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This Day in Labor History: May 6, 1935

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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.

WPA_Main_Image

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.

h169n1

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.”

wpa1

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.

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  • In November 1938, the WPA employed 3.3 million people…

    Adjusted to today’s population, that would be over 8 million people. For comparisons, that’s twice the size of the current federal workforce, and four times the workforce of Walmart. That’s roughly the population of NYC, or of Switzerland. It’s roughly the combined population of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Montana, South Dakota, Delaware, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

    • Autonomous Coward

      So the combined populations of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Vermont plus, what, a dozen?

      • Vermont has a smaller population than either of the Dakotas or Alaska.

        • Autonomous Coward

          Fine. Two dozen.

          • Those states are in decending order of population. It’s only been a few decades since MT and SD had two Congressional seats.

            • Another Holocene Human

              So Vermont’s smug secret is that nobody lives there? I see…. *chin scratch*

              • muddy

                Welcome to Vermont. Now go home.

    • Rob in CT

      And even if we then adjust downward because the Great Depression was worse than the recent Great Recession, it would still be a massive, massive program.

      I can only imagine the screetching from the Right had WPA 2.0 been seriously proposed. Then again, in my anecdotal experience, everyday citizens whole lean rightist (which is to say not full on wingnuts) sure sounded WPA curious back in 2009. I remember arguing for stimulus and people didn’t like it. So I’d then go with “well, the government could just hire people to fix roads and stuff like in the Depression” and for whatever reason that actually went over better. My sample size being a few people and my memory being hazy suggests this is meaningless, I know.

      • Karen

        The single biggest goof the Dems made in the last 60 years was in failing to push for WPA 2. I, by virtue of living in Texas, have a lot more conservative friends than otherwise, and my completely unscientific sample of “people who react to my Facebook status updates” indicated that some version of this would have been very popular, especially if it had been focused on roads, bridges, and parks.

        • Rob in CT

          Which is, of course, really strange, because as we all know “government doesn’t create jobs” and such. Apparently spending money to have private companies build/fix roads, etc. is somehow worse than having the government directly hire and build/fix the roads, etc.? I mean, being a liberal, I’m open to either, but for conservative leaning folks to put direct government work over indirect stimulus is just… huh.

          Here’s my guess: in the immediate aftermath, people were momentarily open to whatever. Rightwing media didn’t immediately have their narrative straight. But by the time the Dems started actually trying to implement policy, RW media was ready to demonize whatever it was. WPA 2.0 would’ve been attacked just like the Stimulus was (even moreso), and those same folks you and I were talking to would’ve fallen into line.

          • Linnaeus

            This reminds me of what a Facebook acquaintance of mine wrote back when the sequester was kicking in. One of the things that got cut was an air show (Blue Angels, I think) and he was not happy about that because, among other things, the money spent on the air show would stimulate people to spend money to come see it, buy concessions, etc.

            Who did he blame? “Government”.

            • Another Holocene Human

              The Democrats made the Republicans do it, as in “Look what you made me do!”

      • It went over better for a couple of reasons. One it is a more equal form of redistribution than most stimulus programs. Rather than relying on “trickle down” of any sort it pays wages directly into the hands of workers. Second the infrastructure that is built unlike money used to bail out banks continues to benefit citizens for decades. Many of the physical infrastructure projects of the WPA are still standing. A road or a bridge will still be around and be capable of use for some time.

        • Who are you, and what has happened to the real J. Otto?

        • Rob in CT

          The Stimulus didn’t bail out banks. That was TARP.

          The bit about trickle down I agree with.

  • bg

    One of my favorite WPA-built projects is the Key West Aquarium.
    http://www.keywestaquarium.com/aquarium-history
    It is a relatively small facility and great for a half day trip with little kids.
    Once one of the richest places in America, Key West nearly died during the depression. The WPA saved it, for which I am eternally grateful.

    • Ramon A. Clef

      IIRC, there was actually a plan to evacuate the entire population of the Keys before WPA came along, because of the dire poverty there.

      • Another Holocene Human

        Lol, so my great grandfather was driving his whole family down to the Keys in the 1930s for summer vacation because he was cheap?

        Figures. :)

  • Autonomous Coward

    Jack-assery aside this sort of thing makes me phenomenally sad. It is dispiriting to look back at the goddamn Great Depression and realize that was probably the high water mark of social democracy in America. And I can’t ever see it getting better. The institutions that allowed the development of a labor movement and the political expression of labor’s will are simply gone today, and I don’t see how they ever come back. Hysteresis has become too strong, the mighty and wicked have seen the results of losing control for even an instant and will never allow it again.

    • Linnaeus

      Despair is counterrevolutionary.

    • I can’t see anything as the high water mark of social democracy in American when the South was still drowning equal rights for African-Americans.

