The Works Progress Administration (renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest and most ambitious New Deal agency, employing millions of unemployed people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. In much smaller but more famous projects the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.
Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. The WPA's initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP), and in total it spent $13.4 billion.
At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided almost eight million jobs. Full employment, which emerged as a national goal around 1944, was not the WPA goal. It tried to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.
The WPA was a national program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10%-30% of the costs. WPA sometimes took over state and local relief programs that had originated in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) or Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) programs.
Liquidated on June 30, 1943, as a result of low unemployment due to the worker shortage of World War II, the WPA provided millions of Americans with jobs for 8 years. Most people who needed a job were eligible for at least some of its positions. Hourly wages were typically set to the prevailing wages in each area. But, workers could not be paid for more than 30 hours a week. Before 1940, to meet the objections of the labor unions,[which?] the programs provided very little training to teach new skills to workers.
Enacting the WPA
Created by order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the WPA was funded by Congress with passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 on April 8, 1935.
The WPA was largely shaped by Harry Hopkins, close adviser to President Roosevelt. The WPA was initially intended to be an extension of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration work program, which funded projects run by states and cities. Many were for infrastructure, such as bridges, roads and parks, but they also included archeological excavations of significant sites, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), and other historic preservation activities. Both Roosevelt and Hopkins believed that the route to economic recovery and the lessened importance of "the dole" would be in employment programs such as the WPA.
About 15% of the household heads on relief were women. Youth programs were operated separately by the National Youth Administration (the NYA). The average worker was about 40 years old (about the same as the average family head on relief).
WPA policies were consistent with the strong belief of the time that husbands and wives should not both be working (because the second person working would take one job away from some other breadwinner). A study of 2,000 female workers in Philadelphia showed that 90% were married, but wives were reported as living with their husbands in only 18 percent of the cases. Only 2 percent of the husbands had private employment. Of the 2000 women, all 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 remaining 10% were either unemployed or handicapped. An average five years had elapsed since the husband's last employment at his regular occupation. Most of the women worked with sewing projects, where they were taught to use sewing machines and made clothing and bedding, as well as supplies for hospitals, orphanages, and adoption centers.
Relief for African Americans
The share of Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and WPA benefits for 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 during early 1933, a proportion of the African-American population (17.8%) that was nearly double the proportion of whites on relief (9.5%). This was during the period of Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South, when blacks were largely disfranchised.
By 1935, there were 3,500,000 African Americans (men, women and children) on relief, almost 35 percent of the African-American population; plus another 250,000 African-American adults were working on WPA projects. Altogether during 1938, about 45 percent of the nation's African-American families were either on relief or were employed by the WPA.
Civil rights leaders initially objected 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 Blacks indubitably constitute more than 20 percent of the State's unemployed, they composed 15.9% of those assigned to W.P.A. jobs during 1937." Nationwide in 1940, 9.8% of the population were African American.
However, by 1941, the perception of discrimination against African Americans had changed to the point that the NAACP magazine Opportunity hailed the WPA, saying:
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.
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, including the iconic Dock Street Theater in Charleston, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and the Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mt. Hood.
More than $1 billion was spent 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. One construction project was the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, the bridges of which were each designed as architecturally unique. In its eight-year run, the WPA built 325 firehouses and renovated 2,384 of them across the United States. The 20,000 miles of water mains, installed by their hand as well, contributed to increased fire protection across the country.
The direct focus of the WPA projects changed with need. In 1935 priority projects were to improve infrastructure; roads, extension of electricity to rural areas, water conservation, sanitation and flood control. In 1936, as outlined in that year’s Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, public facilities became a focus; parks and associated facilities, public buildings, utilities, airports, and transportation projects were funded. The following year, saw the introduction of agricultural improvements, such as the production of marl fertilizer and the eradication of fungus pests. As the Second World War approached, and then eventually began, WPA projects became increasingly defense related.
One project of the WPA was funding state-level library service demonstration projects, which was intended to create new areas of library service to underserved populations and to extend rural service. Another project was the Household Service Demonstration Project, which trained 30,000 women for domestic employment.
South Carolina had one of the larger state-wide library service demonstration projects. At the end of the project in 1943, South Carolina had twelve publicly funded county libraries, one regional library, and a funded state library agency.
