Works Progress Administration (WPA)

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2015
Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Agency overview
Pages: 3
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the first major unemployment program of the New Deal, a series of programs designed to counteract the pervasive joblessness and poverty of the Great Depression (1929–39). Authorized as part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in April 1935, the WPA used the power and wealth of the federal government to initiate public works projects and hire the unemployed heads of families to staff them. The program, under the leadership of Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), provided about 3 million public sector jobs per year between 1935 and 1943, when the program ended. Most WPA workers built libraries, schools, hospitals, playgrounds, airports, bridges, and roads, but the program also employed writers, actors, musicians, and visual artists at jobs in their fields. The concept that the federal government, rather than private industry, should create jobs was a sharp departure from conventional policy. While critics decried this expansion of government's role in the economy, the WPA was widely credited with relieving unemployment during the Great Depression (1929–39) and with creating infrastructure improvements that were vital to the nation's future economic growth.

Following the stock market crash in October 1929, unemployment in the United States skyrocketed, rising from 3 percent in 1929 to 25 percent in 1933, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45) became president. Roosevelt had campaigned on the promise of using the power of the federal government to combat unemployment, poverty, and economic decline, and he immediately introduced a series of regulatory and recovery programs. He formed the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which was designed to create a federal minimum wage and limit work hours, and the Civil Works Administration, which used federal funds to hire the unemployed to build infrastructure projects throughout the country. Both programs were short-lived, however. The NRA ended in 1935 after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The Civil Works Administration, on the other hand, was designed from the outset to be a temporary program that lasted only until the spring of 1934. However, Roosevelt also inaugurated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, which was a long-term program that employed young people in various natural resource conservation projects. The CCC lasted until 1942 and provided a model for the more expansive WPA.

The WPA was created in April 1935 as part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. Through the WPA the federal government gave states loose parameters for the kinds of public works projects they could fund, ranging from sewer building to road construction. The states were then allowed to initiate their own projects. While the states were required to contribute to WPA employee salaries, the federal government paid the majority of these costs. With millions of employees and thousands of projects around the country, the WPA was extremely expensive. Between 1936 and 1939 alone, the program's budget exceeded $7 billion, an enormous figure for the time. This infusion of public money into the economy was unprecedented, but its effect on the nation's recovery from the Great Depression has been widely debated.

Supporters of the WPA argued that it was a well-managed program that funneled almost 85 percent of its total budget into wages and salaries. This money was vital

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Harry Hopkins (1890–1946) was one of the major architects and managers of the New Deal, a wide-ranging series of programs of economic reform and unemployment relief initiated in response to the devastation of the Great Depression (1929–39). Hopkins went on to become a major U.S. policymaker during World War II (1939–45). Brought to Washington, D.C., by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45), Hopkins was widely credited with effectively using the power of the federal government to support the nation's economy during a difficult era in U.S. history.

Harry Lloyd Hopkins was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and grew up largely in Grinnell, Iowa. In 1912 Hopkins graduated from Grinnell College, where he had studied social work. He then left Iowa for New York City and a career in the same field, rising rapidly to the administrative ranks of his profession between 1915 to 1930. During this period Hopkins also became active in social movements, especially those focused on creating pensions for widows with children and relief for the families of servicemen who had fought during World War I (1914–18). Hopkins was one of the founders of the American Association of Social Workers, the first national professional organization for social workers.

Hopkins' reputation as a talented administrator reached the ear of Roosevelt, then New York's governor, who brought Hopkins into his administration. Hopkins' job was to help develop relief programs for New York state residents during the early years of the Great Depression. After Roosevelt became the president of the United States in 1933, Hopkins was invited to join Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. He was appointed head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), a New Deal agency that granted federal money to individual states for unemployment relief.

In 1935 Hopkins began to develop the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which became one of the federal government's major efforts to combat unemployment during the Great Depression. A temporary job-creation program, the WPA's focus was on getting the average American back to work through socially useful jobs. The program proved enormously popular. It provided jobs and income—along with hope—to Americans looking for economic relief and stability. It also helped bolster the nation's infrastructure. Although the WPA thousands of miles of roads were built, along with bridges, parks, playgrounds, schools, airports, post offices, and other public buildings. Although the WPA was a federal program, Hopkins had the foresight to operate it in a decentralized fashion, with many decisions made at state and local levels. The WPA did not have the “feel” of a huge, federal bureaucratic program, largely because it was administered by local governments that defined their own needs and projects and that were allowed to manage their own WPA monetary allotments.

Despite his success, health problems forced Hopkins to resign from government service in 1940. Within a year, however, he was back in service, responding to Roosevelt's plea for assistance in administering government programs during World War II (1939–45). Despite his weakened health Hopkins returned to work and supervised Roosevelt's controversial Lend-Lease Act, which provided supplies to Great Britain and other Allied powers. In this role Hopkins became a kind of unofficial roving ambassador for Roosevelt, providing him with impressions, observations, insights, and advice. Hopkins quickly familiarized himself with most aspects of the war effort and worked closely with Winston Churchill (1874–65), the prime minister of Great Britain. He also conferred with Soviet leader and then U.S. ally Joseph Stalin (1879–1953).

Hopkins' actions during World War II, despite his poor health, marked the high point of his career as a public servant. Although Hopkins worked mostly behind the scenes, he was praised worldwide by Allied forces for his creative and honest approach to the war effort. He also was known for his help in sustaining the confidence of Americans to overcome the crises of war and economic downturns.

His increasingly poor health and the death of his friend President Roosevelt in 1945 did not deter Hopkins from playing an important role in winning congressional approval for the establishment of the United Nations, an international cooperative organization. For his service to the United States, President Harry Truman (in office 1945–53) awarded Hopkins the Distinguished Service Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor. Hopkins died months later, in January 1946.


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to the welfare of those workers who otherwise would have been unemployed. From 1935 to its end in 1943, the WPA employed more than 8.5 million people and instituted almost 1.5 million projects, including infrastructure projects, public artworks, public parks, and written guides to each state. Equally important, the program improved morale for millions of jobless Americans. Despite this the WPA faced substantial contemporary criticism and has been the subject of much subsequent evaluation, suggesting that the administration had a minor or even negative effect on the nation's ability to recover from the Great Depression.

Critics of the WPA argued that the jobs created through the WPA amounted to a handout and joked that its initials really stood for “We Putter Around.” Some charged that WPA writers and artists were Communist sympathizers who did not deserve a government paycheck. Others argued, with compelling evidence, that funding for projects was politically motivated, with states supportive of Roosevelt and the New Deal receiving disproportionate appropriations. Critics also noted the tendency for WPA funding to increase close to elections, seemingly as a way of swaying voters to continue to support Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. Additionally, economists and historians have suggested that the creation of so many government-funded jobs discouraged the unemployed from seeking positions in the private sector, thereby interfering with the labor market's ability to correct itself and remedy the economic downturn of the early 1930s without government intrusion.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000995