WPA Workers in New York. (Credit: Joseph Schwartz/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Introduction

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was an ambitious employment and infrastructure program created by President Roosevelt in 1935, during the bleakest years of the Great Depression. Over its eight years of existence, the WPA put roughly 8.5 million Americans to work. Perhaps best known for its public works projects, the WPA also sponsored projects in the arts—the agency employed tens of thousands of actors, musicians, writers and other artists.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the WPA with an executive order on May 6, 1935. It was part of his New Deal plan to lift the country out of the Great Depression by reforming the financial system and restoring the economy to pre-Depression levels.

The unemployment rate in 1935 was at a staggering 20 percent. The WPA was designed to provide relief for the unemployed by providing jobs and income for millions of Americans. At its height in late 1938, more than 3.3 million Americans worked for the WPA.

The WPA—which in 1939 was renamed the Work Projects Administration—employed mostly unskilled men to carry out public works infrastructure projects. They built more than 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.

As weapons production for World War II began ramping up and unemployment dropped, the federal government decided a national relief program was no longer needed. The WPA shut down in June of 1943. At that time, unemployment was less than two percent. Many Americans had transitioned to work in the armed services and defense industries.

In addition to its well-known building and infrastructure projects, the WPA also oversaw a group of programs collectively known as Federal Project Number One. These programs employed artists, musicians, actors and writers.

Roosevelt intended Federal One—as it was known—to put artists back to work while entertaining and inspiring the larger population by creating a hopeful view of life amidst the economic turmoil.

Artists created motivational posters and painted murals of “American scenes” in public buildings. Sculptors created monuments, and actors and musicians were paid to perform.

Federal One also established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lobbied FDR to sign the executive order establishing Federal One. She later praised the project in columns and speeches and defended it against critics who saw the arts as a waste of money.

Federal One comprised a small part of WPA expenditures. Roughly $27 million of the nearly $5 billion that had been earmarked for WPA work programs went to the arts. The WPA arts programs led to the later creation of the National Foundation of the Arts.

At its height, Federal One employed 5,300 visual artists and related professionals. Some of them later became world-renowned.

Before his art could earn him income, American painter Jackson Pollock worked for the WPA’s Federal Arts Project, a component of Federal One. He worked as a mural assistant and later an easel painter between 1938 and 1942. After World War II, Pollock became a major figure in the abstract expressionism movement.

In addition to Pollock, the WPA employed a number of other abstract and experimental artists that would go on to form the New York School, an avant-garde art movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That group included renowned artists such as Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner.

Holger Cahill, a former director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, was the national director of the Federal Arts Project throughout its duration.

The architecture of many U.S. buildings constructed as part of Great Depression relief projects is often referred to as “PWA Moderne” (for Public Works Administration, another New Deal program) or “Depression Moderne.” The style blended neoclassical and Art Deco elements.

Notable examples include the Hoover Dam, the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Mint.

When FDR took office in 1933, he promised a “New Deal” for everyone. That included women, African Americans and other groups.

While inequities existed under the programs, many women, blacks and other minorities found employment with the WPA. In 1935, the WPA employed approximately 350,000 African Americans, about 15 percent of its total workforce. The Federal Music and Theatre projects also supported black musicians and actors.

The WPA made significant contributions to the preservation of African American culture and history with the Federal Writers’ Project. The program collected interviews, articles and notes on African American life in the South, including oral histories from former slaves.

The WPA put women to work in clerical jobs, gardening, canning and as librarians and seamstresses. Women engaged in sewing projects made up about seven percent of the national WPA workforce.

A Gallup poll in 1939 asked Americans what they liked best and worst about FDR’s New Deal. The answer to both questions was “the WPA.”

Some politicians criticized the WPA for its inefficiencies. WPA construction projects sometimes ran three to four times the cost of private work. Some of this was intentional. The WPA avoided cost-saving technologies and machinery in order to hire more workers.

Unions protested the WPA for its refusal to pay wages as high as those in the private sector.

WPA arts programs drew frequent criticism from Congress and the lay public. “Boondoggling” entered the American lexicon as a term to describe these and other government projects that critics deemed wasteful or pointless.

Despite these attacks, the WPA is celebrated today for the employment it offered to millions during the darkest days of the Great Depression, and for its lasting legacy of smartly designed, well-built schools, dams, roads, bridges and other buildings and structures—many of which are still in use today.

WPA: The Works Progress Administration: The Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries.
African Americans and the New Deal: A Look Back in History: The Roosevelt Institute.
TAG Archives: WPA Women: The Living New Deal.
1934: The Art of the New Deal: Smithsonian.com.
Federal Project Number One: The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project.
Federal Cultural Programs of the 1930’s: Webster’s World of Cultural Democracy.
Great Depression program still benefiting Americans today: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.