The Great Depression: Works Progress Administration 1935-1943

Historic Events for Students: The Great Depression. Editor: Richard C Hanes & Sharon M Hanes. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.


Following his inauguration as President of the United States in March 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (served 1933-1945) initiated a series of work relief programs that culminated in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. The Works Progress Administration was a unique program designed to get the unemployed off of the relief—welfare—rolls by providing work at minimal pay until they could find work for a private business. The Great Depression had been steadily worsening for over three years by Roosevelt’s inauguration. By early 1933, 25 percent of the workforce was unemployed amounting to over 12 million people. In the first few months of his presidency Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a vast array of federal social and economic programs to bring relief to the struggling nation. As part of the New Deal, the WPA program was developed in response to the horrible unemployment and destitution of the time, which affected almost every aspect of society.

In a radio address on October 12, 1933, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s friend, advisor, director of the Federal Relief Emergency Administration (FERA), and future head of the WPA, said (as quoted in June Hopkins, p. 163): “Who are these fellow-citizens? Are they tramps? Are they hoboes and ne’erdowells? Are they unemployables? Are they people who are no good and who are incompetent? Take a look at them, if you have not, and see who they are. There is hardly a person…who does not know of an intimate friend, people whom you have known all your life, fine hardworking, upstanding men and women who have gone overboard and been caught up in this.… They are carpenters, bricklayers, artisans, architects, engineers, clerks, stenographers, doctors, dentists, farmers, ministers.”

It was for these carpenters, bricklayers, and artisans that the WPA was developed, but one unique aspect of it went beyond traditional workers. The WPA offered projects targeted at unemployed artists, musicians, writers and actors. It was these programs that were most innovative, most controversial, and of most enduring interest in American history. The cultural work relief programs promoted an extraordinary growth in authentically American art.

The cultural work relief programs gave voice to the America of the time—angry, scared, defiant. The work was sometimes wonderful, often bad, and occasionally very critical of America, capitalism, and the government. It was this aspect of the work relief programs that provided fodder for critics and ultimately led to the program’s demise.

Roosevelt and Hopkins supported the WPA and believed that work relief is what a society that aspires to be the best provides for its citizens during a time of great distress. At the same time, it was seen as a way to prevent political opportunists from realizing more radical responses to the Great Depression—more general relief or even a Communist revolution. In the trauma of the Great Depression, demonstrations and rebellions were increasingly common. Communists had taken over Russia, forming the Soviet Union. Involved in the organization of unions, socialists and Communist activity was on the rise in the United States. Some saw the move to provide relief and later work programs as a way of heading off a Communist revolution.

From 1935 to 1943 the WPA provided millions of people with work and money during a very difficult time, however, it was never able to reach more than about one third of those eligible to receive its benefits. Millions more were left to the care, and often neglect, of state and local organizations. Regardless, the WPA was immensely important to a great many people, putting money in their pockets and hope for the future. It was a bold experiment in a time of bold actions.

Issue Summary

The early 1930s were a tumultuous time. Following the stock market crash in 1929 the economic situation continued to get worse as the Great Depression lingered on. Businesses including banks closed. More and more people became unemployed and entire families became homeless. The country was increasingly poor and frightened.

In early 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt became President of the United States. Only three months earlier an historical demonstration took place as the poor marched on Washington, DC, in the National Hunger March. Roosevelt had wrestled with poverty and joblessness as governor of New York, implementing a number of innovative programs that would become models for future federal programs.

A month after taking office, the Roosevelt Administration launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a work relief program designed to employ a quarter-million young men to build hiking trails, fight forest fires, lay telephone lines, and build dams. Work relief was a concept that Roosevelt had implemented successfully in New York. Instead of providing money to sustain someone without a job, work relief programs provided a job, allowing the participant to earn money.

President Roosevelt was a strong believer in work relief. He felt that relief—often called direct relief, or “the dole,” as in “being on the dole”—was detrimental to morale and to self-respect. He characterized federal relief as addictive and a destroyer of the human spirit. Roosevelt wanted to do away with such forms of relief.

Despite his reluctance to continue direct relief, shortly after founding the CCC, Roosevelt established the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. FERA was designed after the Temporary Emergency Relief Administration that Roosevelt had set up in New York when he was governor. FERA provided direct financial aid to the unemployed. Harry Hopkins, who had headed the state organization under Roosevelt, now headed FERA.

With winter weather approaching and people needing money for shelter and food, in November 1933 Roosevelt established the Civil Works Administration (CWA) to provide temporary jobs to a few million of the unemployed. The men would be employed on projects requiring little investment, such as cleaning neighborhoods and digging drainage ditches. It was the first real federal program in work relief and a precursor to 1935’s Works Progress Administration. The CWA became the largest employer in the nation’s history. It put four million people to work within four weeks.

Also in 1933, the Roosevelt Administration created the Public Works Administration (PWA) under the direction of Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes. The PWA was an ambitious program that employed workers to construct thousands of new public facilities all across the country. Construction included more than five hundred municipal water systems, almost three hundred hospitals, and more than five hundred schools. With the introduction of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, the PWA and the WPA were constantly battling for funding until the PWA was disbanded in 1939.

When the Roosevelt Administration created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 it was largely to take over some responsibilities of the FERA, the PWA, and the CWA. Roosevelt reportedly decided on the name “Works Progress Administration,” and could not be dissuaded from it, even though it did not make sense to many. Like the others the WPA was created to provide work relief for the unemployed. It was a huge program—the largest public works program ever attempted—in the number of people employed, in money expended, and in volume of results.

An Innovative Program

Roosevelt appointed Harry Hopkins, his trusted advisor and head of the FERA and the CWA to lead the WPA. Hopkins was a social worker with years of experience directing relief and work relief programs, many of those years for Roosevelt in New York. Hopkins was a proponent of work relief and the potential of the government to improve people’s lives.

Roosevelt and Hopkins wanted to be sure that the WPA did not compete with private enterprise. To that end, wages were intentionally kept significantly below positions in the private sector. This was done even though astronomical unemployment percentages (well into the double digits) indicated that private sector jobs were unavailable. Throughout its brief history, the WPA wrestled with how to make the jobs sufficiently attractive to boost the morale of the unemployed workers, without making them so attractive that the workers would prefer them to private employment. Low wages were one way that the WPA jobs were made less attractive.