      • Autonomous Coward

        And this is the standard retort. The conclusion drawn from this retort being, apparently, “Therefore let’s immiserate everyone!”.

        But I’m the counterrevolutionary disparer?

        • It’s only despair if you ignore what happened in 1964-1966. I don’t.

        • Lee Rudolph

          Desperado. Counterrevolutionary desperado.

          • Autonomous Coward

            Band name.

            • N__B

              Song name.

              Counterrevolutionary desperado
              Why don’t you come to your senses?
              You’ve been purging dissenters
              For so long now
              Oh, you’re a pure one
              I know that you got your reasons
              These things that are pleasin’ you
              Can hurt you somehow

              • Autonomous Coward

                Here, take all of my internets, you have won them.

        • Linnaeus

          I should say that I meant that as a quip rather than criticism. But I should have made that clearer.

          That said, I understand the feeling you’re expressing. We can take a lesson from the right in one sense: if you read right-wing literature from most of the postwar period, they were very much despairing about the future of conservatism. But they managed to regroup and attain some significant political successes. We can do the same thing.

          • Karen

            And have, for more than we give ourselves credit. The change in attitudes toward gays and women since the 70’s is seriously astonishing. If we can go from “people who have certain kinds of sex we don’t like should be arrested” to more than half the population applauding gay marriage in the time between my high school graduation in 1981 and now, we can certainly get people to support providing jobs for everyone who wants one.

            • Autonomous Coward

              And in exchange for fighting on the angel’s side of some cultural battlegrounds (some of which we’ve won, all of which we were right on) we’ve all agreed to stop doing anything about economics.

              We’ve traded solidarity for individuality and atomized and asa’ed our politics (“Speaking as a…”) all to hell.

              Maybe Pikkety will improve the quality and quantity of discussion about economics but if OWS is any indication he’ll get a month of coverage, maybe a couple of VSPs will write token editorials about how income inequality is A Problem and then we’ll all go back to worrying about some cornpone asshole having said something a bit shit about “the blacks” or “the Jews” or “the gays”.

              • Do you seriously think the ACA isn’t economic, but instead just some curriculum fight in the humanities department? You’ve heard of the ACA, right?

                • Bill Murray

                  but it is atomized. That is one reason the final bill was so long

    • Chris

      I hear you.

      Honestly, my only real hope at this point is the fact that antisocialism in this country is so deeply tied up in the white identity politics of the post-civil rights world, that the country turning minority-majority could mean some hope for a second chance thanks to the growing share of the public where that kind of stupidity isn’t conventional wisdom.

      But of course the rich and powerful know this, which is why they’re pouring so much energy into the 21st century version of poll taxes. Our history is full of stories of elites keeping democratic majorities under through “legal” maneuvering.

  • Bruce Vail

    An elaborate plaque in the Carmel (NY) High School explains that an addition that doubled the size of original school building was built as a WPA project.

    The plaque was down the hall from the classroom where I took some of my history classes in the 1970s. It made for an unforgettable exhibit on the day the teacher taught his New Deal lesson.

    • Autonomous Coward

      My High School has these WPA murals in the Administration building in a style that is like socialist realism plus cubism. Really something. I should get pictures of it before some rightist assbag paints them over. We also had a theater building (a scaled-down Radio City Music Hall, so they say) from the WPA.

      And mikado-robe Rehnquist went here, tread those boards and walked to class past those murals. And then kicked off the movement to burn it all down.

      Ladder-pulling bastard.

      • Karen

        I linked to the Texas part of this site below, but here is the front page. You might find the pictures on it. It’s a giant time sink, though.

        • Autonomous Coward

          The Auditorium is on there. If they included every WPA mural the map would be washed in a sea of red (heh.)

          • Autonomous Coward

            I may be incorrect on the origin of the murals then because they don’t show up on that site or here (which is used as a source on other murals on your site).

            I was sure they had a WPA plaque. That was 15 years and a lot of wasted brain cells ago.

  • Manny Kant

    I’d have to think that the WPA is almost certainly one of the sexiest New Deal programs, what with all the writer and artist stuff. Certainly sexier than the CCC at this point, at least in the sense that more people have heard of it outside of it being one of a bewildering number of acronyms you have to memorize for US History class in high school.

  • DrDick

    My son was born in a WPA built IHS hospital in Tahlequah, OK. There were lots of WPA public buildings in use in the small towns of Oklahoma back in the 70s. Most of them have now been replaced by more modern buildings.

  • BoredJD

    I remember seeing census records from the 30s, a good proportion of the neighborhood, including my great-grandfather, was employed as “WPA.” Interestingly, the women in the household, including my 16 year old aunt, had employment in the factories.

    • Linnaeus

      When the 1940 census came out, I found that my maternal grandfather was employed by the National Youth Administration on a reforestation project in northern Michigan, which I thought was pretty cool.

