Works Progress Administration Is Established

The Works Progress Administration was responsible for a nationwide program of public works to alleviate unemployment. At its height, the WPA employed four million people. It funded both vital infrastructural projects, such as bridges and highways, and the creation of many works of art and literature, becoming a showcase for President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Summary of Event

The history of the New Deal’s relief policy is essentially one of hopeful experimentation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was reluctant to engage in a full-scale program of deficit spending implicit in direct relief and public works, yet he was deeply committed to relieving the nation’s unemployment. The National Industrial Recovery Act National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) (NIRA), passed in June, 1933, provided for the creation of the Public Works Administration, under Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, for the purpose of spending some $3.3 billion to relieve unemployment. Ickes, however, approached his task with such caution that it had little effect. Also, to relieve the growing unemployment problem, Roosevelt established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) in May, 1933, with an appropriation of $500 million to make direct grants to the states for relief services. [kw]Works Progress Administration Is Established (Apr. 8, 1935)
Works Progress Administration
New Deal;Works Progress Administration
Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (1934)
Great Depression;New Deal
[g]United States;Apr. 8, 1935: Works Progress Administration Is Established[08880]
[c]Government and politics;Apr. 8, 1935: Works Progress Administration Is Established[08880]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 8, 1935: Works Progress Administration Is Established[08880]
[c]Business and labor;Apr. 8, 1935: Works Progress Administration Is Established[08880]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 8, 1935: Works Progress Administration Is Established[08880]
Hopkins, Harry
Cahill, Holger
Alsberg, Henry G.
Flanagan, Hallie
Ickes, Harold
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;New Deal
Biddle, George
Walker, Frank Comerford
Williams, Aubrey Willis
Bruce, Edward

The director of FERA was Harry Hopkins, a former social worker. Hopkins soon realized that his agency was making little progress on the national unemployment problem. With Roosevelt’s assistance, he succeeded in establishing a temporary Civil Works Administration Civil Works Administration (CWA) in October, 1933. The primary purpose of this agency was to provide employment for some four million men and women in a complete federal make-work project. Nationwide, the CWA engaged in such tasks as repairing or building in excess of 500,000 miles of roads, one thousand airports, forty thousand schools, and more than thirty-five hundred playgrounds and athletic fields. The CWA also employed fifty thousand teachers. In the winter of 1933-1934, Hopkins employed more than 3 million persons and spent $933 million. At its peak, in mid-January, 1934, the program employed 4.23 million individuals. According to historian William E. Leuchtenburg, “The CWA got the country through the winter.” By March of 1934, however, the president was disturbed at the rate of expenditure; more important, he did not want the work-relief program to become a permanent form of dole to the unemployed. The CWA was terminated, and once again FERA took up primary responsibility for relief, including those projects left unfinished by the CWA.

An evaluation of the programs persuaded Roosevelt that something else was needed to combat the problem of unemployment. Neither FERA, which generally provided direct relief, nor the CWA, which had provided a disguised dole, had made much of an impact on the constantly expanding unemployment problem. Both the president and Hopkins wanted to keep the federal government out of direct relief; instead, they wanted to concentrate on a vast public employment program that would provide honest jobs for the needy. It was this reasoning that led Roosevelt to call for a new emergency relief appropriation in January, 1935. The subsequent Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, passed April 8, 1935, provided $5 billion with few strings attached.

The appropriation of the money, however, was only one of the problems facing Roosevelt in his new work-relief program. Of immediate concern was the appointment of a director for the new program. Hopkins had much to recommend him for the task. Roosevelt sympathized with Hopkins’s desire to place major emphasis on benefits for the workers. At times, however, the president seemed disturbed by the fantastic rate at which Hopkins spent federal funds. Another leading contender for the job was Ickes, who desired an expansion of his Public Works Administration. With both men campaigning for the job, and feeling unable himself to disregard either for fear of seeming to repudiate their past accomplishments, Roosevelt effected a compromise by creating an incredibly complex organization to spend the money and by bringing in Frank Comerford Walker, an old and tactful friend, to serve as mediator between the two men.

Despite the elaborate organization, Hopkins managed to dominate the new relief program, primarily because the president, liking his approach better than that of Ickes, provided loopholes in the rules and certain strategic assistance. Hopkins’s new agency, called the Works Progress Administration (WPA), proceeded to expand into the most gigantic federal works operation ever seen in peacetime. Originally designed for the unskilled worker, the WPA was soon engaged in a variety of projects, constructing more than 600,000 miles of highways, roads, and streets, repairing and constructing more than 100,000 bridges, 100,000 public buildings, thousands of parks and airfields, and thousands of recreational facilities. In these activities, Hopkins was guided by the idea of providing legitimate employment and making sure that most of the money went into wages rather than material expenses.