The desire not to compete with private sector jobs showed itself in other ways than depressed wages. Projects were specifically chosen so as not to compete with a private company’s ability to get the job. This sometimes caused the perception that the WPA workers were not doing useful work.

Roosevelt and Hopkins also believed that work relief should not be demeaning, especially in this time of high unemployment. To that end they were proponents of eliminating the means test for qualifying for work relief. A means test was given to possible aid recipients to measure their level of need in order to determine if they were eligible for relief. By choosing to apply for a position within the Works Progress Administration, applicants were indicating that their situation was such that they required the wages to survive. Demeaning visits by social workers to prove one was sufficiently poor were not necessary.

President Roosevelt’s goal was to provide employment to individuals currently on direct relief. He believed direct relief to be debilitating and demoralizing. As such the WPA regulations required that 90 percent of those hired had to come from relief rolls. This requirement had the unanticipated outcome of discriminating against those who held out the longest against going on the dole. The proud people who did everything they could to avoid direct relief sometimes were not eligible to be hired by the WPA. The WPA also had a requirement that only one member of a family could be employed, which inadvertently discriminated against women.

Roosevelt’s belief that direct relief was demoralizing was not without supporters. Researchers studied the effects of relief and unemployment on workers. Studies showed that beyond the meager income the WPA provided, many workers reaped significant psychological benefits from working compared to accepting relief. Studies showed that WPA workers were more socially adjusted with higher morale than those on direct relief were. Workers claimed that relief without work was okay to keep from starving, but it damaged self-respect.

Previous New Deal work relief programs had been left largely to the states to administer. In a change of direction Roosevelt and Hopkins designed the WPA to be completely administered by the federal government. This was in keeping with their view of the role (or potential role) of the federal government to directly support the needs of society. It was also in response to the clearly poor job that many states had done administering previous work relief programs. The WPA as a federally administered work relief program was a huge undertaking. When it was at its largest, the Works Progress Administration employed 30,000 administrators and an average of 2.3 million workers per year between 1935 and 1940.

The WPA was a large and comprehensive organization. The largest number of people in WPA was employed in engineering and construction projects where most of the money from the WPA was directed. In addition the WPA supervised the National Youth Administration, which provided education and training and employment to students and young people. But the WPA is best know for its cultural projects, collectively called Federal One, which provided work relief to artists, musicians, writers, and actors. The Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers’ Project and the Historical Records Survey were, variously, praised and criticized, and always controversial.

Building America in the WPA

The largest contribution of the WPA was work relief in construction and engineering projects. Fully 75 percent of the WPA workforce worked on engineering and construction projects. The WPA workers completed projects in almost every county in the United States.

During the earliest days of the WPA there were problems effectively allocating workers and choosing projects. Workers were often assigned to jobs without considering their skills or their abilities. Projects were not carefully chosen or properly supervised. The administrators of the WPA were responsible for the inappropriate allocations. These highly-educated administrators tended to view blue-collar workers as an undifferentiated mass, and made little attempt to understand the subtleties of skills or job requirements.

This misunderstanding led to the lingering perception that work done by WPA workers was not necessary—it was invented to give them something to do. Workers were often portrayed as lazy or inept. The problems with effectively using workers’ skills and identifying appropriate projects, however, were largely resolved in the first year or so.

Regardless of these administrative problems, the WPA workers were highly productive. WPA workers built or repaired 1.2 million miles of culverts and laid 24,000 miles of sidewalks. They built almost 600,000 miles in new roads and repaired 32,000 miles of existing roads. They built 75,000 bridges and repaired another 42,000. They installed 23,000 miles of storm and sanitary sewers and constructed 880 sewage disposal plants. They built 6,000 athletic fields and playgrounds, 770 new pools, 1,700 new parks, fairgrounds and rodeo grounds, 5,584 new school buildings, repaired 80 million library books, and served 900 million school lunches. They constructed or repaired 110,000 public libraries, schools, auditoriums, stadiums, and other public buildings.

The extraordinary contribution of the WPA workers significantly improved the infrastructure of the United States within a relatively short time. Almost every corner of the United States realized some improvement due to the WPA workers. Many of these buildings, roads, and parks were still in use at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Federal One

The Works Progress Administration established a number of projects to provide work relief to artists, musicians, writers, and actors. These programs, collectively called Federal One, allowed the various types of artists to work in the areas of their profession. This alone was very controversial. Many people in the United States had a hard time thinking of singing and dancing as work, much less work requiring work relief and federal support. Some Americans felt that these people were simply avoiding getting a “real job.”

Roosevelt and Hopkins disagreed. In 1933 they had set up the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), under the administration of the Treasury Department. PWAP was not designed strictly as a work relief project. The artists it employed included some who were not on the relief rolls. PWAP was the forerunner to Federal One, however, and reflected the belief of Roosevelt and Hopkins that even singers and dancers deserved work relief appropriate to their occupation.

PWAP and later Federal One combined the economic desire to provide assistance, a renewed interest in democracy, and an interest in the development and exploration of American culture. Many of the projects completed under Federal One documented some aspect of American culture such as its folklore or its music. Federal One made a significant contribution to documenting a history that might otherwise have been lost.

Music from Coast to Coast

The Federal Music Project (FMP) was the least controversial of the Federal One projects. Under Nikolai Sokoloff, the FMP employed 15,000 out-of-work musicians. The Federal Music Project had a vision of starting regional orchestras all over the country and providing free or low-cost concerts and music lessons.

The Federal Music Project largely realized its vision, performing thousands of low-cost concerts in theaters and schools across the country, and introducing thousands of Americans to different kinds of music. Many of the newly established regional orchestras survived the cancellation of the FMP, and a few still existed at the end of the twentieth century.

In addition to concerts, the FMP made significant strides towards collecting and preserving folk music and other types of authentic, traditional American music. The music was documented, generally for the first time, so that it would not be lost forever as the traditional musicians died and communities disappeared. The Federal Music Project made a significant contribution to the scholarship of American music.