      • Karen

        My grandmother worked for a program to teach women how to grow gardens and can the produce. This particular program lasted throughout WWII, but was moved from the WPA to the War Department. My mother still has her mother’s cookbooks from that project.

  • David W.

    Harry Hopkins, from a speech he gave in 1936:

    “I believe the days of letting people live in misery, of being rock-bottom destitute, of children being hungry, of moralizing about rugged individualism in the light of modern facts – I believe those days are over in America. They have gone, and we are going forward in full belief that our economic system does not have to force people to live in miserable squalor in dirty houses, half fed, half clothed, and lacking decent medical care.”

    Hear, hear!

    • Linnaeus

      That’s commie talk, right there.

    • rea

      Meanwhile, rightwing German state senators were criticizing Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, claiming it was just like the WPA . . .

    • Autonomous Coward

      Can you imagine anyone saying anything like this?

      Shit, the “miserable squalor” line alone would get FOX to find someone living in aforementioned squalor to angrily deny his misery and condemn any attempt to improve his life as the worst plot since the last worst plot.

      • David W.

        Here’s Hopkins on the subject of who deserves federal relief back in 1936:

        … Now let me tell you about these investigations, because this gets into one of the major criticisms of this show. The public says these people on relief don’t need it. They say they are chiselers and cheats. All right, there isn’t a single person in this room, that if a hundred people walked up to the desk and you were going to put 50 on relief — nobody in this room would pick the same fifty — and any fifty picked out, I could go out three months later and find five percent of them that didn’t need relief and shouldn’t have it — just as you could find five percent that I had picked that didn’t need relief. Don’t fool yourself, there is no magic about this business of determining who does and who does not need relief — it is always a matter of opinion. I had to exercise my opinion — you didn’t. We have made many of hundreds of investigations as to whether these people were in need; we have made them by the Chambers of Commerce, by Rotary Clubs, by all kinds of people, and the results is always the same. They come back and they say 95% of these people need relief and the other 5% should be off. If I were any of you, I would be awfully careful if someone wants to appoint you on a committee to go out and visit some of these people in their homes. I would be awfully careful if I had to talk to the wives.

        There’s a reason why Winston Churchill called Hopkins “Lord Heart of the Matter”.

        • Autonomous Coward

          Reminds me of GBS’s Pygmalion:

          DOOLITTLE: Don’t say that, Governor. Don’t look at it that way. What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I’m one of the undeserving poor: that’s what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he’s up agen middle class morality all the time. If there’s anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it’s always the same story: ‘You’re undeserving; so you can’t have it.’ But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow’s that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don’t need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I’m a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything. Therefore, I ask you, as two gentlemen, not to play that game on me. I’m playing straight with you. I ain’t pretending to be deserving. I’m undeserving; and I mean to go on being undeserving. I like it; and that’s the truth. Will you take advantage of a man’s nature to do him out of the price of his own daughter what he’s brought up and fed and clothed by the sweat of his brow until she’s growed big enough to be interesting to you two gentlemen? Is five pounds unreasonable? I put it to you; and I leave it to you.

    • One of my favorite quotes from Hopkins, re: the arts projects:

      “Hell, artists got to eat, same as the rest of us.”

  • Slocum

    Not terribly relevant, but, damn, that WPA poster is awesome.

    • N__B

      Not relevant? If you want people to be inspired, you have to inspire them.

  • Karen

    The Tower at UT Austin was a WPA project. Here is a list of a bunch of others. Very cool site, by the way.

    • Karen

      I’ve spent the night in the Inks Lake mini-cabins in 2004.

  • John from Minneapolis

    I used to be a newspaper reporter in several Southern states. I can’t tell you how many times I came into a dying Southern town and noticed a bridge, a school, a post office, an armory or a city hall with a WPA cornerstone. They were often the nicest structure in the town. And now all those people vote for Republicans who tell them government can’t do anything good for them.

  • This biography of noir writer Jim Thompson by Robert Polito has a good description of the writers project in Oklahoma which included not only Thompson, but Louis L’Amour is quite good. Woody Guthrie was also an associate of Thompson and makes an appearance.

    http://www.amazon.com/Savage-Art-Biography-Jim-Thompson/dp/0679733523

    • The FRP book on California has a picture of Texas ‘drought refugees’ settling in near Exeter, CA, a town about 20 minutes drive from my home here in Porterville.

  • Joseph Slater

    Some very nice WPA work at the (excellent) Toledo Zoo.

  • joe from Lowell

    There are little WPA badges in the sidewalks all over Lowell.

  • Kurzleg

    Visited Timberline lodge in April this year. I really is an impressive place and well worth the visit. Didn’t stay overnight, just lunch (VERY generous portions) in the main lodge overlooking one of the ski runs. Still several (8 or so?) feet of snow up there when we visited, but luckily the road from Govt Camp to the lodge wasn’t icy. (I was a little apprehensive about driving a rental car down an icy mountain road.)

