The Works Progress Administration (renamed during 1939 as the Work Projects Administration; WPA) was the largest New Deal agency, employing millions to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads, and operated large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. It fed children and redistributed food, clothing, and housing. Almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge or school constructed by the agency, which especially benefited rural and Western populations. Expenditures from 1936 to 1939 totaled nearly $7 billion.
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 legislation had passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 329 to 78, but was delayed by the Senate.
The WPA continued and extended relief programs similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was established by Congress in 1932 during the administration of Roosevelt's predecessor Herbert Hoover. 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.
Until ended by Congress and war employment during 1943, the WPA was the largest employer in the country. Most people who needed a job were eligible for at least some of its jobs. Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in each 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 to teach new skills and the project's original legislation had a strong emphasis on training.
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 was 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 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 18 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. Most of the women worked with sewing projects, where they were taught to use sewing machines and made clothing, bedding, and supplies for hospitals, orphanages, and adoption centers.
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%). 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 during late 1937, 15.2% were African American. The NAACP magazine Opportunity hailed the WPA:
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 Theatre in Charleston, the towering Brightman Institute of Mental Health off the rocky Northern California coast, the Griffth Observatory in Los Angeles, and the Timberline Lodge on Oregon's Mt. Hood; 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. One construction project was the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, the bridges of which were each designed as architecturally unique.
The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered. Harry Hopkins testified to Congress during 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. 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."
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 to limit a person to 30 hours or less a week of work.
Unlike the popular Civilian Conservation Corps, the WPA had numerous conservative critics. One of the principal criticisms of the program was that it wasted federal dollars on projects that were often not needed or wanted. Professional, "white-collar" WPA projects in particular were often singled out by conservatives for their allegedly 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 politicians favored by 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 political criticism was that Roosevelt was building a nationwide voter base with millions of workers.
Some who were critical of the WPA referred to it as "We Poke Along", "We Piddle Around", "We Putter Along", "Working Piss Ants", or the "Whistle, Piss and Argue gang". These were sarcastic references to WPA projects that sometimes slowed greatly, because foremen on a government project devised to maintain employment often did not have any 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 included:
During 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 ended with the beginning of war production for World War II, so Congress terminated the WPA during late 1943.
When he died during 1998 at the age of 93, Harry Offenhartz was thought to have been the last "new-dealer" and former employee of the WPA. Offenhartz also began The New Heritage Music Foundation to honor his New Deal-era heroes.
The Works Progress Administration (or WPA) was an agency in the United States during the New Deal. It was formed in 1935, during the "Second New Deal". It employed more workers than any government agency had before. It built thousands of roads, schools, and government buildings. Part of it was the Federal Art Project, which created, such as murals by Diego Rivera and the play The Cradle Will Rock. The agency was led by Harry Hopkins. It lasted until World War II.