Works Progress Administration: Significance & History

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Study the Works Progress Administration, one of America's lasting legacies of the Depression Era! Learn its history and significance before taking a quiz to test yourself.

Establishment of the Works Progress Administration

During the Great Depression on April 8, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) urged Congress to authorize $4.9 billion dollars towards the funding of a temporary federal works program called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The largest relief program in American history, the WPA sponsored work projects designed for non-political aims that did not compete with the private sector. Managed daily by state and local jurisdictions, WPA projects helped unemployed, semi-skilled and unskilled workers find jobs in a wide range of occupations.

Building a Road

WPA Projects

One of the main occupational areas in which workers toiled was construction. Building public facilities, such as schools, airports, tennis courts, libraries, and storage dams, workers produced tangible results. They also built roads, highways, parks, bridges, and landing fields.

The WPA also sponsored projects focused on social and cultural needs of the public. For example, the National Youth Administration had the major purpose of giving the young people of America valuable work experiences. The WPA was often labeled as the 'make work' program because of its successful community outreach: it employed over one-third of the nation's 10 million unemployed.

Federal One was the title given to the collection of projects developed for the purpose of infusing the public with arts-related jobs for professional and white-collar workers. Four of the most impressive projects were the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project (FMP), the Federal Theater Project (FTP), and the Federal Writers' Project (FWP). The objective of each of these projects was to create works of art that represented the respective category. For example, FAP workers were paid to make posters, paintings, sculptures and other visual arts; while FMP workers were comprised of unemployed musicians who could be trained and rehabilitated.

WPA Poster

In terms of WPA results, far more men than women participated in the program, and African Americans made up 15% of the WPA workers. The WPA Education Program enabled these minorities to study and achieve literacy and to become teachers as well as craftsmen. Overall, the popularity of WPA spread as it helped to improve the public good. Consequently, President Roosevelt's own popularity grew, and in the 1936 election, he had a resounding victory.

Critcism of the WPA

Although WPA was popular with many citizens, it also had its critics. The supporters of the WPA were great in number due to its success. They maintained that the WPA had ushered in a new time of hope and prosperity for the Americans. Harry Hopkins, WPA administrator, believed that the cost of WPA was well worth its efforts to provide employable people with over a million jobs, and he famously stated, '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.'

Nevertheless, opponents of the WPA denounced it for a number of reasons. They claimed that the program was wasteful and prone to political maneuvering. These critics thought that the WPA might become a political force in its own right and control policies and elections. When Hopkins insisted that the WPA would become permanent and enlarged, critics' objections were fueled even further.

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