America’s Voice

Somewhat more controversial was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) led by Henry Alsberg. Employing almost seven thousand writers, researchers, and librarians in its peak year of 1936, the FWP sought to document many aspects of American life. The FWP writers prepared a complete set of tour guides, consisting of 51 large volumes, of major sites to visit in each state. Called the American Guide Series, many of the volumes are available in re-prints, and remained a valuable guide to important sites within the United States decades later.

The Federal Writers’ Project also undertook a major effort in compiling oral histories. Oral histories are the memories of a time or event, told in the individual’s voice. The FWP sent thousands of writers out to talk with American Indians, frontier women, Appalachian miners, and other individuals from various cultural groups around the United States. The collections are a powerful document of times that would soon be in the past. One of the most powerful collections compiled by the FWP writers is that of the Slave Narratives consisting of more than two thousand oral histories from black Americans who had formerly been slaves.

Many writers who were employed by the Federal Writers’ Project would go on to become famous including Ralph Ellison, John Cheever, Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Dorothy West, and Zora Neale Hurston. Their writing from the FWP is still available and provides insightful portraits of life in the 1930s.

After the surprise attack by Japan on U.S. military installations at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Federal Writers’ Project became part of the Writers’ Unit of the War Services Division of the WPA. By the early 1940s, however, the Great Depression was waning as employment in war industries greatly increased. Many writers found other work. The guidebooks and the oral histories remained as their New Deal legacy.

Stories of Slavery

One of the lasting contributions of the Works Progress Administration was that of the Federal Writers’ Project. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) employed writers, teachers, and others to compile information on all aspects of American life. One of the most important oral histories collected by the FWP writers were the stories of former slaves.

The Slave Narratives include the transcripts of interviews with almost 2,300 Americans who were once slaves. The Narratives document their experiences as slaves, their recollections of the stories about their history as told to them by their ancestors, and their memories of newly won freedom. Transcribed as told to the FWP writers with dialect and slang included, the Narratives generally include just a brief observation by the writer. For example one Narrative profiles James Green, a half Native American, half black American who was born into slavery, freed, and then kidnapped and sold back into slavery in Texas.

In 1935 slavery had been illegal for 70 years. Most former slaves were old and most of their individual stories would not have been preserved if not for the efforts of the WPA writers. Rich in history, the Narratives provide an important record of a crucial part of American history.

Capturing History

The Historical Records Survey (HRS) was part of the Federal Writers’ Project dedicated to cataloging national records. The smallest of the WPA projects, the HRS was directed by Luther Evans and supervised by noted bibliographer Douglas McMurtrie. It employed approximately six thousand writers, librarians, archivists, and teachers annually. The workers at HRS undertook a huge effort to compile and analyze the inventories of state and county records.

The HRS was extraordinarily prolific, preparing bibliographies of American history and literature, an atlas of congressional roll-call votes, an index to unnumbered executive orders, and a list of the collection of presidential papers. In addition they created surveys of portraits and manuscript collections in public buildings and church archives.

Art for the Millions

The Federal Art Project (FAP), led by director Holger Cahill, sought to employ artists and to make “art for the millions.” Few Americans had seen a great work of art before. The FAP sought to make art more accessible. Artists painted thousands of pictures, and made thousands of posters and sculptures. By design the subjects many painted were subjects from everyday life: a fishery, or steel workers, or the poor.

By 1936 the Federal Art Project employed more than six thousand artists. About half of the workers were involved in the direct creation of art. They created more than 40,000 paintings and 1,100 murals. Others were involved in arts education and research. This included the compilation of the Index of American Design that documented American art, painting, sculpture, and folk art.

The best known and most lasting of the works of art created under FAP were the murals painted in public buildings across the nation. The FAP murals represented a renewed interest in American life. Victor Arnautoff’s “City Life” in San Francisco’s Coit Tower is one of the best examples. Many of the subjects were too pro-labor to suit members of the conservative Congress. As a result accusations of “communism” grew toward the end of the 1930s.

Many artists employed by the Federal Art Project would later become famous. These included Jackson Pollack, Willem De Kooning, Anton Refregier, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi. Critics, however, felt that much of the art was horribly bad and that anyone could claim to be an artist. There were no requirements for even the lowest standards of quality. Worse, many felt that the art was “leftist” portraying subjects that depicted the poverty and harsh conditions of the United States. They were meant to incite citizens to anger against the government. In response to this criticism of the FAP art, President Roosevelt responded that though some were good and others were not, it all reflected Americans’ perceptions of their nation and the people in it.

Dangerous Theatre

The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) was the most controversial of the Federal One projects. The FTP was led by Hallie Flanagan, former head of the Vassar College Experimental Theatre and former classmate of Harry Hopkins at Grinnell College. Flanagan was described as having a spirit, dedication, and drive reminiscent of Eleanor Roosevelt. She was fully dedicated to building a truly national theater.

Flanagan, with the support of Hopkins, designed an incredibly ambitious program for the FTP. She started regional theatre groups all over the United States, performing both classic productions and original plays for thousands of Americans. While the FTP had regional groups and tour groups that played widely, the center for theater was New York, and it was in New York that the FTP was most innovative. Flanagan wanted the theatre to be as broad and courageous as the American mind. As a result writers created plays on every possible subject and explored every possible idea.

The Federal Theatre in New York included the Living Newspapers, the Popular Price Theatre, an Experimental Theatre, a Negro Theatre, and a Tryout Theatre. Later it added the one-act play unit, dance theatre, the Theater for the Blind, marionette theatre, a Yiddish vaudeville unit, a German unit, an Anglo-Jewish theater, and the Radio Division, among other groups. The range of the productions was astounding.

Living Newspapers provided a strong example of the controversy found in the expression of ideas in theatre—those very ideas that ultimately led to the demise of the FTP. Living Newspapers were plays in the form of a documentary that provided information about and took a stand on the issues of the day. Injunction Granted dramatized the anti-union actions of the courts. Created Equal addressed the conflicts between property owners and citizens. Triple-A Plowed Under called for farmers and consumers to work together against greedy middlemen at a time when millions did not have enough to eat, and food rotted in warehouses because no one could afford to pay for it.

