Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Works Progress Administration from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

In US history, a government initiative to reduce unemployment during the Depression (11 million in 1934). Formed 1935, it provided useful work for 8.5 million people during its eight-year existence, mainly in construction projects, at a total cost of $11 billion, and was discontinued only in 1943 when the change to a war economy eliminated unemployment. The WPA was renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939.

The WPA was an integral part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.


American Life Histories, 1936–1941

Federal Arts Projects of the 1930s

From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

The Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA), was created by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt with Executive Order 7034 in 1935. The program, which provided meaningful employment to both professionals and nonprofessionals, soon became one of the largest federal initiatives. Republicans, quick to realize that the WPA would have enormous political implications for future elections, opposed the program from its beginnings—as did many conservative Democrats. A majority of Democratic legislators and politicians, however, built on their position as the party that supported the middle and working classes of the nation, and thus maintained control of the White House and Congress for much of the next four decades.

Origin and Development

Faced with the failure of early New Deal programs to solve the nation's economic woes and an upcoming reelection battle in 1936, FDR moved to focus his programs on the objections voiced by those opposed to New Deal efforts. While relief was essential in 1933 (e.g., the Federal Emergency Relief Administration), and jobs were provided by such agencies as the Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration, and Tennessee Valley Authority, clearly more was needed to address employment numbers. The WPA was created to help get the unemployed back to work in meaningful jobs and to replace the dole with work-relief. For the eight years of its existence, the agency employed about 8.5 million, including those with few skills and those with training in art, music, theater, history, and writing.

The WPA was decentralized, with a small Washington office staff and more than fifty state and regional offices. Funding remained under the control of the agency; thus the WPA could move quickly because it did not require any monetary contributions from states or municipalities. Projects were often submitted by state or local offices and those selected were implemented quickly. Unlike earlier relief programs, the WPA required that most project workers be hired from relief rolls, but the agency had been directed to avoid any show of political favoritism in its hiring.


With FDR's friend Harry Hopkins in charge, the WPA moved immediately to launch projects that employed about 1.5 million workers in both construction and nonconstruction work. Of the 8.5 million employed over the agency's lifetime, more than three-quarters worked on construction projects, building hospitals, schools, bridges, airports, parks, and roads.

Those employed in nonconstruction jobs were artists, actors, historians, musicians, and other creative or scholarly individuals. The agency's Division of Women's and Professional Projects was headed by Ellen Woodward; she was responsible for providing work projects for teachers, nurses, librarians, and other professionals.

The various cultural and artistic programs were, indeed, a notable feature of the WPA. The theater, art, writers', and music programs, while individually distinct and administratively separate, all stressed the importance of indigenous American cultural heritages. The Federal Arts Project provided work for hundreds of painters, illustrators, photographers, and other graphic artists who produced, by one estimate, more than two hundred thousand works of art celebrating the strength and courage of ordinary people, often highlighting the contributions of working people, farmers, American Indians, and other minority groups. The Federal Music Project supported orchestras, dance bands, and folksingers who performed in scores of communities across the country. Music researchers collected and recorded regional and ethnically distinctive music, often rescuing material that might otherwise have gone unnoticed and unpreserved. The Federal Writers' Project produced highly regarded city and state guides, historical studies, and creative writing. One project led to the recording of more than twenty-three hundred narratives of African Americans born into slavery, thus creating a source of inestimable value for students of American history.

At its peak in the late 1930s, the Federal Theatre Project employed hundreds of actors, directors, and others and staged hundreds of performances that were seen, by one estimate, by more than 30 million people. The Theatre Project was widely criticized for some of its productions, particularly those with a left-wing theme or orientation. The Cradle Will Rock, a folk opera that highlighted workers' struggles to organize, was attacked by many critics, including conservative members of the Congress.


Many individuals and communities benefited from the WPA programs. Those employed had work, often in the professions for which they had been trained. Communities gained from the 650,000 miles of roads and 78,000 bridges constructed. New airports, schools, and parks helped cities. Culturally, histories of states were written, murals painted, and nearly a quarter million concerts were presented in communities—many of which had never before had a professional concert offered. States and cities benefited, but so did the individuals—the WPA treated them as a valuable resource.

African Americans benefited, finding employment in numbers sometimes greater than their percentage of the nation's population. FDR's original executive order directed the agency to be nondiscriminatory in its funding and employment policies. Indeed, WPA programs were among the largest employers of African Americans during this period. Despite the president's directive, racial discrimination was evident, especially in the South where local administrators of the projects hired fewer blacks and occasionally terminated them when local planters were in need of cheap labor for the harvest season. Overall, the relatively generous WPA wages and the higher representation of African Americans in projects in the North helped blacks to move closer to the Democratic Party—where they remained for decades.

American Indian and Hispanic American artists and other professionals were included in the professional programs in their fields. Recordings of the literature and music of these groups were a significant result of the cultural effort.

While there was a Women's Division, women did not fare as well under the WPA. Construction projects were overwhelmingly dominated by male workers. Although more heavily represented in various cultural programs, only about three hundred and fifty thousand women in total—less than 5 percent of WPA recipients—benefited directly. About 40 percent of the artists employed by the Federal Art Project were women.