The WPA also aided thousands of artists, writers, actors, and students. The Federal Theatre Project Federal Theatre Project was established under the direction of Hallie Flanagan, a Guggenheim Fellow and head of Vassar College’s theater. The project employed many gifted people and engaged in considerable experimentation until it was abruptly terminated by Congress in 1939. During a period of four years, live drama was brought to an audience totaling thirty million in thousands of small towns that hitherto had seen no better than small traveling tent shows. The Federal Writers’ Project Federal Writers’ Project directed by Henry Alsberg, a former director of the Provincetown Theater, employed college professors, journalists, and other literary persons to record local and regional history. More than one thousand state and territorial guides, picture books, and other works of historical interest were written. Under the direction of Holger Cahill, the Federal Art Project Federal Art Project provided employment for thousands of local artists whose artistic endeavors still grace hundreds of local post offices and libraries throughout the United States.

In addition to these projects, the National Youth Administration National Youth Administration (NYA) was created to assist those young men and women of the United States unable to find jobs. Under the direction of former Alabama social worker Aubrey Williams, the NYA sought and found part-time employment for more than 600,000 college students and more than 1.5 million high school students over a five-year period.

The WPA, effective as an emergency measure, had its weaknesses. At no time did Hopkins employ more than four million people, accounting for less than half of the ten million unemployed at the time. Political problems arose because of his opposition to the use of the WPA for patronage purposes, and there was mounting concern that the jobs created by the program were in fact a dole. When Congress succeeded in gaining control of WPA appropriations, Hopkins was forced to change his approach, and the administration was restructured in 1939. It continued until 1943, when—in light of the simultaneous employment boom and conscription brought about by World War II—it was finally terminated.


The WPA proved to be one of the most famous programs of the New Deal as well as one of those considered most successful. It is a mark of the ability of the program to live up to its own standards—creating real jobs rather than handouts—that the WPA is remembered more for its products than for its effects on unemployment. Many important American literary and artistic figures—including Arthur Miller and Orson Welles—produced works with WPA monies, and many of the bridges and roads created with those monies remain—with plaques attesting to the source of their funding—in the twenty-first century. Corruption was to some degree inevitable, but when the immensity of the unemployment problem posed by the Depression and the novelty of the remedy is considered, the WPA represented a gigantic effort on the part of the federal government to bring immediate succor to the country’s jobless. It also proved to be a forerunner and the introductory phase of the nation’s attempt to deal effectively with the ever-growing problem of unemployment and public welfare, with all the accompanying complications. Works Progress Administration
New Deal;Works Progress Administration
Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (1934)
Great Depression;New Deal

Further Reading

  • Adams, Henry H. Harry Hopkins. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977. This biography of the director of the Works Progress Administration provides insight into both the private and public lives of Hopkins. Photographs, extensive bibliography, index.
  • Becker, Heather. Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive- and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904-1943. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002. Study of populist Chicago school murals beginning thirty years before the WPA. Since it covers both WPA and pre-WPA art, the study provides a basis of comparison that allows one to determine just what the program did and did not accomplish. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995. Brinkley sees the New Deal not merely as a reform movement, but “as part of a long process of ideological adaptation” in the United States.
  • Contreras, Belisario. Tradition and Innovation in New Deal Art. London: Associated University Presses, 1983. Discusses both the politics and aesthetics of New Deal art. Points out what was traditional and what was innovative in the art of the PWAP and the WPA/FAP. Thoroughly documented and well illustrated (black-and-white plates only).
  • DeNoon, Christopher. Posters of the WPA. Los Angeles: Wheatley Press, 1987. Identifying the period from 1935 to 1943 as one of the most innovative in the history of American graphic design, the author discusses the developments that took place as the WPA printed two million posters from thirty-five thousand designs. Illustrated with accurate color reproductions of the original posters.
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Explores Roosevelt’s role in the New Deal. Chapter 6 focuses on efforts of the Works Progress Administration to relieve unemployment.
  • McKinzie, Richard. The New Deal for Artists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Emphasizes the social and political forces behind the establishment of the WPA/FAP; does not focus on the evaluation or explication of the art produced under the program’s auspices. A carefully documented study of the relationship between a government bureaucracy and the arts.
  • O’Connor, Francis, ed. Art for the Millions. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973. A collection of essays written by many of the artists and administrators who were in the WPA/FAP. One of the best sources of information about the program. Also contains complete documentation: inventories of works and manuscripts, reports of expenditures, a list of community art centers, and bibliography.
  • Park, Marlene, and Gerald Markowitz. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. Focuses on the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, which commissioned murals and sculpture for federal buildings and for eleven hundred post offices. Authors concentrate on choice of themes as well as style, while also giving helpful data on individual artists. Profusely illustrated.
  • Schlesinger, Arthur, Jr. The Coming of the New Deal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. An essential and timeless study, this comprehensive and detailed work cannot be overlooked in any thorough examination of New Deal legislation and policies.
  • Seaton, Elizabeth. WPA Federal Art Project: Printmaking in California, 1935-1943. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 2005. An example of the art projects funded by the WPA, this is a case study and collection of prints made by WPA artists in California. Bibliographic references.
  • White, Graham, and John Maze. Harold Ickes of the New Deal: His Private Life and Public Career. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Looks at the career of Ickes as the temperamental interior secretary and head of the Public Works Administration in the context of the New Deal.

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