On this date in 1935, FDR issued executive order 7034, establishing the Works Progress Administration. The WPA superseded the work of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, which was dissolved.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.
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. 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.”
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.
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.
The Division of Finance.
The Division of Information.
The Division of Investigation, which succeeded a comparable division at FERA and investigated fraud, misappropriation of funds and disloyalty.
The Division of Statistics, also known as the Division of Social Research.
The Project Control Division, which processed project applications.
Other divisions including the Employment, Management, Safety, Supply, and Training and Reemployment.
The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered. Harry Hopkins testified to Congress in January 1935 why he set the number at 3.5 million, using Federal Emergency Relief Administration data. Estimating costs at $1,200 per worker per year ($21.9 thousand in present-day terms), he asked for and received $4 billion ($73.1 billion in present-day terms). In 1935 there were 20 million people on relief in the United States. Of these, 8.3 million were children under 16 years of age; 3.8 million were persons between the ages of 16 and 65 who were not working or seeking work. These included housewives, students in school, and incapacitated persons. Another 750,000 were persons aged 65 or over. Thus, of the total of 20 million persons then receiving relief, 13 million were not considered eligible for employment. This left a total of 7 million presumably employable persons between the ages of 16 and 65 inclusive. Of these, however, 1.65 million were farm operators or persons who had some non-relief employment, while another 350,000 were, despite the fact that they were already employed or seeking work, considered incapacitated. Deducting this 2 million from the total of 7.15 million, there remained 5.15 million persons age 16 to 65, unemployed, looking for work, and able to work.
Because of the assumption that only one worker per family would be permitted to work under the proposed program, this total of 5.15 million was further reduced by 1.6 million—the estimated number of workers who were members of families with two or more employable people. Thus, there remained a net total of 3.55 million workers in as many households for whom jobs were to be provided.
The WPA reached its peak employment of 3,334,594 people in November 1938. To be eligible for WPA employment, an individual had to be a US citizen, 18 or older, able-bodied, unemployed, and certified as in need by a local public relief agency approved by the WPA. The WPA Division of Employment selected the worker’s placement to WPA projects based on previous experience or training. Worker pay was based on three factors: the region of the country, the degree of urbanization, and the individual’s skill. It varied from $19 per month to $94 per month, with the average wage being about $52.50—$934 in present-day terms. The goal was to pay the local prevailing wage, but limit the hours of work to 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week; the stated minimum being 30 hours a week, or 120 hours a month.
WPA projects were administered by the Division of Engineering and Construction and the Division of Professional and Service Projects. Most projects were initiated, planned and sponsored by states, counties or cities. Nationwide projects were sponsored until 1939. The WPA built traditional infrastructure of the New Deal such as roads, bridges, schools, libraries, courthouses, hospitals, sidewalks, waterworks, and post-offices, but also constructed museums, swimming pools, parks, community centers, playgrounds, coliseums, markets, fairgrounds, tennis courts, zoos, botanical gardens, auditoriums, waterfronts, city halls, gyms, and university unions. Most of these are still in use today. The amount of infrastructure projects of the WPA included 40,000 new and 85,000 improved buildings. These new buildings included 5,900 new schools; 9,300 new auditoriums, gyms, and recreational buildings; 1,000 new libraries; 7,000 new dormitories; and 900 new armories. In addition, infrastructure projects included 2,302 stadiums, grandstands, and bleachers; 52 fairgrounds and rodeo grounds; 1,686 parks covering 75,152 acres; 3,185 playgrounds; 3,026 athletic fields; 805 swimming pools; 1,817 handball courts; 10,070 tennis courts; 2,261 horseshoe pits; 1,101 ice-skating areas; 138 outdoor theatres; 254 golf courses; and 65 ski jumps. Total expenditures on WPA projects through June 1941 totaled approximately $11.4 billion—the equivalent of $194 billion today. Over $4 billion was spent on highway, road, and street projects; more than $1 billion on public buildings, including the iconic Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, and Timberline Lodge in Oregon’s Mount Hood National Forest.
More than $1 billion—$17 billion today—was spent on publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion on welfare projects, including sewing projects for women, the distribution of surplus commodities, and school lunch projects. One construction project was the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut, the bridges of which were each designed as architecturally unique. In its eight-year run, the WPA built 325 firehouses and renovated 2,384 of them across the United States. The 20,000 miles of water mains, installed by their hand as well, contributed to increased fire protection across the country.
The direct focus of the WPA projects changed with need. In 1935 priority projects were to improve infrastructure; roads, extension of electricity to rural areas, water conservation, sanitation and flood control. In 1936, as outlined in that year’s Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, public facilities became a focus; parks and associated facilities, public buildings, utilities, airports, and transportation projects were funded. The following year, saw the introduction of agricultural improvements, such as the production of marl fertilizer and the eradication of fungus pests. As the Second World War approached, and then eventually began, WPA projects became increasingly defense related.
One project of the WPA was funding state-level library service demonstration projects, to create new areas of library service to underserved populations and to extend rural service. Another project was the Household Service Demonstration Project, which trained 30,000 women for domestic employment. South Carolina had one of the larger statewide library service demonstration projects. At the end of the project in 1943, South Carolina had twelve publicly funded county libraries, one regional library, and a funded state library agency.
A significant aspect of the Works Progress Administration was the Federal Project Number One, which had five different parts: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Historical Records Survey. The government wanted to provide new federal cultural support instead of just providing direct grants to private institutions. After only one year, over 40,000 artists and other talented workers had been employed through this project in the United States. Cedric Larson stated that “The impact made by the five major cultural projects of the WPA upon the national consciousness is probably greater in toto than anyone readily realizes. As channels of communication between the administration and the country at large, both directly and indirectly, the importance of these projects cannot be overestimated, for they all carry a tremendous appeal to the eye, the ear, or the intellect—or all three.”
One of the documentary projects of the WPA was called America Eats – recording regional recipes orally and in photographs. Most of the files, which are housed in the Library of Congress, have never been published, although many are seeing the light of day. Here’s one from Mississippi:
This dish is not made with pie crust but with ordinary biscuit dough, made just a trifle shorter than usual. Roll the dough out a little thinner than for biscuit, on a well-floured cloth. Cover the top of the dough with a thick layer of fresh, ripe blackberries. Roll the dough and berries up and tie the whole in the cloth on which it was rolled. Put the whole thing in a pot of briskly boiling water. Bring it back to boiling point as quickly as possible and then cook steadily until done. While the dumplings boil, make a sweet sauce as follows: Take 1 1/2 cups of top milk, one cupful of sugar, 1/4 cup of butter. Cook together thoroughly and flavor by putting in sprigs and leaves of mint, which have been bruised. Remove the mint leaves before serving the sauce, which should be served hot on slices of the boiled dumplings.