About the Works Progress Administration

As part of Roosevelt's "alphabet agency" the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created in 1935 by Executive Order. It was funded by an emergency appropriation of the U.S. Congress. It's purpose was to provide federally funded jobs for some of the unemployed people in America during the Great Depression. Some called it visionary, others called it communistic, but regardless of one's opinion, it was ultimately one of the most controversial agencies created by Roosevelt's administration.

Once funded, work began immediately on the WPA's Federal Project Number One. Known as "Federal One," the project comprised five major divisions: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project and the Historical Records Survey. Each was headed by a national director. In just one year, the five national directors met in Washington, and about 40,000 WPA artists and other cultural workers were employed in projects throughout the United States. It is important to note that very few of these people were African Americans.

Federal One was unique among all U.S. government efforts, before or since, because it attempted to articulate and accomplish broad public cultural goals with the use of federal tax dollars. One fundamental criticism of this program was that by doing so it stepped far beyond it's rightful authority as described by the Constitution. Some suggested that funds be granted to already existing programs, but the designers of the WPA rejected the idea of setting up a program of subsidy for existing citizen arts organizations. Instead of providing direct federal grants to these institutions, WPA leaders sought to maintain control and "break new cultural ground" with federal dollars.

Holger Cahill, director of the Federal Art Project, in a 1939 speech said, "...the Project has discovered that such a simple matter as finding employment for the artist in his [sic] hometown has been of the greatest importance. It has, for one thing, helped to stem the cultural erosion which in the past two decades has drawn most of America's art talent to a few large cities."

The Federal Art Project also compiled a 22,000-plate Index of American Design, dispatching artists to record a wide variety of American designs in furnishings and artifacts from the colonial period on. The Arts Service Division provided illustrations and the like to the WPA's writers, musicians and theaters. The Exhibitions Division organized public showings of all WPA artists and students.

Hundreds of teachers were employed by the Art Teaching Division in settlement houses and community centers; in the New York City area alone, an estimated 50,000 children and adults participated in classes each week. The FAP also set up and staffed 100 arts centers in 22 states; these included galleries, classrooms and community workshops and served an estimated eight million people.

The Federal Music Project employed around 16,000 musicians at its peak, this project was directed by a former conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, Nikolai Sokoloff. Federal Music Project ensembles -- orchestras and chamber groups; choral and opera units; concert, military and dance bands; and theater orchestras -- presented an estimated 5,000 performances before some three million people each week. Music projects had local cosponsors -- schools or colleges, government or civic groups -- and small admissions charges helped meet costs.

The Federal Music Project also provided classes in rural areas and urban neighborhoods; in 1939, an estimated 132,000 children and adults in 27 states received instruction every week.

The Theatre Project employed 12,700 theater workers at its peak. State units were established in 31 states and New York City, with most states in turn creating more than one company or unit within their own jurisdictions. Federal Theatre units presented more than 1,000 performances each month before nearly one million people -- 78% of these audience members were admitted free of charge, many seeing live theater for the first time. The Federal Theatre Project produced over 1,200 plays in its four-year history, introducing 100 new playwrights.

In addition to its production units, the Federal Theatre Project reached an estimated 10 million listeners with its "Federal Theatre of the Air," broadcast over all the major networks.

The Federal Writers Project employed 6,686 writers at its peak in April 1936, with active projects in all 48 states and the District of Columbia. Directed by Henry Alsberg until 1939, the Writers Project had produced 3.5 million copies of 800 titles by October, 1941.

The Federal Writers Project is best-known for its American Guide Series, intended to produce comprehensive guidebooks for every state, Alaska, Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.; similar guides were published for many localities. Each guide included detailed descriptions of towns and villages, waterways, historic sites and the like, often along with extensive collections of oral history and folklore, essays about local life, photographs and other artwork.

The Historical Records Survey was the smallest component of Federal One, the Survey employed archivists to identify, collect and conserve historical records throughout the United States.

The WPA focused on using labor and the talents of individuals and was intended to provide real jobs instead of just relief. It paid what were known as "security wages"--higher than relief, but lower than prevailing wages in private business and industry. The WPA was a consolidation of the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), both of which were established in 1933. Both of those agencies were abandoned.