During the middle of the Great Depression, the Elizabethton, Tennessee city government utilized labor and resources provided by WPA to complete a newly established, nine-hole municipal golf course on seventy acres of land that was deeded in 1936 to the city for $1.00 by local golfers.
Wyandotte County Lake, in Kansas City, Kansas was a part of the New Deal Act proposed by President Roosevelt. The construction of the lake was a way to employ residents while providing a method of water conservation for Wyandotte County. Construction on the lake started in 1936 and it was not fully complete until 1943. The WPA was hesitant to approve the project; in March, Frank Holcomb, Chairman of the County Commissioners, was opposed to any major additional expenses. However, as negotiations cleared the way, some work was restarted in the summer of 1938 on shop buildings, etc.
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 Federal Emergency Relief Administration data. Estimating costs at $1200 per worker per year, he asked for and received $4 billion. Many women were employed, but they were few compared to men.
In 1935 there were 20 million people 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, 13 million were not considered eligible for employment. This left a total of 7 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.
The WPA employed a maximum of 3.3 million in November 1938. 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 limit the hours of work to 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week; the stated minimum being 30 hours a week, or 120 hours a month.
The 5 & 10¢ store. Poster for the WPA shows various items that can be purchased at a five and ten cent store. Silkscreen print by the NYC Federal Art Project, between 1936 and 1941
1940 WPA poster using Little Miss Muffet to promote reading among children.
The WPA had numerous critics, especially from the right. The strongest attacks were that it was the prelude for a national political machine on behalf of Roosevelt. Reformers secured the Hatch Act of 1939 that largely depoliticized the WPA.
Others complained that far left elements played a major role, especially in the New York City unit (which was independent of the New York State unit). Representative Martin Dies, Jr. called the WPA a “seedbed for communists”. Exaggeration was rife—such as a false report circulating in 1936 that the cost of killing a single rat in one extermination endeavor was $2.97 (over $48 in current dollars).
Much of the criticism of the distribution of projects and funding allotment is a result of the view that the decisions were politically motivated. The South, as the poorest region of the United States, received 75 percent less in federal relief and public works funds per capita than the West. Critics would point to the fact that Roosevelt’s Democrats could be sure of voting support from the South, whereas the West was less of a sure thing; investing in the West was a way of swaying voters.
There was a perception that WPA employees were not diligent workers. Employers said the "WPA is bad for people since it gives them poor work habits. They believe that even if a man is not an inefficient worker to begin with, he gets that way from being on WPA." Having been on the WPA made it harder for alumni to get a job because employers said they had "formed poor work habits" on the WPA.
A Senate committee reported that, "To some extent the complaint that WPA workers do poor work is not without foundation. ... Poor work habits and incorrect techniques are not remedied. Occasionally a supervisor or a foreman demands good work." The WPA and its workers were ridiculed as being lazy. The organization's initials were said to stand for "We Poke Along" or "We Putter Along" or "Whistle, Piss and Argue." These were sarcastic references to WPA projects that sometimes slowed down deliberately because foremen had an incentive to keep going, rather than finish a project.
New Deal officials reportedly took measures to prevent political corruption. In particular President Roosevelt created a "division of progress investigation" to investigate complaints of malfeasance.
Other references to the WPA in popular culture include:
- "WPA Blues", a 1937 song by Casey Bill Weldon, also recorded by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter: "Everybody's working in this town/ And it's worrying me night and day/If that means working too/ Have to work for the WPA"
- "W.P.A.", a 1939 song recorded by Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers: "Sleep while you work while you work rest while you play / Lean on your shovel to pass the time away".
- Harper Lee's 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird noted a typical comment. Bob Ewell, the resident slacker of Maycomb County, is described as "the only person fired from the WPA for laziness."
- "I'm Still Here", a song from Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical, Follies: "I've slept in shanties, guest of the WPA, and I'm here."
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 which had vetoed any proposal to provide new skills, saying there were already too many unemployed skilled workers. Unemployment ended with the beginning of war production for World War II, as millions of men joined the services, and cost-plus contracts made it attractive for companies to hire unemployed men and train them. With the mass-employment need essentially gone, Congress terminated the WPA in late 1943.