Works Progress Administration

Works Progress Administration
Agency overview
FormedMay 6, 1935 (1935-05-06)
DissolvedJune 30, 1943
Employees8.5 million 1935–1943
3.3 million in November 1938 (peak)
Annual budget$1.3 billion (1935)
Key document

The Works Progress Administration (WPA; renamed in 1939 as the Work Projects Administration) was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of people (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects,[1] including the construction of public buildings and roads. In a much smaller project, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.[1]

Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge, or school that was constructed by the agency. The WPA's initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion (about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP).[2]

Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States, while developing infrastructure to support the current and future society. At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. Between 1935 and 1943, when the agency was disbanded, the WPA employed 8.5 million people.[3] Most people who needed a job were eligible for employment in some capacity.[4] Hourly wages were typically set to the prevailing wages in each area.[5]:70 Full employment, which was reached in 1942 and emerged as a long-term national goal around 1944, was not the goal of the WPA; rather, it tried to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.[6]:64, 184

"The stated goal of public building programs was to end the depression or, at least, alleviate its worst effects," sociologist Robert D. Leighninger asserted. "Millions of people needed subsistence incomes. Work relief was preferred over public assistance (the dole) because it maintained self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and kept skills sharp."[7]:228

The WPA was a national program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided 10–30% of the costs. Usually the local sponsor provided land and often trucks and supplies, with the WPA responsible for wages (and for the salaries of supervisors, who were not on relief). WPA sometimes took over state and local relief programs that had originated in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) or Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs (FERA).[6]:63

It was liquidated on June 30, 1943, as a result of low unemployment due to the worker shortage of World War II. The WPA had provided millions of Americans with jobs for eight years.[6]:71


FDR prepares to speak about the establishment of the work relief program and Social Security at his fireside chat of April 28, 1935.
FERA administrator and WPA head Harry Hopkins speaking to reporters (November 1935)

A joint resolution introduced January 21, 1935,[8] the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 was passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 8, 1935.[9] On May 6, 1935, FDR issued Executive Order 7034, establishing the Works Progress Administration.[10][11] The WPA superseded the work of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which was dissolved. Direct relief assistance was permanently replaced by a national work relief program—a major public works program directed by the WPA.[12]

The WPA was largely shaped by Harry Hopkins, supervisor of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and close adviser to Roosevelt. Both Roosevelt and Hopkins believed that the route to economic recovery and the lessened importance of the dole would be in employment programs such as the WPA.[6]:56–57 Hallie Flanagan, national director of the Federal Theatre Project, wrote that "for the first time in the relief experiments of this country the preservation of the skill of the worker, and hence the preservation of his self-respect, became important."[13]:17

The WPA was organized into the following divisions:

  • The Division of Engineering and Construction, which planned and supervised construction projects including airports, dams, highways and sanitation systems.[14]
  • The Division of Professional and Service Projects (called the Division of Women's and Professional Projects in 1937), which was responsible for white-collar projects including education programs, recreation programs, and the arts projects. It was later named the Division of Community Service Programs and the Service Division.[15]
  • The Division of Finance.[16]
  • The Division of Information.[17]
  • The Division of Investigation, which succeeded a comparable division at FERA and investigated fraud, misappropriation of funds and disloyalty.[18]
  • The Division of Statistics, also known as the Division of Social Research.[19]
  • The Project Control Division, which processed project applications.[20]
  • Other divisions including the Employment, Management, Safety, Supply, and Training and Reemployment.[21]