SEC, and the WPA.
Source: Brent McKee: WPA Today- In Maryland and the Nation: http://wpatoday.org/WPA_History.html
The Great Depression stands as an event unique in American history due to both its length and severity. With the unprecedented economic collapse, the nation faced “an emergency more serious than war” (Higgs 1987, p. 159). The Depression was a time of tremendous suffering and at its worst, left a quarter of the workforce unemployed. During the twentieth century, the annual unemployment rate averaged double-digit levels in just eleven years. Ten of these occurred during the Great Depression.
A confused and hungry nation turned to the government for assistance. With the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, the federal government’s response to the economic emergency was swift and massive. The explosion of legislation — which came to be collectively called the New Deal — was designed, at least in theory, to bring a halt to the human suffering and put the country on the road to recovery. The president promised relief, recovery and reform.
Although the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the National Recovery Administration (NRA) were all begun two years earlier, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) became the best known of the administration’s alphabet agencies. Indeed, for many the works program is synonymous with the entire New Deal. Roosevelt devoted more energy and more money to the WPA than to any other agency (Charles 1963, p. 220). The WPA would provide public employment for people who were out of work. The administration felt that the creation of make-work jobs for the jobless would restore the human spirit, but dignity came with a price tag — an appropriation of almost $5 billion was requested. From 1936 to 1939 expenditures totaled nearly $7 billion.
WPA Projects and Procedures
The legislation that created the WPA, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 sailed through the House, passing by a margin of 329 to 78 but bogged down in the Senate where a vocal minority argued against the measure. Despite the opposition, the legislation passed in April of 1935.
Harry Hopkins headed the new organization. Hopkins became, “after Roosevelt, the most powerful man in the administration” (Reading 1972, pp. 16-17). All WPA administrators, whether assigned to Washington or to the agency’s state and local district offices, were employees of the federal government and all WPA workers’ wages were distributed directly from the U.S. Treasury (Kurzman 1974, p. 107). The WPA required the states to provide some of their own resources to finance projects but a specific match was never stipulated — a fact that would later become a source of contentious debate.
The agency prepared a “Guide to Eligibility of WPA Projects” which was made available to the states. Nineteen types of potentially fundable activities were described ranging from malaria control to recreational programs to street building (MacMahon, Millet and Ogden 1941, p. 308).
Hopkins and Roosevelt proposed that WPA compensation be based on a “security wage” which would be an hourly amount greater than the typical relief payment but less than that offered by private employers. The administration contended that it was misleading to evaluate the programs’ effects solely on the basis of wages paid — more important were earnings through continuous employment. Thus, wages were reported in monthly amounts.
Wages differed widely from region to region and state-to-state. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia explained, “In the State of Tennessee the man who is working with a pick and shovel at 18 cents an hour is limited to $26 a month, and he must work 144 hours to earn $26. Whereas the man who is working in Pennsylvania has to work only 30 hours to earn $94, out of funds which are being paid out of the common Treasury of the United States” (U.S. House of Representatives 1938, p. 913). Recurring complaints of this nature led to adjustments in the wage rate that narrowed regional differentials to more closely reflect the cost of living in the state.
The work done by the organization stands as a tribute to the WPA. Almost every community in America has a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. As of 1940, the WPA had erected 4,383 new school buildings and made repairs and additions to over 30,000 others. More than 130 hospitals were built and improvements made to another 1670 (MacMahon, Millet and Ogden 1941, pp. 4-5). Nearly 9000 miles of new storm drains and sanitary sewer lines were laid. The agency engaged in conservation work planting 24 million trees (Office of Government Reports 1939, p. 80).
Addressing the nation’s transportation needs accounted for much of the WPA’s work. By the summer of 1938, 280,000 miles of roads and streets had been paved or repaired and 29,000 bridges had been constructed. Over 150 new airfields and 280 miles of runway were built (Office of Government Reports 1939, p. 79).
Because Harry Hopkins believed that the work provided by the WPA should match the skills of the unemployed, artists were employed to paint murals in public buildings, sculptors created park and battlefield monuments, and actors and musicians were paid to perform. These white-collar programs did not escape criticism and the term “boondoggling” was added to the English language to describe government projects of dubious merit.
Work relief for the needy was the putative purpose of the WPA. Testifying before the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Unemployment and Relief in 1938, Corrington Gill — Assistant to WPA administrator Harry Hopkins — asserted, “Our regional representatives . . . are intimately in touch with the States and the conditions in the States” (U.S. Senate 1938, p. 51).
The Roosevelt administration, of course, asserted that dollars were allocated to where need was the greatest. Some observers at the time, however, were suspicious of what truly motivated the New Dealers.
