What Is the Works Progress Administration (WPA)?

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a program created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to boost employment and the purchasing power of cash-strapped Americans. Implemented at the height of the Great Depression, the WPA sought to eradicate high unemployment by placing millions of skilled and unskilled workers in a broad range of jobs covering everything from the construction of infrastructure and public structures to the arts and manufacturing. 

The WPA, renamed the “Work Projects Administration” in 1939, was eventually terminated in 1943, shortly after America become involved in World War II and transitioned to a war economy. By that stage, it had succeeded in giving jobs to 8.5 million Americans at a total cost to the federal government of approximately $11 billion ($216 billion in 2021).

Key Takeaways

  • The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was introduced in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide jobs and income to American’s growing population of unemployed.
  • By the time it was terminated in 1943, 8.5 million unemployed Americans had been placed in jobs at a total cost to the federal government of approximately $11 billion.
  • To make sure the allocated capital was spent wisely, project proposals usually began at the local level and were then vetted by several parties further up the chain in command.
  • All types of jobs were created, although most of them centered around construction projects.

Understanding the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The WPA was part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of domestic programs designed to help the United States economy bounce back from the Great Depression. The idea was conceived in 1934, when about one-fifth of the country was out of work and unemployed, and introduced the following year by executive order under the authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935.

Nowadays, the creation of jobs is something of a political campaign cliché. However, during the 1930s, the concept of putting people on government payrolls was relatively unheard of, as was the distribution of welfare checks at the federal level, which Roosevelt also started.

Roosevelt’s plan to spend billions of dollars getting millions of Americans back to work was a colossal idea. With money in short supply and the economy at rock bottom, the government couldn't afford any setbacks.

Project proposals usually began at the local level and were then vetted by several parties further up the chain in command. City and county governments would assess their needs and unemployment figures and send any proposals they had to a WPA state office. If the state office thought a proposal had merit it would then forward it on to the WPA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., which would take a look and, if happy, send it on to the president's office for final approval.

This sometimes lengthy process ensured that taxpayers' money would be allocated where it was most needed and, crucially, prevented the federal government from randomly dishing out funds to local governments.

Transition to a War Economy Limits the Use of the WPA

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, many Americans were deployed to fight in World War II or called upon to help build weapons and support the war effort back home. Because of this and the WPA, unemployment was close to 0%. In December 1942, President Roosevelt called for an end to the WPA, stating that it was no longer necessary.

A presidential letter, penned in December of that year, called for the WPA to be terminated. Six months later, in June, the order was executed and the WPA officially shut down.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) Jobs

The WPA is often associated with putting unskilled men to work on public infrastructure projects. However, in reality, the types of jobs available to the unemployed were much vaster.

“An enumeration of all the projects undertaken and completed by the WPA during its lifetime would include almost every type of work imaginable… from the construction of highways to the extermination of rats; from the building of stadiums to the stuffing of birds; from the improvement of airplane landing fields to the making of Braille books; from the building of over a million of the now famous privies to the playing of the world’s greatest symphonies,” wrote Donald S. Howard, a social work educator and administrator who served as Director of Research and Statistics for the Colorado Emergency Relief Administration and the WPA from 1934 to 1936.

The largest number of WPA employment opportunities, 75% according to the "Final Report on the WPA Program," came in the form of engineering and construction jobs. Participants in these programs were responsible for building new schools, hospitals, roads, storm drains, sanitary sewer lines, bridges, airfields, and roads, among other things.

The program’s achievements included the creation of 650,000 miles of new or improved roads,

8,000 new or improved parks, 16,000 miles of new water lines, the production of 382 million articles of clothing, and the serving of 1.2 billion school lunches.

Though allocated much less money, Federal Project Number One, which gave jobs to artists, musicians, actors, and writers, also often comes up in conversation when discussing the WPA. President Roosevelt believed that artists could entertain and inspire the population during the grim days of the Great Depression and enlisted their services to help achieve this mission and get the nation’s creative juices flowing.

The Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Legacy

While it wasn’t without controversy, the WPA is largely celebrated for helping America to survive the Great Depression and claw its way back to economic prosperity. The program also left its mark in other ways, gifting us various smartly designed public buildings and structures and a thriving arts scene.

The letters WPA are enshrined on many American landmarks, including the Hoover Dam, the John
Adams Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Mint, the River Walk in San Antonio, and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis.

Meanwhile, the WPA’s various art programs paved the way for the creation of the National Foundation of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as introducing the world to renowned artists such as Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Aaron Douglas, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Jacob Lawrence, and Richard Wright.

Some people also credit the WPA with helping to erase, or at least ease, inequality. Though not entirely free of discrimination, the program's general efforts to boost the number of African Americans and women in the workforce marked a vast improvement for that particular period in American history. During its short lifespan, African Americans and women reportedly made up roughly 30% of the total WPA workforce.

Criticisms of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

The WPA wasn’t loved by all. A common complaint among Roosevelt’s Republican rivals was that it was created to buy votes ahead of the 1936 reelection cycle and was simply an extension of the welfare check. In response to the latter accusation, Harry Hopkins, the first administrator of the WPA, hit back, saying: “Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.”

The program’s cost management was also questioned. WPA construction projects could reportedly cost three to four times more than the private sector to complete, leading opponents to label them inefficient and a waste of taxpayers’ money. Spending on art projects, in particular, came under fire, with critics deeming them useless.

Another point of contention was wages. Labor unions protested that WPA employees earned much less than those working in the private sector, with average salaries reportedly totaling $41.57 a month.

What Was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Why Was It Introduced?

The WPA was a groundbreaking job program designed to provide unemployed Americans with work and income during a time when many were "on the dole" and struggling to make ends meet. 

Which Kind of Jobs Did the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Create?

Most of the jobs in the WPA program were linked to the building and maintaining of the nation’s infrastructure and buildings. However, other openings were created, too, covering pretty much every conceivable service, from the extermination of rats to the production of music, books, and visual art.

Why Did the Works Progress Administration (WPA) End?

By 1943, unemployment was no longer an issue in the country, mainly because many people were either enlisted to fight in World War II or contributing to defeating the enemy by other means back home.

What Were Some of the Drawbacks of the WPA?

The WPA is fondly remembered for helping to claw the American economy out of its worst financial crisis, leaving us with some special landmarks and breathing life into the arts. However, it wasn’t without faults. The program was expensive to run, not always cost-efficient, and didn’t always pay its participants fairly.