Like many other FTP productions, Triple-A Plowed Under was a great success, but was criticized as Communist propaganda because of its themes of hunger and starvation. The Saturday Evening Post claimed Flanagan was trying to “Russianize” the American stage. Many of the FTP productions were similarly criticized. A children’s play about beavers fighting the human destroyer of their dam was considered to support workers rising up against business owners.

Even classic plays received a new treatment when produced by the Federal Theatre Project. One of the most popular productions was the Negro Unit’s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles. Called Voodoo Macbeth, this all-black production was set in Haiti instead of Scotland and included voodoo priestesses as the three witches. It presented a true spectacle.

The Federal Theatre Project received the most virulent criticism for undermining traditionally held American values by the U.S. Congress. As the House Committee on Un-American Activities began hearings on Federal One, the FTP was singled out for particular criticism. Despite Flanagan’s testimony the FTP didn’t survive the attack and the Federal Theatre Project was disbanded in 1939.

Many actors, directors, and producers who were employed by the Federal Theatre Project would go on to become famous including, Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, John Huston, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall, Will Geer, Burt Lancaster, and John Houseman. More importantly, the Federal Theatre Project introduced thousands of Americans to theatre during a challenging time in America. It gave voice to the variety of views at the time. An estimated 30 million people attended productions of the Federal Theatre Project before it was disbanded in 1939.

Working Youth

The WPA supervised the activities of the National Youth Administration (NYA). The NYA provided part-time employment to people ages 18 to 25. Young people who were out of school could work 70 hours a month for no more than $25 a month. Most of the student workers worked out of their homes, but rural youth were moved to residential centers and trained in masonry, welding, baking, barbering, carpentry, and plumbing.

High school students were also eligible for part-time employment, since they often made a significant contribution to the family income. If high school students could not contribute while in school, they were likely to quit to try to find work. Under the NYA, high school students could work part-time for no more than $6 a month, and college students could make up to $20 a month.

NYA workers spruced up schools, landscaped parks, read to the blind, and worked as teacher’s aides. They also constructed recreational facilities and parks, acted as nurse’s aides and school cafeteria workers, and were museum guides. The work provided a way of making a meaningful contribution to a family’s income while the students stayed in school.

The NYA had a better record than many federal agencies of the time in providing assistance to black American students. That success was largely due to Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune led the NYA Division of Negro Affairs. She was an important advocate for black American rights and was the highest ranking black American in the Roosevelt Administration. Between 10 and 12 percent of those who participated in the NYA were black Americans, amounting to about 300,000 black men and women. Because of racial segregation and discrimination in the South, many more black Americans in the North were able to participate in NYA programs than those in the South.

Residential Centers for Depression-Era Youth

The National Youth Administration (NYA) was established in 1935 within the Works Progress Administration. Initially, the NYA provided part-time employment opportunities to youth who were still in school. As the administrators studied the situation of Depression-era youth, however, they determined that many had dropped out of school, often before completing the eighth grade. With the high unemployment of the 1930s, many youth were both not in school and not working. A significant number had become homeless and hoboes.

In response to the challenge to address the needs of these youth, the NYA developed a residential work program. The program provided homes for the youth in dormitory-type housing, education and training opportunities, and employment. The goal of the residential program was to provide a rich and fulfilling environment in order to create good citizens as well as good workers. The youth would clean, cook, and study and work. In addition, the residential centers provided cultural enrichment programs. Youth were strictly supervised and taught “how to live” as well as how to make a living.

Concerns regarding the unemployed youth were not unfounded, as young people on school campuses and elsewhere were joining the Young Communist League and other leftist organizations. Eleanor Roosevelt raised concerns regarding the message the country was sending to unemployed youth Mrs. Roosevelt became a strong advocate for the National Youth Administration.

The residential programs were less effective than the student work programs. Residential program participants would stay in the centers, learn a trade, and then return home only to discover again that there were no jobs. Many found the situation extremely disillusioning, though most participants found the centers themselves to be a good experience.

Women and the WPA

Women had a difficult time qualifying for and receiving work relief under the WPA. Many women on relief did not have a work history and were not, therefore, considered part of the labor force. In addition many women had children at home and were not available for full-time employment. These challenges were compounded by the fact that the male-dominated WPA administrators could not quite figure out what jobs women could do.

Ellen Woodward, who headed the Women’s Division of the FERA and the CWA and later the Women’s Division of the WPA, proposed 250 job categories appropriate for women. The administrators of the WPA disqualified almost all of them. Woodward was left with little but sewing. As a result most of the WPA women ended up in one of nine thousand sewing centers around the country.

Woodward also instituted training and employment programs in mattress making, bookbinding, domestic service, canning of relief foods, school lunch preparation, and supplemental childcare. Woodward petitioned to have the Women’s Division become part of the Professional Division where there might be more seemingly appropriate jobs for women as stenographers and office workers. The WPA employed 600,000 women in 1938, its best year for involvement of women, but that did not begin to address the need.

Southern states did particularly poorly employing women in the WPA, especially black American women. Part of this had to do with segregation requirements. Black and white men could work on outdoor projects together. But the women’s projects, which were indoors, had to be entirely segregated, making them more costly to run. In addition many Southerners objected to employment programs that would compete with domestic services for black American women. They wanted black American women to be available to work as maids and cooks in white people’s homes for low wages.


The WPA provided work relief for millions of people during a challenging time in American history of the Great Depression. It also took an innovative approach to including cultural expression into its employment program. In dong so the WPA quickly came under attack from conservatives in Congress.

U.S. Congressional Representatives Martin Dies and J. Parnell Thomas led the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities in 1938. The committee searched for communist influence the WPA projects. They placed special emphasis on the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Theatre Project.

Undeniably, a variety of opinions, including Communist views, were regularly being expressed in America in the 1930s. Those views were undoubtedly also expressed in the artistic communities of Federal One. Hearings were held and passionate defenses were offered. The Dies Committee placed Representative Clifton Woodrum in charge of the investigation. The Woodrum Committee ended up stripping $125 million from the WPA budget. In addition all WPA workers on the payroll for more than 18 months were to be dismissed and all future WPA workers had to sign a loyalty oath asserting support of the U.S. government. The Woodrum Committee also dictated that the Federal Theatre Project was to be discontinued immediately.

