Works Progress Administration

Works Progress Administration

The Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest New Deal agency, employing millions of people and affecting most every locality in the United States, especially rural and western mountain populations. It was created in April 1935 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidential order, and activated with congressional funding in July of that year (the U.S. Congress funded it annually but did not set it up).

It continued and extended relief programs similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started by Herbert Hoover and the U.S. Congress in 1932. Headed by Harry L. Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. The program built many public buildings, projects and roads and operated large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. It fed children and redistributed food, clothing and housing.

Until closed down by Congress and the war boom in 1943, the various programs of the WPA added up to the largest employment base in the country — indeed, the largest cluster of government employment opportunities in most states. Anyone who needed a job could become eligible for most of its jobs.Fact|date=May 2007 Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in the area; the rules said workers could not work more than 30 hours a week but many projects included months in the field, with workers eating and sleeping on worksites. Before 1940, there was some training involved in teaching new skills and the project's original legislation went forward with a strong emphasis on family, training and building people up. The role and participation of labor unions in WPA processes is unclear.

Worker profile

About 15% of the household heads on relief were women. Youth programs were operated separately by the National Youth Administration, or NYA. The average worker was about 40 years old (about the same as the average family head on relief).

The WPA reflected the strongly-held belief at the time that husbands and wives should not both be working (because they would take one job away from a breadwinner.) A study of 2,000 women workers in Philadelphia showed that 90% were married, but wives were reported as living with their husbands in only 15 percent of the cases. Only 2 percent of the husbands had private employment. "All of these [2,000] women," it was reported, "were responsible for from one to five additional people in the household." In rural Missouri 60% of the WPA-employed women were without husbands (12% were single; 25% widowed; and 23% divorced, separated or deserted.) Thus only 40% were married and living with their husbands, but 59% of the husbands were permanently disabled, 17% were temporarily disabled, 13% were too old to work, and the remaining 10% were either unemployed or handicapped. An average five years had elapsed since the husband's last employment at his regular occupation. [Howard 283] Most of the women worked in sewing projects, where they were taught to use sewing machines and made clothing, bedding and supplies for hospitals and orphanages.

Relief for African Americans

The share of FERA and WPA benefits going to African Americans exceeded their proportion of the general population. The FERA's first relief census reported that more than two million African Americans were on relief in early 1933, a fraction of the African American population (17.8%) that was nearly double the proportion of whites on relief (9.5%). By 1935, there were 3,500,000 African Americans (men, women and children) on relief, almost 30 percent of the African American population; plus another 200,000 African Americans adults were working on WPA projects. Altogether in 1935, about 40 percent of the nation's African American families were either on relief or were employed by the WPA. [John Salmond, "The New Deal and the Negro" in John Braeman et al, eds. "The New Deal: The National Level" (1975). pp 188-89 ]

Civil rights leaders initially complained that African Americans were proportionally underrepresented. African-American leaders made such a claim with respect to WPA hires in New Jersey: "In spite of the fact that Negroes indubitably constitute more than 20 percent of the State's unemployed, they composed 15.9 per cent of those assigned to W.P.A. jobs during 1937." [Howard 287] Nationwide in late 1937, 15.2% were African American. The NAACP magazine "Opportunity" check referencehailed the WPA: [February, 1939, p. 34. in Howard 295]

It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations.


The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered. Harry Hopkins testified to Congress in January 1935 why he set the number at 3.5 million, using FERA data. At $1200 per worker per year he asked for and received $4 billion.

Many women were employed, but it was a mere amount compared to men. Many women were unemployed at this time. "On January 1 there were 20 million persons on relief in the United States. Of these, 8.3 million were children under sixteen years of age; 3.8 million were persons who, though between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five were not working nor seeking work. These included housewives, students in school, and incapacitated persons. Another 750,000 were persons sixty- five years of age or over. Thus, of the total of 20 million persons then receiving relief, 12.85 million were not considered eligible for employment. This left a total of 7.15 million presumably employable persons between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five inclusive. Of these, however, 1.65 million were said to be farm operators or persons who had some non-relief employment, while another 350,000 were, despite the fact that they were already employed or seeking work, considered incapacitated. Deducting this two million from the total of 7.15 million, there remained 5.15 million persons sixteen to sixty-five years of age, unemployed, looking for work, and able to work. Because of the assumption that only one worker per family would be permitted to work under the proposed program, this total of 5.15 million was further reduced by 1.6 million--the estimated number of workers who were members of families which included two or more employable persons. Thus, there remained a net total of 3.55 million workers in as many households for whom jobs were to be provided." [Howard p 562, paraphrasing Hopkins]

The WPA employed a maximum of 3.3 million in November 1938. [According to Nancy Rose' Put to Work.] Worker pay was based on three factors: the region of the country, the degree of urbanization and the individual's skill. It varied from $19/month to $94/month. The goal was to pay the local prevailing wage, but to limit a person to 30 hours or less a week of work.