    You can meet the St. Bernard mascots, Heidi and Bruno, if you ask at the front desk, but don’t expect a warm welcome. Heidi basically walked past us down the hallway in search of food in one of the business offices. Guess I can’t blame her.

  • Another Holocene Human

    On the subject of race, I was reading I think one of those Studs Terkel oral histories of the Depression and there were some absolutely horrible stories from the South. One that always stuck with me was the community where the Feds built a hospital for Negroes, who up to that point had had none, and the whites there were so envious and outraged that as soon as they were able they commandeered the hospital for their own use.

    It’s stories like these that make it clear why nothing would change until the military was sent in.

  • Another Holocene Human

    As for the two tier wages, my great grandfather, captain of industry dog food, told the local grandees to fuck right off because they weren’t going to tell him how to run his factory*. He moved it, and any worker who wanted to come with him, which amounted to a bunch of illiterate Black guys for whom freezing tail in the winter and burning up in a hot, smelly, SMELLY non-air-conditioned factory in the summer was a step up in life, now what does that tell you about the south, to Michigan.

    *-there were some convictions in there, besides being an asshole, which he assuredly was, as he was a member of the Union Club–my grandmother turned out all right and voted for Barack Obama twice, so there must have been some good in him

  • Kevin

    All of these labour posts…such classic red baiting.

  • muddy

    Daddy, why can’t we have nice things like they had in the Depression?

    • Autonomous Coward

      The cynical manipulation of the of the baby boomer’s solipsistic individualism by the Reaganites, sweetie. Now go to bed or James Watt will come out from under your bed.

      • DrDick

        Given that the oldest Boomers were only 35 in 1980, it was the generations before us that made up the bulk of his support. Don’t let the facts disturb your generational hate, however.

        • Autonomous Coward

          You don’t detect even a hint of countercultural individualism in the rise of libertarianism in the 1970’s? Really?

  • Patricia Kayden

    “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).”

    Nice. Good for FDR for creating such a great organization via Executive Order. Wonder why President Obama couldn’t do the same.

    • It still had to be funded through a Congressional act. This is why Obama creating a jobs program by federal order wouldn’t work.

  • James Quixotic

    Any discussion of the WPA really needs to include Brad Hick’s analysis of it.

  • WPA SO GREAT it built things before its Creation???

    I am a little confused how the Griffith Observatory was a WPA project when it was built and dedicated BEFORE the WPA existed.

    Anyone want to help me out??

    • Hmmm….nearly every single website talking about the observatory that mentions who built it notes that it was built in 1933 by the WPA. Something is wrong there indeed.

      • WPA added art but didn’t build the Griffith Observatory itself…

        I think the WPA added some decorative elements (sculptures mostly), but the building itself was designed and built separate from any involvement with the WPA or the Federal government.

        http://www.griffithobservatory.org/obshist.html

    • When planning began in earnest (by which time Griffith’s bequest had grown to $750,000), the Trust brought in Caltech physicist Edward Kurth to draw up preliminary plans with the help of Russell W. Porter. In May of 1931, the Griffith Trust and L.A. Park Commissioners chose architects John C. Austin and Frederic M. Ashley to oversee the final plans for the new observatory building. Austin and Ashley hired Kurth to direct the project with Porter as consultant.

      More here:

      http://bigorangelandmarks.blogspot.com/2008/07/no-168-griffith-observatory.html

  • Ah…now this is my jam.

    One quibble: the CWA was not smaller. It was shorter – lasting from October 1933 to April of 1934 – but it employed 4.26 million people, more than the WPA at its peak.

    I would take issue with this:

    “If there’s one weakness to the WPA, it’s that it was too small to transform the economy.”

    If you use the unemployment series constructed by Michael Darby instead of the original by Stanley Lebergott, you see that the WPA and New Deal jobs programs in general were responsible for the majority of jobs created between 1933-1937, during which period the unemployment rate dropped from ~25% down to 9%. This same series shows that the Roosevelt Recession was nowhere near as bad as we have thought, and that the U.S hit 6% unemployment in 1941, signalling a return to normal levels of unemployment before U.S entry in WWII.

    In other words, the WPA ended the Great Depression. Spread the news…or you can buy my dissertation.

    • Thanks for the CWA correction; I’ll at least be willing to be convinced by the dissertation argument, which I look forward to be published.

  • Anonymous

    In addition to all the art, photography, and folklore projects, the WPA also sponsored some great archaeological work. The methods might not be up to modern standards, but they funded research that would never have been done otherwise, on sites that were often destroyed in the post-war boom.

    It was also a good economic stimulus because almost all the costs went to labor.

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