The other WPA projects continued for a few more years. In the early 1940s many of the WPA projects were transferred to various wartime agencies. The WPA was disbanded entirely in 1943.

Cultural Democracy

The New Deal’s WPA was most importantly a work relief program. At a time when millions of Americans were without jobs because of the Great Depression, the WPA provided jobs and the wages that come with jobs. But the WPA was also something more than a work relief program, and that was also part of the design.

During the 1920s and 1930s, many Americans and, in fact, people all over the world had begun to advocate for more accessible culture. Cultural events should not be artificially divided between “high” culture for the wealthy and sophisticated and “low” culture for the masses. Everyone could enjoy opera and vaudeville; fiddle playing and contemporary art. Cultural events and their attendees should be determined by tastes, not by class. Many people were horrified that the majority of Americans had never heard a symphony or seen a “good” piece of art.

The cultural programs of Federal One were designed to address this gap. Hopkins, Flanagan, and Cahill in particular wanted to bring the “Arts to the Millions.” They wanted everyone to be able to enjoy a good Shakespeare play or to see a Rembrandt. They also wanted the common art of the people to gain new respect. A play depicting the struggles of a family in a contemporary New York City tenement could be just as meaningful and just as much art as a play written three hundred years earlier.

In this goal of “democratizing culture,” Federal One largely succeeded—at least for a time. Millions of Americans attended free concerts and plays, learned to paint, and saw “professional” art. Millions of Americans experienced what once was only art for the wealthy few, many for the first time.

Contributing Forces

The movement toward work relief programs that became the Works Progress Administration was most directly a result of the unemployment, poverty, and homelessness caused by the Great Depression. President Roosevelt had a strong belief in the possibilities afforded by appropriate exercise of the powers of the federal government, but without the arrival of the Great Depression his activism would likely have taken a different form. The specific characteristics of the WPA, however, particularly its specific inclusion of artists and actors, grew out of the 1920s.

During the 1920s, wealth in the United States became increasingly concentrated in a few individuals, following a trend begun during the early industrialization of the country. From 1922 to 1929 six million families—42 percent of the families in the United States—made less than $1,000 a year. At the same time, working conditions for many Americans were increasingly hazardous. Fewer Americans were self-employed and more worked in factories. Many worked long hours in terrible surroundings, where poor equipment, increased production requirements, and poor safety measures meant frequent injury and death. Most workers had no insurance. Injury or death often meant the entire family faced imminent poverty and homelessness.

Many Americans were horrified by these working and living conditions and the disparity in wealth. Even in the relatively prosperous 1920s, challenges to the existing economic system were growing. The idea of unionizing American workers was gaining acceptance in some areas. The unions were demanding better working conditions and better wages. Americans were increasingly organizing to fight for improvements in their daily lives. The unemployed organized to fight for jobs, and tenants organized to fight for better housing. Even many among the more financially well off believed that both morality and practicality required a more equal approach to wealth and the benefits it accorded.

The 1920s also saw dramatic growth in the amount and diversity of art and music throughout the United States and the world. The relative prosperity allowed many Americans to explore music and plays. Increasingly many saw the enjoyment of art and music as a fundamental requirement of a civilized society. It was with this belief in the universal importance of art and music that programs such as the WPA’s cultural programs for artists, musicians, writers, and actors would take root.

A certain arrogance of American ingenuity also gave rise to the WPA. There was a sense among many citizens that American minds can fix any problem, including economic problems. America had emerged from World War I (1914-1918) with strength and a world mission. It seemed that there was nothing Americans could not do. Given this new outlook many in the Roosevelt Administration felt that the United States could—and had a moral obligation to—provide relief for its citizenry. A civilized society provided for its people.


Criticism of the WPA came from all fronts. Conservatives felt that it would undermine the free enterprise system. Liberals felt that the low wages were unacceptable. Socialists and Communists felt that the WPA was a way of preventing a more basic change in U.S. society, and states-rights advocates felt that the federal government was taking away authority that rightly belonged to the states. The WPA did not escape criticism from almost every group in America.

The Right

Traditional conservatives included the Liberty League and many Republicans who saw the WPA as a means of undermining the capitalist system. While many of the conservatives were sympathetic to the poverty and hunger around them, they felt that the economy would eventually improve on its own leading to greater employment. The unemployment, while upsetting, was part of a “natural” cycle that would inevitably improve. They argued that by making the government the largest employer, even at depressed wages, the Roosevelt Administration was in fact delaying recovery.

In order to pay for the WPA, the U.S. Government had to levy taxes. In this time of massive unemployment, conservatives felt that taxes fell disproportionately upon the wealthy, including the owners of business. The conservatives believed that not only was this unfair, but by taxing the people we were depending on to expand their business though investment, new economic growth was being deterred.

Furthermore the conservatives criticized the WPA and other New Deal programs as being an inappropriate use of government. The conservatives saw the appropriate role of the government as being limited and carefully defined. They felt that a massive works program such as the WPA was outside the Constitutional scope of the U.S. government. The Roosevelt Administration saw the pervasiveness of the Great Depression and the depth of the problem as being too much for states to bear alone. Many of the states were too impoverished to address the poverty of their own people. Social welfare programs belonged most appropriately to the states, conservatives felt, and the Roosevelt Administration was fundamentally changing the balance of power between the states and the federal government.

Many conservatives also felt that the WPA, and in particular Federal One, was promoting liberal or even communist views. Much of the “Art for the Millions” was designed to show normal people in normal activities. Murals depicted workers and, sometimes, union organizers. The Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper criticized the issues of the day. The FTP came under the harshest scrutiny and, ultimately, was disbanded in the face of this criticism.

Others raised concerns about the employment by the federal government of such a large number of people. In comparison Adolph Hitler was Chancellor of Germany and beginning his rise in Europe. He had created military youth groups in support of him and his programs. Some feared that the WPA, Civilian Conservation Corps, and National Youth Administration could lead to militarized youth as in Germany. While this did not happen, the concern about the potential impact of organized youth was not unfounded.

