saying somebody being able to do something cheaper is not always better. Many times you get what you pay for. I don't see it as the big, bad government coming to take my money to build something like this. I see it as me making an investment in our country's infrastructure. Other nations have made this kind of investment in their infrastructure, we used to invest in our own infrastructure. We can do it again.
The Works Progress Administration: Help Wanted
The WPA put millions to work during the Great Depression.
POSTED BY: David Hawley
September 04, 2012
On a sweltering summer day in 1935, an audience of skeptical farmers gathered in an auditorium at the University of Iowa to listen to a local boy—Harry Hopkins, the son of a harness maker from the nearby town of Grinnell—talk about another new federal agency. The Great Depression had spawned an era of acronym agencies, and Hopkins was there to explain the latest one created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. In the ensuing eight years of its existence, the activities of the WPA would impact virtually every community in the United States. Indeed, its legacy continues to this day.
The farmers gathered in that hall in Iowa City already knew quite a bit about Hopkins, the blunt and brash former social worker who had been heading relief programs for FDR dating back to Roosevelt’s governorship of New York. As president, Roosevelt had tapped Hopkins for top jobs with the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA). Now Hopkins was heading a new multibillion-dollar jobs program: the WPA.
The 42-year-old Hopkins had an astonishing talent for getting things done and an equally remarkable talent for one other thing: spending money. In a stem-winding speech, he reminded the farmers of the social devastation of the past few years: Twenty-five percent of the overall work force—some 15 million people in a nation of 130 million—were unemployed, he noted. Millions of families—as many as 60 million people—were depending on the largess of relatives or pittances from private charities and government agencies. At best, they were stigmatized as the “deserving poor.” More harshly, they were called “bums.”
The solution described by Hopkins wasn’t new, then or now: Workers needed jobs. The WPA was poised to step in and create them—government-paid jobs on public projects to build infrastructure and address public needs while also providing wages for the unemployed and customers for floundering businesses.
Hopkins had just triumphantly topped off his speech when a voice shouted out the question on everybody’s mind: “Who’s going to pay for all that?” Hopkins deliberately stoked the dramatic moment by stripping off his rumpled jacket and tossing it on a chair. Rolling up his sleeves, the lanky, angular-faced Hopkins clutched the sides of the podium and glared out at the audience. The question was hanging in the air: Who’s going to pay for all that?
“You are!” he shouted, then pausing to let it sink in. “And who better? Who can better afford to pay for it? Look at this great university. Look at these fields, these forests and rivers. This is America, the richest country in the world! We can afford to pay for anything we want!”
Of all the public-works programs created under the New Deal, the one best remembered is the WPA. It was larger and lasted longer—until 1943—than many of the Depression-era building programs. With projects in almost every community, it was also more deeply enmeshed in politics than other programs. Its organization was messier and its ambitions were chronically underfunded. It was, in fact, the favorite whipping boy for critics of the New Deal.
The 8.5 million workers employed by the WPA over its lifetime were mocked as shiftless shovel-leaners and many of its projects gave rise to a new word: “boondoggle.” Red-baiting congressmen accused its white-collar projects—such as the Federal Theatre and other cultural projects under a program called “Federal One”—as being hotbeds for Communists. Even its initials became a taunt: WPA, its critics said, stood for “We Piddle Around.”
Conceived as a temporary program, the WPA lived in the present. Its budget had to be reauthorized annually, which made long-term planning virtually impossible. More significantly, it reflected Roosevelt’s scattergun approach to New Deal agencies that involved murky, overlapping objectives and divided authority.
From the outset, Hopkins had a rival: Harold Ickes, who headed the Public Works Administration (PWA), which was supposed to handle larger infrastructure projects. The PWA and the WPA not only had confusingly similar names and acronyms, but they reflected the styles and priorities of their leaders. Ickes was known for a deliberate, well-planned approach to projects, while Hopkins had a reputation for speed and flexibility, combined with a capacity for hard work and a caustic disregard for hierarchy. One historian who grew up during the New Deal era later said it was easy to tell the difference between a PWA and a WPA project—the WPA project always involved more workers, fewer machinery, and more shovels.
By 1936, the WPA employed about 25 percent of the nation’s jobless, and its popularity helped Roosevelt gain reelection in a thumping electoral victory. By design, WPA workers were paid less than comparable private-sector workers in an effort to encourage nonpublic job seeking. Wages varied between regions and occupations, but overall, an average WPA worker made $41.57 a month. In its eight-year existence, the WPA spent about $11 billion, but its accomplishments were staggering. These included construction of 651,000 miles of roads, streets, and highways, 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings and stadiums, more than 8,000 parks, and 853 airfields and airports.
Along the way, the WPA gave its critics plenty of ammunition by making occasional blunders. In Mount Airy, N.C., for example, workers constructed a 40-foot-thick dam to create a new lake while neglecting to note that the lake didn’t have a source for water. In another misstep, WPA workers built an ice rink in Butte, Mont., that was too far from a hydrant to be flooded.
Roosevelt’s reaction to these widely reported goofs was typically light-touched. “If we can ‘boondoggle’ ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the people for many years to come,” he said.
Construction projects made up about 77 percent of WPA work, but workers in the federal jobs program also distinguished themselves in dealing with natural disasters, as when the Ohio River flooded in 1937, devastating river communities from West Virginia to Illinois. When a hurricane hit New England in September 1938, WPA workers joined cleanup and recovery efforts. In many ways, the WPA became part of the nation’s social fabric.
Projects for professional and non-manual laborers were criticized as make-work, but they took 11 percent of WPA funds. These included research and records projects on a wide variety of social topics, such as health surveys, research assistance at universities, education programs for schools, libraries and museums, and a variety of arts programs.
The WPA funded medical and dental programs, housekeeping aides, home visits for the elderly and sick, and even shoe-repair projects to mend the well-worn shoes of public school students. Using surplus agricultural commodities collected from the federal crop-reduction program, the WPA provided more than 1.2 billion school lunches to children from relief families. “Production-For-Use” projects, including sewing rooms, employed more than half of the women working under WPA funding.
The WPA ended when World War II brought on full employment. On July 1, 1943, The New York Times reported the agency’s obituary in four paragraphs buried on page 9. The perfunctory notice didn’t mention the passions that the WPA had inspired or its sweeping accomplishments.
Few believe that a WPA in the form of wholesale public jobs will ever happen again. But as historian Nick Taylor observed, the WPA epitomized “the New Deal’s fundamental wisdom of treating people as a resource and not as a commodity.
“Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins believed that people given a job would do it well, and the fact that their paychecks were issued by the government would not make a whit of difference,” Taylor observed. “They were right. The workers of the WPA shone. They excelled. They created works that even without restoration have lasted for more than 70 years and still stand strong—art that is admired, research that is relied upon, infrastructure that endures.”
David Hawley is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.