The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the first major unemployment program of the New Deal, a series of programs designed to counteract the pervasive joblessness and poverty of the Great Depression (1929–39). Authorized as part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act in April 1935, the WPA used the power and wealth of the federal government to initiate public works projects and hire the unemployed heads of families to staff them. The program, under the leadership of Harry Hopkins (1890–1946), provided about 3 million public sector jobs per year between 1935 and 1943, when the program ended. Most WPA workers built libraries, schools, hospitals, playgrounds, airports, bridges, and roads, but the program also employed writers, actors, musicians, and visual artists at jobs in their fields. The concept that the federal government, rather than private industry, should create jobs was a sharp departure from conventional policy. While critics decried this expansion of government's role in the economy, the WPA was widely credited with relieving unemployment during the Great Depression (1929–39) and with creating infrastructure improvements that were vital to the nation's future economic growth.
Following the stock market crash in October 1929, unemployment in the United States skyrocketed, rising from 3 percent in 1929 to 25 percent in 1933, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt (in office 1933–45) became president. Roosevelt had campaigned on the promise of using the power of the federal government to combat unemployment, poverty, and economic decline, and he immediately introduced a series of regulatory and recovery programs. He formed the National Recovery Administration (NRA), which was designed to create a federal minimum wage and limit work hours, and the Civil Works Administration, which used federal funds to hire the unemployed to build infrastructure projects throughout the country. Both programs were short-lived, however. The NRA ended in 1935 after the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. The Civil Works Administration, on the other hand, was designed from the outset to be a temporary program that lasted only until the spring of 1934. However, Roosevelt also inaugurated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, which was a long-term program that employed young people in various natural resource conservation projects. The CCC lasted until 1942 and provided a model for the more expansive WPA.
The WPA was created in April 1935 as part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. Through the WPA the federal government gave states loose parameters for the kinds of public works projects they could fund, ranging from sewer building to road construction. The states were then allowed to initiate their own projects. While the states were required to contribute to WPA employee salaries, the federal government paid the majority of these costs. With millions of employees and thousands of projects around the country, the WPA was extremely expensive. Between 1936 and 1939 alone, the program's budget exceeded $7 billion, an enormous figure for the time. This infusion of public money into the economy was unprecedented, but its effect on the nation's recovery from the Great Depression has been widely debated.
Supporters of the WPA argued that it was a well-managed program that funneled almost 85 percent of its total budget into wages and salaries. This money was vital to the welfare of those workers who otherwise would have been unemployed. From 1935 to its end in 1943, the WPA employed more than 8.5 million people and instituted almost 1.5 million projects, including infrastructure projects, public artworks, public parks, and written guides to each state. Equally important, the program improved morale for millions of jobless Americans. Despite this the WPA faced substantial contemporary criticism and has been the subject of much subsequent evaluation, suggesting that the administration had a minor or even negative effect on the nation's ability to recover from the Great Depression.
Critics of the WPA argued that the jobs created through the WPA amounted to a handout and joked that its initials really stood for “We Putter Around.” Some charged that WPA writers and artists were Communist sympathizers who did not deserve a government paycheck. Others argued, with compelling evidence, that funding for projects was politically motivated, with states supportive of Roosevelt and the New Deal receiving disproportionate appropriations. Critics also noted the tendency for WPA funding to increase close to elections, seemingly as a way of swaying voters to continue to support Roosevelt and the Democratic Party. Additionally, economists and historians have suggested that the creation of so many government-funded jobs discouraged the unemployed from seeking positions in the private sector, thereby interfering with the labor market's ability to correct itself and remedy the economic downturn of the early 1930s without government intrusion.
SEE ALSO Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); Great Depression; National Recovery Administration (NRA); New Deal
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