The Left

On the other side of the political spectrum came criticism from liberals. Liberals deplored the low wages of the WPA. The Roosevelt Administration had intentionally kept wages below those in the private sector, and often below poverty level, in order to avoid making employment for the WPA preferable to employment in private industry. Many criticized the wages as insufficient and a punishment for being jobless.

Some radical critics, including The New Republic’s Jonathan Mitchell, saw more devious causes behind the low wages. Mitchell believed that the low wages of the WPA represented a surrender of the U.S. Government to big business. He believed that the low wages were to be used as a tool to break up the unions.

On the further extreme, communists believed that work relief was a way to prevent more meaningful change. If the government kept the workers barely employed on barely sustainable wages they might be prevented from rebellion. Communists also believed that a fundamental change in the ownership of business and wealth was both desirable and inevitable. Small concessions, such as work relief, delayed the revolution.

General Public

Beyond the criticism of specific groups, many people raised concerns about the effectiveness of the program. Some felt that much of the work was make-work. Early in the program, some complained that WPA workers would dig a hole and other WPA workers would fill it in. In addition many people had a difficult time seeing singing and dancing as a real job. The idea that the government would pay people to do it seemed absurd.

Even people who supported the idea of the arts and saw work in the arts as real work raised concerns about government-sponsored art. Would all the art be propaganda? Would creativity be constrained? What if the government-sponsored art was bad art? This concern seemed to fizzle after the early days of the WPA as it became clear that much of the art was critical of the government. But as the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities began to investigate the WPA and ultimately disband the FTP, the concern of government-sponsored art was raised anew.

While the Roosevelt Administration faced significant criticism and challenges regarding the WPA, and the program did not, in fact, last very long. The WPA had many supporters, particularly those personally helped by the program. Not only did many people credit the program with helping them to survive the Great Depression, but many people also highlighted that the United States was left with many buildings, art, and a richer history because of the workers of the WPA.


The Works Progress Administration helped many Americans to develop and cement their views about work relief. Franklin Roosevelt believed accepting relief without working for it undermines the self-esteem of the recipient. Many of the welfare-to-work programs implemented in the late twentieth century, often by conservative state governments, relied on this same belief. The concepts of work and welfare and the varying views of the appropriate (and inappropriate) role of the federal government were largely established during this time.

Perceptions about public workers that were predominately forged in the work relief programs of the 1930s remain today. Despite contrary evidence, public workers were often criticized for being overpaid and lazy. Highway workers are often deplored as wasting time and prolonging projects—not unlike the criticisms of the WPA workers digging a hole just to fill it. The American public is conflicted regarding its public employees. On the one hand the U.S. public needs them to deliver the mail and process the passports. But the public also suspects that government workers are being causal with the public’s money.

Many of the buildings and highways and other projects built by the men of the WPA are still part of the American landscape. Much of the art, especially the many murals from the Federal Art Project, are still adorning public buildings around the United States. Many of the discussions about government-sponsored art are still held today, as controversial artists receive government grants, or have government grants repealed. The explosion in art during the Great Depression has been compared to a similar explosion during the Renaissance in Europe that coincidentally was also supported by government funds. The disagreements regarding the trade-offs involved in the public support of art, however, remained much the same in the 1990s as in the 1930s, with questions as to what federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) should and should not be funding.

The convergence of the devastation of the Great Depression and the mastery and vision of President Roosevelt combined to create a situation where the federal government temporarily employed millions of workers as a form of relief. The New Deal, including the WPA, resonated throughout U.S. society ever since the Great Depression. Not only the tangible projects—the murals, the transcripts from history, the plays, and the buildings—remain, but also the ideas about the role of government in the lives of its citizens.

Notable People

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

A remarkable woman with many notable accomplishments, Bethune was born into a family of former slaves. Initially denied an education, Bethune became a proponent of the value of education in elevating black Americans. After several years of education and service, Bethune was appointed by a series of U.S. presidents to serve in various capacities. President Coolidge invited her to attend his Child Welfare Conference in 1928. President Herbert Hoover (served 1929-1933) appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health in 1930. She was appointed President Roosevelt’s Special Advisor on Minority Affairs from 1935 to 1944. From 1936 to 1944 she held the position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the first black American woman to become a federal agency head. As head of the NYA Division of Negro Affairs, Bethune was the highest-ranking black person in the New Deal. She was considered “Mother Superior” to the black American men and women working in Cabinet offices and federal agencies. This small group of men and women became known as the “Black Cabinet.”

Holger Cahill (1893-1960)

Cahill was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following a difficult childhood that led to him leave home at age of 13, Cahill moved to New York City to become a journalist. In New York he gained an education from Columbia University and the New School for Social Research. In the course of his journalism studies he became friends with artists in his Greenwich Village neighborhood. In 1932 he was appointed exhibitions director at the American Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. In 1935 he was appointed National Director of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the WPA. Cahill’s political skills and love of popular and folk art made him effective in gaining public support for a federally funded arts program. Through his guidance the FAP employed 4,300 artists in 40 states.

Luther Evans (1902-1981)

Director of the Historical Records Survey of the WPA, Evans, a Southerner from Alabama, was known for his efforts to promote racial equality within the program. Aside from his contributions to archiving and documenting America, Evans worked in opposition to censorship and made significant contribution to the world of libraries and librarianship. He was later to serve as librarian of Congress and director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Hallie Flanagan (1889-1969)

Flanagan, the director of Vassar College’s Experimental Theatre, was recruited by Harry Hopkins to lead the Federal Theatre Project. It became the most controversial of all the WPA programs. Flanagan believed that theatre should both educate and entertain. The theatre programs she started included the Living Newspaper (a series of plays explaining and commenting on current events), regional theatre productions, and unusual interpretations of traditional plays. Flanagan asserted that for theatre to be good, it had to push accepted standards. The controversy surrounding the FTP’s productions and the WPA in general resulted in questions of Communist influence. Flanagan defended her program before a Congressional Committee, but the FTP was disbanded in 1939.