About 22% to the federal money allocated to the WPA was used for a wide range of community services, including: education; recreation and the arts; historical surveys; public health; school lunch programs; vocational training for defense industries; and distribution of surplus commodities. About 78% of available funds was spent on projects involving public works, construction and conservation of natural resources.

In the somewhat free-wheeling environment of the Depression, programs were created on the fly and spontaneously reorganized according to a bright, new idea. The programs funded through the WPA were problematical at times. Confusion and inefficiencies within the WPA led to considerable criticism of the agency, especially among those who had become disenchanted with the New Deal. Political polarization in the United States was extreme. The vast funds that were filtered through the agency benefited some states more than others.

The WPA went through another metamorphosis in 1939 when it was reorganized, renamed the Work Projects Administration and placed within the Federal Works Agency. The WPA absorbed the Public Works Administration, but the National Youth Administration was removed from it, becoming part of the Federal Security Agency. Several of the programs of the WPA were terminated at that time. Those projects included the Federal Theater and the Federal Writers Project, both of which had been severely criticized. The Writers Project actually continued, however it's funding came from local level sponsorship. After 1939, the WPA shifted much of its emphasis--first toward preparation for national defense, and later to the support of U.S. involvement in World War II itself. As defense industries boomed, WPA was no longer a national priority. It was officially abolished in June 1943.

WPA's building program included the construction of 116,000 buildings, 78,000 bridges, and 651,000 mi (1,047,000 km) of road and the improvement of 800 airports. Also a part of WPA's diversified activities were the Federal Art Project, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Theatre Project. Close to 10,000 drawings, paintings, and sculptured works were produced through WPA, and many public buildings (especially post offices) were decorated with murals. The experiments in theatrical productions were highly praised and introduced many fresh ideas. Musical performances under the project averaged 4,000 a month. The most notable product of writers in WPA was a valuable series of state and regional guidebooks. WPA also conducted an education program and supervised the activities of the National Youth Administration.

At its peak WPA had about 3.5 million people on its payrolls. Altogether WPA employed a total of 8.5 million people, and total federal appropriations for the program amounted to almost $11 billion. There was sharp criticism of the WPA in a Senate committee report in 1939; the same year the WPA appropriation was cut, several projects were abolished, and others were curtailed. A strike of thousands of WPA workers to prevent a cut in wages on building projects was unsuccessful. Steadily increasing employment in the private sector, much speeded just before and during World War II, caused further drastic cuts in WPA appropriations and payrolls. In June, 1943, the agency officially went out of existence.

The Effects of the National Relief Programs

In his Annual Message to Congress on January 4, 1935, just prior to the announcement of his "second New Deal", Roosevelt spoke critically of his personal mission to re-shape American society the failure of his administration's first-term efforts:

"We find our population suffering from the old inequalities, little changed by our past sporadic remedies. In spite of our effort and in spite of our talk, we have not weeded out the over-privileged and we have not effectively lifted up the underprivileged....We have...a clear mandate from the people, that Americans must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth which, through excessive profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune, over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth and great power."

The alphabet of relief programs, including the WPA, did provide jobs and income for many. However, it generated problems also. Dr. Brad DeLong, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote this about the WPA and other such programs.

" In the United States even at the very end of the Depression unemployment was high. In the 1940 census some 11.1% of U.S. heads of household were counted as unemployed, of whom almost half- 4.9% of all heads of household-held relief jobs. Michael Darby has argued that the government had managed to create a situation in which those on relief found themselves with little incentive to register their labor supply on the private-sector job market, and yet were doing little socially productive work. Relief jobs were attractive to many, in spite of their low levels of relief wages relative to average private sector wages. Relief jobs were secure and required little skill. The risk-averse or the lesser-skilled might well have found that their best option was to stay on relief jobs, and be counted as unemployed, rather than take even an immediately available private sector job."

" Long-term unemployment means that the burden of economic dislocation is unequally borne. Since the prices workers must pay often fall faster than wages, the welfare (quality of life) of those who remain employed frequently rises in a depression. Those who become and stay unemployed bear far more than their share of the burden of a depression. Moreover the reintegration of the unemployed into even a smoothly-functioning market economy may prove difficult, for what employer would not prefer a fresh entrant into the labor force to someone out of work for years? . . . It appears to take an extraordinarily high-pressure labor market, like that of World War II, to successfully reemploy the long-term unemployed."

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