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What is the Works Progress Administration?

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a cornerstone of the New Deal, launched in 1935 to combat the Great Depression's ravages. It provided millions with jobs, building infrastructure and fostering cultural projects that left a lasting legacy. Imagine the stories behind the schools, roads, and artworks it created. What impact did the WPA have on American society? Join us to explore further.
Jason C. Chavis
Jason C. Chavis

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a United States government agency established during the New Deal era of the late 1930s. It was funded by Congressional mandate and ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt as an effort to hire millions of unemployed Americans for the purpose of building public buildings, roadways and other facilities. An estimation by the government itself states that nearly $7 billion US Dollars (USD) were spent between the years of 1936 and 1939 alone. As part of the New Deal, many historians cite the creation of the WPA as one of the primary motivating factors in reinvigorating the American economy following the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The program lasted until 1943, when the United States was forced to make domestic cuts in order to fund the war effort of World War II.

Following the onset of the economic downturn of the 1930s, President Herbert Hoover attempted to stimulate a financial recovery in the American economy through the passage of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. The purpose of this program was to stimulate the private sector by making $2 billion USD in loans available to businesses. By the late 1930s, it was determined by the following administration that further investment was needed to supply jobs to the nation's unemployed. The Works Progress Administration focused on constructing and helping with projects throughout the nation, particularly in rural areas.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.

Some of the many projects overseen by the Works Progress Administration included a strong focus on the arts, education and training as well as aid for children and the needy. It also worked to bring media to the masses and teach more Americans to read. Additional training programs were implemented to retrain workers for the jobs of the future and occupations that would benefit society. Other programs, particularly the National Youth Administration, a sub-agency, focused on providing relief for children around the country, many who were orphaned or abandoned and living in squalid conditions in both rural and urban areas.

The Works Progress Administration sought to hire millions of unemployed Americans hit by the Great Depression so they could help build public buildings, roadways and other facilities.
The Works Progress Administration sought to hire millions of unemployed Americans hit by the Great Depression so they could help build public buildings, roadways and other facilities.

One of the great advances the Works Progress Administration provided was relief to single women and mothers as well as African-Americans, both of which were disproportionately hit by the Great Depression. Many women were also forced during the period to take the place of breadwinners for the family. According to statistics from the time, a large percentage of men were either disabled or too old to work during the time period. Additionally, the African-American population was subject to the same standards in the hiring process as their white counterparts. While this made many civil rights activists angry at the time, historically it stands as one of the first times the population was provided with equality in the workplace.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the purpose of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)?

The Works Progress Administration, established in 1935 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, aimed to provide economic relief during the Great Depression. It was designed to create jobs for millions of unemployed Americans by funding public works projects, including the construction of public buildings, roads, and bridges. The WPA also supported the arts, drama, media, and literacy projects, contributing to the nation's cultural development.

How many people were employed by the WPA, and what kind of jobs did they do?

At its peak in 1938, the WPA employed approximately 3.3 million people. The jobs provided by the WPA were diverse, ranging from the construction of infrastructure like airports, schools, and hospitals, to roles in the Federal Art Project, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Theatre Project. These programs not only improved the country's infrastructure but also preserved the skills and talents of artists, writers, and actors during tough economic times.

What were some notable projects completed by the WPA?

The WPA completed numerous significant projects across the United States. Notable examples include the construction of New York's LaGuardia Airport, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and the Timberline Lodge in Oregon. Additionally, the WPA was responsible for the creation of thousands of murals and public artworks, as well as literary works like state guides and oral histories that documented American life during the era.

How was the WPA funded, and what was its budget?

The WPA was federally funded through the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Over its existence, the WPA spent about $13.4 billion, which would be equivalent to over $250 billion today when adjusted for inflation. This funding was used to pay workers' salaries and to purchase materials for the myriad of projects undertaken by the administration.

When did the Works Progress Administration end, and why?

The Works Progress Administration officially ended on June 30, 1943. The decline in WPA projects began as the United States entered World War II, which significantly reduced unemployment due to the demand for labor in the war industry. With the economy recovering and the need for defense workers growing, the federal government decided to close the program and redirect resources to the war effort.

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    • President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.
      By: Simfalex
      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.
    • The Works Progress Administration sought to hire millions of unemployed Americans hit by the Great Depression so they could help build public buildings, roadways and other facilities.
      By: pds209
      The Works Progress Administration sought to hire millions of unemployed Americans hit by the Great Depression so they could help build public buildings, roadways and other facilities.