The Distribution of WPA Funds
In 1939, Georgia Senator Richard Russell in a speech before the Senate compared the appropriation his state received with those received by Wisconsin, a state with similar land area and population but with far more resources. He was interrupted by Senator Ellison Smith of South Carolina:
“Mr. Smith: I have been interested in the analysis the Senator has made of the wealth and population which showed that Wisconsin and Georgia were so nearly equal in those features. I wondered if the Senator had any way of ascertaining the political aspect in those two States.”
“Mr. Russell: Mr. President, I had not intended to touch upon any political aspects of this question.”
“Mr. Smith: Why not? The Senator knows that is all there is to it (U.S. House of Representatives 1939, p. 926).”
Scholars have begun to examine the New Deal in this light, producing evidence supporting Senator Smith’s assertion that political considerations helped to shape the WPA.
An empirical analysis of New Deal spending priorities was made possible by Leonard Arrington’s discovery in 1969 of documents prepared by an obscure federal government agency. “Prepared in late 1939 by the Office of Government Reports for the use of Franklin Roosevelt during the presidential campaign of 1940, the 50-page reports — one for each state — give precise information on the activities and achievements of the various New Deal economic agencies” (Arrington 1969, p. 311).
Using this data source to investigate the relationship between WPA appropriations to the states and state economic conditions makes the administration’s claims of allocating dollars to where need was greatest difficult to support. Instead, evidence supports a political motivation to the pattern of expenditures. While the legislation that funded the WPA sailed through the House, a vocal minority in the Senate argued against the measure — a fact the Roosevelt administration did not forget. “Hopkins devoted considerable attention to his relations with Congress, particularly from 1935 on. While he continually ignored several Congressmen because of their obnoxious ways of opposing the New Deal . . . he gave special attention to Senators . . . who supported the work relief program (Charles 1963, p. 162).
Empirical results confirm Charles’ assertion; WPA dollars flowed to states whose Senators voted in favor of the 1935 legislation. Likewise, if the state’s Senators opposed the measure, significantly fewer work relief dollars were distributed to the state.
The matching funds required to ‘buy’ WPA appropriations were not uniform from state-to-state. The Roosevelt administration argued that allowing them discretion to determine the size of the match would enable them to get projects to the states with fewer resources. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia complained in a Senate speech, “the poorer states . . . are required to contribute more from their poverty toward sponsored projects than the wealthier states are” (Congressional Record 1939, p. 921). Senator Russell entered sponsor contributions from each state into the Congressional Record. The data support the Senator’s assertion. Citizens in relatively poor Tennessee were forced to contribute 33.2 percent toward WPA projects while citizens in relatively rich Pennsylvania were required to contribute only 10.1 percent toward their projects. Empirical evidence supports the notion that by lowering the size of the match, Roosevelt was able to put more projects into states that were important to him politically (Couch and Smith, 2000).
The WPA represented the largest program of its kind in American history. It put much-needed dollars into the hands of jobless millions and in the process contributed to the nation’s infrastructure. Despite this record of achievement, serious questions remain concerning whether the program’s money, projects, and jobs were distributed to those who were truly in need or instead to further the political aspirations of the Roosevelt administration.
Arrington, Leonard J. “The New Deal in the West: A Preliminary Statistical Inquiry.” Pacific Historical Review 38 (1969): 311-16.
Charles, Searle F. Minister of Relief: Harry Hopkins and the Depression. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1969.
Congressional Record (1934 and 1939) Washington: Government Printing Office.
Couch, Jim F. and Lewis Smith (2000) “New Deal Programs and State Matching Funds: Reconstruction or Re-election?” unpublished manuscript, University of North Alabama.
Higgs, Robert. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Kurzman, Paul A. Harry Hopkins and the New Deal. Fairlawn, NJ: R.E. Burdick, 1974.
MacMahon, Arthur, John Millett and Gladys Ogden. The Administration of Federal Work Relief. Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1941.
Margo, Robert A. “The Microeconomics of Depression Unemployment.” Journal of Economic History 51, no. 2 (1991): 333-41.
Office of Government Reports. Activities of Selected Federal Agencies, Report No. 7. Washington, DC: Office of Government Reports, 1939.
Source: Couch, Jim. “Works Progress Administration”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, Robert Whaples, ed. March 16, 2008. URL http://eh.net/encyclopedia/the-works-progress-administration/
For further research:
Posters of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) at the Library of Congress.
Records of the Works Progress Administration at The National Archives.
Taylor, N. (2008). American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2013). The Works Progress Administration. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/wpa-the-works-progress-administration/.