Harry Hopkins (1890-1946)

Hopkins was one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s closest advisors. In 1931 New York Governor Roosevelt appointed the former social worker as the executive director of the New York State Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. Hopkins was an advocate of relief programs that provided work for the unemployed and trained the unskilled. When Roosevelt became president he recruited Hopkins to implement his various social welfare programs including from 1935 to 1938 the Works Progress Administration. Hopkins was charged by President Roosevelt with a program designed to move as many people as possible from the relief rolls to WPA jobs, and then on to private employment as quickly possible. Hopkins later served as Secretary of Commerce for Roosevelt from 1938 to 1940 and in various other roles throughout World War II.

Aubrey Williams (1890-1965)

Born in Springville, Alabama, Williams was greatly disturbed by the poverty and racial injustice he witnessed as a youth. This experience led him to become a social worker. In 1922 Williams became executive secretary of the Wisconsin Conference of Social Work. There he sought to develop programs for poverty in the state. In the early years of the Great Depression Williams returned to the South where he coordinated activities of President Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation in bringing economic relief to people of Texas and Mississippi. Soon after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt as president in March 1933, Harry Hopkins recruited Williams to be his assistant at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Impressed by Williams’ dedication to New Deal work relief programs, Hopkins named Williams deputy director of the new Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1933 and then also executive director of the National Youth Administration (NYA). Williams served as head of the NYA until 1943 when it stopped operation. Williams was well noted for his never-ending efforts of bringing youth and minorities into the New Deal work relief projects. Following World War II Williams continued working against racial discrimination in the South for the next 20 years.

Ellen Woodward (18??-1971)

Born in Oxford, Mississippi, Woodward’s father was a U.S. Senator from Mississippi from 1898 to 1901 and served in the U.S. House of Representatives briefly before that. Having grown up in Washington, DC, Woodward developed an interest in public affairs. In 1926 she became the second woman in history to serve in Mississippi’s legislature. Woodward served as a top administrator of the Mississippi State Board of Development from 1926 to 1933. Through the board she directed economic development in the state. Having attracted the attention of Harry Hopkins in 1933 she was appointed to the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA). Woodward would serve similar functions for the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Women’s Division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Having the strong support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Woodward established jobs programs for women in every state of the nation. By 1935 nearly 500,000 women were employed in work relief involving sewing, gardening and canning, and public healthcare among other activities. In 1936 Woodward became WPA director for writers, musicians, artists, and actors. These programs employed 250,000 workers. She was a staunch defender of the programs in the face of strong criticisms. Woodward left the WPA in December 1938 when President Roosevelt appointed her on the Social Security Board.

Primary Sources

A View from the President

On September 28, 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt described his perspective of WPA projects at Timberline Lodge on the upper slopes Mt. Hood east of Portland, Oregon. The lodge is a spectacular structure built at the upper tree line, a large building made of large stonework and heavy timbers (from Roosevelt, 1941, pp. 392-394).

Here I am on the slopes of Mount Hood where I have always wanted to come.

I am here to dedicate Timberline Lodge and I do so in the words of the bronze table directly in front of me on the coping of this wonderful building:

“Timberline Lodge, Mount Hood National Forest, dedicated September 28, 1937, by the President of the United

States as a monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the rolls of the Works Progress Administration.”

In the past few days I have inspected many great governmental activities—parks and soil protection sponsored by the Works Progress Administration; buildings erected with the assistance of the Public Works Administration; our oldest and best-known National Park, the Yellowstone, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service; great irrigation areas fathered by the Reclamation Service; and a few hours ago a huge navigation and power dam built by the Army engineers …

This Timberline Lodge marks a venture that was made possible by W.P.A., emergency relief work, in order that we may test the workability of recreational facilities installed by the Government itself and operated under its complete control.

Here, to Mount Hood, will come thousands and thousands of visitors in the coming years …

I look forward to the day when many, many people from this region of the Nation are going to come here for skiing and tobogganing and various other forms of winter sports. Among them, all of those visitors, in winter and summer, spring and autumn, there will be many from the outermost parts of our Nation, travelers from the Middle Wet, the South and the East, Americans who are fulfilling a very desirable objective of citizenship—getting to know their country better.

So I take very great pleasure in dedicating this Lodge, not only as a new adjunct to our National Forests, but also as a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come.

Governor Roosevelt on Work Relief

While governor of New York before becoming president, Franklin Roosevelt publicly expressed some of his earliest views on government relief programs in the summer of 1931. The message delivered to the New York state legislature asking for unemployment relief legislation was a signal of what would be coming to Congress two years later (as quoted in June Hopkins, p. 154).

This serious unemployment situation which has stunned the Nation for the past year and a half has brought to our attention in a most vivid fashion the need for some sort of relief to protect those men and women who are willing to work but who through no fault of their own cannot find employment. This form of relief should not, of course, take the shape of a dole in any respect. The dole method of relief for unemployment is not only repugnant to all sound principles of social economics, but is contrary to every principle of American citizenship and of sound government. American labor seeks no charity, but only a chance to work for its living. The relief to which the workers of the State should be able to anticipate, when engulfed in a period of industrial depression, should be one of insurance, to which they themselves have in a large part contributed. Each industry itself likewise should bear a part of the premium for this insurance, and the State, in the interest of its own citizens, and to prevent a recurrence of the widespread hardship of these days, should at least supervise its operation.

Harry Hopkins’ View

Harry Hopkins, top administrator of the WPA, repeatedly defended work relief to the public, revealing the deep feelings he held for the work he was doing. The following quote is from a press conference in the summer of 1935 soon after the program had begun (as quoted in Charles, p. 131).

And some of us have the only chance we will ever again in our life have to do this job for all the people. Everyone one of us in this room is being paid for by the nation, they pay us, we work for all the people. This isn’t our money. We are just agents of America, doing a job, and in a crisis like this—because when we have ten or eleven million people out of work don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t still a crisis—we have been given the greatest opportunity to serve not only the people but the nation, that we will every have again in our lives. I tell you, I have to pinch myself sometimes when I think how some of us have been catapulted into these positions and I will tell you now of the faith and confidence that I have in you, the devotion which you have given to this thing for the past two years and I know I do not have to appeal to this crowd for support. What I need to do is to be sure that I can keep up with you in the kind of service you have been giving to this nation in the past two years. I am proud to do this job with you and I want you to be proud to do it with me.