The WPA was one of the most criticized of all New Deal programs. Conservative Republicans and Democrats opposed the program, with Vice Pres. John Nance Garner warning that it would "lead to a permanent welfare state." Leaders of industry helped to form and fund the American Liberty League that trained its oratorical guns on the WPA, charging that its programs infringed on the rights of citizens—a canard that the American Liberty League used frequently in its ostensible fight for free enterprise, states' rights, the open shop, and an end to government bureaucracy. The owner of the Chicago Tribune, Robert McCormick, and others opposed any projects that might compete with private industry and attacked the agency for creating a huge political machine. Most Republicans sympathized with the goals of the American Liberty League; in addition, they quickly recognized that the WPA would give the poor and unemployed a natural link to the Democratic Party. Anticommunist spokesmen, such as Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX), attacked the programs in the arts and theater, accusing them of encouraging subversive ideas. Such criticisms hindered the programs and directly influenced the termination of the Theatre Project in 1939. Because the agency was not allowed to compete directly with private industry, some of its projects did appear to be make-work in nature, but charges by fiscal conservatives of all stripes that the programs were wasteful were hard to prove.

The Final Years

After his reelection in 1936, Roosevelt, always sensitive to charges of reckless spending, was quick to reduce federal expenditures, including those for the WPA. Employing about 3 million persons in 1936, the agency was downsized by more than 50 percent over the next 18 months. When it became clear in 1937 that the Depression was not over, the WPA began to add to its rolls, mostly in construction projects; by mid-1938, more than 3 million were again employed. Faced with a budgetary shortfall, FDR successfully persuaded Congress to appropriate an extra $2 billion in April 1938. With the onset of war in Europe and continued opposition to public employment in the United States, the numbers of employed began to decline shortly thereafter, never again reaching the peak of 3.3 million.

After the departure of Hopkins in December 1938, more pressure mounted to contain the agency. The end of programs such as that in theater and the gradual reduction of most others led to WPA employment of about 1 million by July 1941. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, the construction programs turned to defense-related projects. As the United States prepared itself for the possibility of eventual participation in the war, unemployment began to disappear, making programs such as the WPA seem unnecessary; by January of 1942, almost all that was left of the agency were those projects related to defense. On December 4, 1942, Roosevelt ordered the abolition of the agency, saying it was "no longer needed." At the end of June 1943, the agency closed and returned nearly $300 million in unused funds and supplies to the Treasury.

War production eventually restored the nation's economy. The WPA, like earlier New Deal programs, did not succeed in restoring a vibrant economy, though the money spent did help those receiving wages and the communities in which they worked. Despite unrelenting opposition, the WPA did make significant contributions: construction projects and the encouragement of the arts made the country. a better place in which to live. With more than $11 billion in federal support during the eight years of the program's existence, more than 8.5 million persons benefited directly from their opportunity to work in their chosen profession or to be employed in meaningful work.

Historian David A. Shannon has called the WPA "the biggest, most ambitious, and generally most successful relief program the federal government has ever undertaken." (191) While not completely successful, the WPA did demonstrate that the federal government could successfully intervene on behalf of its citizens and provide public assistance to those in need. The belief that government should provide relief or work for its citizens in time of need became a major bulwark in the programs of the Democratic Party and a cause for concern on the part of conservatives in both major parties. The New Deal, the Fair Deal, and the Great Society were all part of this legacy. The National Endowments for the Arts later drew upon the WPA's programs as its basis and an argument for federal support. Republicans were put into an awkward position because of their traditional opposition to federal expenditures and their belief that the government was intruding into areas best served by private enterprise. They also recognized that their opposition to popular programs which put people to work made them politically more vulnerable.

Nick Taylor concluded his 2008 book on the WPA, American Made, by stating that FDR and his followers chose to treat "people as a resource and not as a commodity." (530) Since the end of the Great Depression, the Democratic Party has attempted to remember the importance of that lesson and benefited greatly at the polls in national elections, at least until 1980. Republicans, dominant during the 1920s, became a minority party in 1930 and remained in the minority in Congress until 1946 and 1952, when they temporarily regained control. Throughout the next several decades, Democrats retained their numerical edge gained by their efforts to assist persons in need of government help during the Depression and by their continuing efforts to provide needed relief for those in despair.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Conkin Paul, K. FDR & the Origins of the Welfare State New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967.
  • Edsforth, Ronald. The New Deal: America's Response to the Great Depression Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
  • Federal Works Agency. Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943. Washington, DC, Government Printing Office, 1946.
  • Hamby, Alonzo. For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s New York: The Free Press, 2004.
  • Howard Donald, S.. The WPA and Federal Relief Policy 1943. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.
  • Leuchtenburg William, E. The FDR Years: On Roosevelt and His Legacy New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
  • Leuchtenburg William, E.. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • Mangione, Jerre. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
  • McCoy Donald, P. Coming of Age: The U. S. During the 1920s and 1930s Baltimore, MD: Penguin Press, 1973.
  • McJimsey, George. The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000.
  • Schlesinger Arthur, M. Jr., The Politics of Upheaval Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
  • Shannon David, A. Twentieth Century America: The Twenties and Thirties Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1977.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard, ed. Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
  • Taylor, Nick. American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work New York: Bantam Dell, 2008.
Justus F. Paul
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

Related Articles

Full text Article WPA/FAP
The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms

(Works Progress Administration/ Federal Art Project) A programme established by the US government under the terms of New Deal legislation in...

Full text Article Works Progress Administration
Encyclopedia of New Jersey

The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) by Executive Order Number 7034, dated May 6,...

Defining Moments in American History: The WPA-Putting America to Work

Advisory Committee on Allotments A federal government group that reviewed and approved the work projects undertaken by the Works Progress Adminis

See more from Credo