Total expenditures on WPA projects through June, 1941, totaled approximately $11.4 billion. Over $4 billion was spent on highway, road, and street projects; more than $1 billion on public buildings; more than $1 billion on publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion on welfare projects including sewing projects for women, the distribution of surplus commodities and school lunch projects. [Howard 129]

Criticism and favoritism

Unlike the quite popular Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA had numerous conservative critics. One of the principal criticisms leveled at the program was that it wasted federal dollars on projects that were not always needed or wanted. A relic of this criticism survives today in the form of a satirical observation that WPA workers were hired 'to rake leaves in the park.' White-collar WPA projects in particular were often singled out for their sometimes overtly left-wing social and political themes. One criticism of the allocation of WPA projects and funding was that they were often made for political considerations. Congressional leaders in favor with the Roosevelt administration, or who possessed considerable seniority and political power often helped decide which states and localities received the most funding. The most serious criticism was that Roosevelt was building a nationwide political machine with millions of workers.

Some who were critical of the WPA referred to it as "We Poke Along," "We Piddle Along" or "We Putter Around." This is a sarcastic reference to WPA projects that sometimes slowed to a crawl, because foremen on a government project devised to maintain employment often had no incentive or ability to influence worker productivity by demotion or termination. This criticism was due in part to the WPA's early practice of basing wages on a "security wage," ensuring workers would be paid even if the project was delayed, improperly constructed, or incomplete. Other denigrating references to the WPA in popular culture include:
*A typical joke was repeated in Harper Lee's 1960 novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird". Bob Ewell, the resident slacker of Maycomb County, is described as "the only person fired from the WPA for laziness."
*Ex-Dodger and Giant pitcher Billy Loes, who was selected by the Mets in the 1961 expansion draft, was credited with this quotation: "The Mets is a good thing. They give everybody jobs. Just like the WPA."

Evolution and termination

In 1940 the WPA changed policy and began vocational educational training of the unemployed to make them available for factory jobs. Previously labor unions had vetoed any proposal to provide new skills. Unemployment disappeared with the onset of war production in World War II, so Congress shut down the WPA in late 1943.

Harry Offenhartz is thought to have been the last "new-dealer," and member of the WPA when he passed away in 1998 at the age of 93. Offenhartz also began The New Heritage Music Foundation to honor his New Deal era heroes. []

ee also

* Hatch Act of 1939
* New Deal
* Civilian Conservation Corps
* National Recovery Administration
* Great Depression
* Civil Works Administration
* List of locks and dams of the Upper Mississippi River
* Employer of last resort



cholarly studies

* [ Jim Crouch, "The Works Progress Administration" "Eh.Net Encyclopedia" (2004)]
* Hopkins, June. "The Road Not Taken: Harry Hopkins and New Deal Work Relief" "Presidential Studies Quarterly" Vol. 29, (1999)
* Howard; Donald S. "The WPA and Federal Relief Policy" (1943), detailed analysis of all major WPA programs.
* Leighninger, Robert D., Jr. "Long-Range Public Investment : The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal" (2007), providing a context for American public works programs, and detailing major agencies of the New Deal: CCC, PWA, CWA, WPA, and TVA.
* Lindley, Betty Grimes and Ernest K. Lindley. "A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration" (1938)
* McJimsey George T. "Harry Hopkins: Ally of the Poor and Defender of Democracy" (1987)
* Meriam; Lewis. "Relief and Social Security" The Brookings Institution. 1946. Highly detailed analysis and statistical summary of all New Deal relief programs; 900 pages
* Millett; John D. and Gladys Ogden. "Administration of Federal Work Relief" 1941.
* Rose, Nancy E. "Put to Work" (Monthly Review Press, June 1994, ISBN 0-85345-871-5)
* Singleton, Jeff. "The American Dole: Unemployment Relief and the Welfare State in the Great Depression" (2000)
* Smith, Jason Scott. "Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956" (2005)
* Williams; Edward Ainsworth. "Federal Aid for Relief" 1939.

External links

* [ The Index of American Design at the National Gallery of Art]
* slave narratives
* [ Living New Deal project, California]
* [ Posters from the WPA at the Library of Congress]
* [ Database of WPA murals]
* [ Guide to the WPA Oregon Federal Art Project collection at the University of Oregon]
* [ WPA inspired Gulf Coast Civic Works Project]
* [ WPA mural projects by noted muralist Sr. Lucia Wiley]
* [ WPA Artist Robert Tabor]
* [ An Introduction to the Employer of Last Resort Proposal] from Dollars & Sense. Includes several images from the original WPA.
* [ Guide to the Works Progress Administration Collection on Orange County, California, 1935-1939.] Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.

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