Works Progress Administration (WPA)

Stephen Conti

Background Information

The time, the 1920’s, often referred to as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age, was the decade that followed World War I. It was a time of dramatic changes for the nation and Americans. America was now the richest nation. The economy was strong, there were many jobs, and for the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. It was a period of good times for most Americans, an era of American prosperity and optimism. Also, it was the decade of the Ford Model T automobile, the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the invention of the radio, and the first movie with sound.
Then, on October 29, 1929, known as Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed; and the nation’s strong economy collapsed. America was now in an economic depression, known as the Great Depression. It was the largest and most significant economic depression to affect not only America, but also the world.

When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. Americans could not find jobs, lost their jobs and their homes, and farmers lost their farms. Between 1929 and 1933, there were over 12 million Americans without jobs, and almost every bank was closed. It was a time of fear, poverty, hunger and despair.FDR.png
President Roosevelt was now faced with the greatest economic crisis in American history. He proposed an economic reform known as the “New Deal”, a series of programs and policies to combat the Great Depression. This was the biggest government project in our nation's history that included construction projects and social programs, new agencies and laws.

What is the Works Progress Administration (WPA)?


One of the most crucial programs of the New Deal was signed on May 6, 1935. President Roosevelt signed the Works Progress Administration (WPA) into an executive order. It is the most famous of the New Deal programs because it affected so many people’s lives. It was created as a work-relief program which employed more than 8.5 million people. Its employees built roads, public buildings, public parks, bridges and airports.

The director of the WPA was Harry Hopkins. He was an ex-social worker and was considered an enthusiastic person. Before being cancelled in 1943, the WPA spent more than $11 million in employment relief. Despite being more expensive than direct relief payments, Hopkins believed it was necessary because, “Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit”.
The WPA concerned itself with employing many people. However, only 13.5 percent of WPA employees were women, even in WPA’s highest employment year of 1938. Although it had been decided that women would be paid the same wages as men, women were given lower-paying jobs. These jobs included sewing, bookbinding, caring for the elderly, school lunch programs, nursery school, and recreational work. The director of the women’s programs at the WPA was Ellen Woodward. She successfully pushed for women to be included in the Professional Projects Division. The Professional Projects Division oversaw the federal art, music, theater, and writers’ projects.
Hopkins believed federal support of the arts was beneficial. When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” Tens of thousands of artists were funded to create 2,566 murals and 17,744 sculptures that were to be placed in public buildings across the nation. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, brought more art to more Americans than anything else in history. The National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were created because of the WPA program in the arts.
Even though the WPA helped so many Americans, it was not able to employ everyone and those it did employ were paid low wages. There were five million left unemployed and they needed to get assistance from state relief programs. These state programs, gave an average of $10 per week to families. However, the WPA still improved the overall mood of the nation. In February 1936, a poem sent to Roosevelt stating:
In its first year, the WPA employed more than 3 million people and over eight years, provided work for over 8 million Americans. These workers were paid an average monthly salary of $41.57 and put $11 million into the economy. The WPA program constructed and repaired 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 schools, 572,000 miles of highways, 13,000 playgrounds, and 8,000 parks and included many other odd jobs. Although this agency had decreased unemployment, it officially ended in 1943.


There were many conservatives against the WPA. The agency was criticized about funding projects that were not needed or wanted. Critics would say the WPA employees were paid to “rake leaves in the park”. Also, some projects were criticized for being too much on the left wing. White-collar jobs had social and political themes. One criticism was that the WPA made decisions on the basis of politics. Senators and Representatives in favor of the New Deal or had high political power often decided which states or places received the most funding. Conservatives criticized that Roosevelt was building a Democratic machine with the support of the millions of newly employed workers.

Democratic National Chairman Jim Farley rides the WPA to victory in 1936 elections as WPA head Harry Hopkins approves, in this anti-WPA cartoon.
The WPA's criticisms included satirical jokes and phrases, such as, "We Poke Along," "We Piddle Along" or "We Putter Around." These things were said because some WPA projects lost momentum because the government was not able to influence worker productivity by demoting or firing the employees. The government based the wages it gave to its WPA employees on a “security wage”. This means the workers were paid even if the project was delayed, constructed incorrectly, or not finished at all.

Evolution and termination

In 1939, it was renamed as the Work Projects Administration. In 1940, the WPA changed policy and began providing training in specific trades or careers for the unemployed so they could obtain jobs in factories. Labor unions had previously vetoed any proposal to provide training for new skills. By 1943, with wartime production during World War II, growth of new companies and increased employment in the private sector, President Roosevelt signed the order terminating the WPA. It ended on June 30, 1943.

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