On May 6, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 7034 creating the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Passed and funded by Congress in the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935, the WPA became among the two most important federal jobs programs of the New Deal and a model for how government investment in the economy can not only solve short-term unemployment problems but also build the infrastructure of a strong, modern nation.
The WPA is not the sexiest New Deal program. People love the Civilian Conservation Corps while the Tennessee Valley Authority is more famous for its ambition in reshaping an entire region of the country. But during its 8 year existence, the WPA provided nearly 8 million jobs to unemployed Americans. WPA administrator Harry Hopkins was one of FDR’s closest advisers (he actually lived at the White House). The president felt strongly about this program, in no small part because he wanted to show the American people that his plan to fight the Great Depression was working before the 1936 elections. The WPA was an expansion of the Civil Works Administration (CWA), an earlier and smaller attempt at employing the nation’s unemployed, also led by Hopkins.
The WPA (along with the Public Works Administration) built most of the nation’s modern infrastructure. WPA workers constructed 5900 new schools, 9300 recreational buildings, 1000 libraries, 7000 dormitories, 900 armories, 2300 stadiums and grandstands, 52 fairgrounds, 1686 parks, 3026 athletic fields, 254 golf courses, and a whole lot more. Among the most famous WPA-constructed building projects are Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood in Oregon, LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and Camp David in Maryland. It build flood control projects, roads, airports, utility projects, and electrical infrastructure. One of the roads it built was the Blue Ridge Parkway, today one of the nation’s finest drives.
WPA road project, Utah, 1938
The Household Service Demonstration Project trained 30,000 women for domestic employment. Most famous was the WPA art projects. The Federal Art Project employed 5300 artists. Art centers around the country offered courses to everyday people. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Jacob Lawrence made ends meet this way. The Federal Music Project made sure classical musicians did not starve. The Federal Writers Project began the field of oral history in the United States with the interview of surviving ex-slaves while the American Guide Series provided the first comprehensive travel book series for each state. There were also attempts to write up the varieties of American food, although this project faltered in the face of it being such a make-work deal that it employed people who were incompetent. But who really cares because people were able to eat. And then there’s the Federal Theatre Project which did so much for a young man named Orson Welles.
But of course most of the WPA projects are things we don’t notice today. And in a sense, that’s a good thing because this was ultimately a government modernization investment. The WPA worked with the states and localities to co-fund projects; the feds provided 70-90% of the funding but local entities had to buy into the program. In doing so, they invested in the future of their communities, laying the groundwork (literally in many cases) for the growth of the U.S. as a superpower after World War II.
In November 1938, the WPA employed 3.3 million people, a remarkable number given the restrictions of one person per family of people on relief. It aimed to pay the local prevailing wage, which was always something of a guessing game, but the average worker received about $52.50 a month (about $857 in 2013 dollars). Over its 6 year existence, the WPA averaged 2 million Americans on the government payroll.
The WPA also employed a large number of African-Americans at a time when New Deal programs sometimes left them behind or even increased job segregation (as happened with the TVA). Given the local control over TVA programs, the impact for African-Americans was greater in the North than the South. In 1941, the NAACP said:
“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.”
WPA sewing project, New York City, late 30s
As a program dedicated specifically to providing household breadwinners work, most of the employees were men. But despite modern right-wing fantasies about historical family structure, many women have always taken over as the primary income generator for themselves and their families for any number of reasons. That includes in the 1930s and about 15% of WPA workers were female breadwinners.
Of course the right-wingers hated it, with Martin Dies calling it a “seedbed for communists.” In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, which banned federal employees from partisan political activity and undermined the left-leaning artistic programs. Many critics said FDR was building a political machine through these programs, which makes perfect sense if you mean “showing the American people that the American government cares about you so you should vote for liberals.”
Like the rest of the New Deal jobs programs, the need for their existence faded once the nation geared up for World War II. FDR announced the WPA’s closing on December 4, 1942 and the agency officially folded on June 30, 1943.
The WPA shows the power of the federal government in improving the lives of Americans. If there’s one weakness to the WPA, it’s that it was too small to transform the economy. Unfortunately, we have not learned this lesson today and the politics around a federal jobs program that would employ Americans who wanted to work are impossible, even though doing so would not only rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and build new skills that people could use the rest of their lives, but also serve as a gigantic stimulus that would go far to turn this nation around and rebuild an infrastructure conservative politics have forced us to neglect for far too long.
This is the 104th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.