A First Hand Overview of the WPA

In January 1937 Harry Hopkins provided testimony before a congressional committee. The testimony represented a fairly thorough assessment of the program after almost two years of operation by its top administrator (as quoted in Charles, pp. 170-171).

With a deficiency appropriation of $790,000,000, it is contemplated that $655,000,000 would be made available for the Works Progress Administration, including the National Youth Administration. With this amount it would be possible to employ 2,200,000 on Works Progress Administration projects in February; 2,150,000 in March; 2,000,000 in April; 1,800,000 in May; and 1,600,000 in June. In terms of dollars, the monthly obligations are estimated as follows: February, $151,700,000; March, $146,000,000; April, $134,500,000; May, $120,000,000; and June, $103,000,000.

The employment schedule, involving a reduction of 600,000 workers between February and June, anticipates a large and widespread increase in private employment over the period. Normally, there is a seasonal increase of about 800,000 private jobs during these 5 months; but an increase of from 1,200,000 to 1,500,000 private jobs will probably be necessary to remove 600,000 persons from the W.P.A.

Viewing the situation from another angle, our studies of the seasonal variation in relief show that the number usually declines about 15 per cent from February to June. This would mean that starting with 2,200,000 Works Progress Administration workers in February, we should ordinarily expect a decline of about 340,000 workers, leaving 1,860,000 on Works Progress Administration projects during June. To reduce Works Progress Administration employment to 1,600,000 workers, therefore, it will be necessary for 260,000 Works Progress Administration workers to find jobs over and above seasonal expectations.

These estimates are based on studies of our past experience during periods of reemployment, which indicate that the creation of two and one-half new jobs in private industry results in the removal of one family head from relief or from the W.P.A. On this basis, private employment will have to increase to the extent of 500,000 to 650,000 more than seasonal expectations if Works Progress Administration employment is to be reduced to 1,600,000 in June.

Debate over the WPA

The debate over the worthiness of spending public funds on work relief was non-ending. As an example in defense of the WPA, the following excerpts are from an article by David Cushman Coyle published in the March 1939 issue of the journal Forum entitled “The WPA—Loafers or Workers?” (pp. 170-174).

Is it true, as you so often hear, that people on relief acquire the habit of living at ease and thenceforth refuse to go to work? Is it true that WPA workers cling to their soft snap and refuse to take jobs in private employment? Do Americans really like to work, or would they rather loaf? …

On the face of it and considering what has happened to some millions of helpless people, one would expect that the losses of morale would be stupendous. The astonishing thing is that so little trace of lost morale can be found in the records. Apparently the American people are tougher than anyone had a right to hope … What sort of people are “on” the WPA?

All sorts, of course. The most striking thing about them is how very American they are …

He represents the millions whose lives have been upset by the long depression but who are neither too sick nor too old to scramble for a toe-hold. He represents millions of employable men and women, white-collar workers and laborers, skilled mechanics, scientists, experienced and inexperienced workers, who, having lost their jobs and exhausted their private resources, have needed employment on WPA projects to tide them over a desperate period …

More than five thousand cases of alleged job refusals (of both WPA and private assignments), reported since 1935, have been investigated by agents of the federal government.

Only forty-two of these refusals, or less than 1 per cent, were found to be real cases of an individual’s not wanting to work …

The experience of the depression has proved that the American people still want jobs. They learned in school that in America the boy who studies and works day and night will marry the boss’s daughter and become president of the company. The vast majority still believe in work.

Fortune reported, as a result of a survey in 1937, that more than two thirds of the workers on relief had at some time held one job for more than five years. In each of the eleven localities covered in the Fortune survey, a board of local citizens was set up to rate the WPA workers and relief recipients as to employability. Only 25 per cent were rated unemployable, the principal reasons for this being old age and poor health. Even among those who were judged unemployable by these boards, one in eight was able to find work in the prosperous period of 1937 …

There can, of course, be a scarcity of labor and a surplus at the same time, because workers are not all alike. Most of our unemployed workers are unskilled, and most of the scarcity is in the skilled trades …

It is generally agreed that there are from ten to twelve million unemployed in the country. The WPA had had from two to three million on its rolls. To blame the WPA for a shortage of labor is to charge that the tail is wagging the dog. What about those who are not on the WPA or on direct relief? Shortage of certain types of workers exist despite the millions who walk the streets.

It is significant that more than a million WPA workers have taken private jobs since the beginning of the program. The WPA is organized so that, with occasional local exceptions, it gears closely into private industry and serves as a reservoir of labor. It takes up some of the slack between private jobs and supplies workers, through the U.S. Employment Service, whenever they can be employed in industry or agriculture …

As these reports show, the WPA has not been a large factor in the labor supply. There is a reserve of millions of unemployed, outside the WPA, to which industry can turn. Many labor shortages reported at the present time are recurring problems which first arose long before the WPA and have continued through the depression. When business is recovering, cases of local scarcity of certain kinds of labor are bound to occur from time to time.

The investigations of complaints turn up a surprisingly small number of actual cases of laziness or even of unwillingness to leave the WPA for the risks of private employment. Apparently the people who have borne the burnt of the long depression have kept the desire to work to get back on their feet. A pretty tough race of people, these Americans, and hard to kill. They’d better be, for it takes a long time to get America straightened out.

Suggested Research Topics

  1. The Works Progress Administration touched almost every county in the United States. Research what buildings, art projects, theatre productions or other WPA project impacted your community.
  2. A major concern regarding “the dole” in the 1930s was the impact on the self-esteem of the recipients. Work relief was heralded as a solution. In the late twentieth century many states implemented programs to require work from welfare recipients. Compare the arguments in the 1930s and in the 1990s regarding welfare and self-esteem.
  3. Discuss the pros and cons involved in government-sponsored art. How did debate over certain controversial art projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in the late twentieth century compare to debate of the WPA arts programs?