WPA Today   

WPA History

WPA Poster
WPA History--In Maryland and Across America

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 You can scroll through all the sections below, or jump to the section you want to see:

1. National Facts & Figures

2. Maryland Facts & Figures

3. Criticism of the WPA

4. Did it Work?
(Includes data chart)
5. Was the WPA Perfect?
6. References



 1. National Facts & Figures

      The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by Executive Order #7034 on May 6, 1935.  President Roosevelt had the authority for this Executive Order via the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935.  The WPA was created to offer direct government employment to the jobless.  The unemployment rate was about 20% at the time the WPA was created.  The WPA lasted until June 30, 1943.  The unemployment rate then was possibly below 2%, with many Americans working in the armed services, defense industries, etc.  The WPA--during it's 8 years of existence--employed over 8.5 million different Americans, and reached peak employment of over 3.3 million in late 1938.

      In 1943, it was said: "Never before in the history of the human race has a public works program, whose principal object was the mitigation of need due to unemployment, reached the magnitude of the Work Projects Administration (note the name change, which occurred in 1939).  This is true, however you measure it--by persons employed, money expended, or volume of results."  (Joanna C. Colcord, Director of the Charity Organization Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, in The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, p. 15)   

      Indeed, the variety and volume of work performed by the WPA is mind-boggling.  Variety: In addition to their well-known infrastructure projects (e.g., roads, bridges, airports, dams, water mains, sewers, sidewalks, schools), there were also WPA projects involving theater, writing, music, sewing, food distribution, archaeological digs, historic and environmental preservation, disaster relief, and more.  Volume: Here are just some of the the totals for the WPA's work projects (for a more comprehensive list, see my WPA Output chart):
      
*Half a billion garments & other articles produced in sewing room projects

*1.2 billion school lunches served


*650,000 miles of new or improved roads (enough roadwork to go around the Earth 26 times)


*124,000 new or improved bridges


*1.1 million new or improved culverts


*39,000 schools built, improved, or repaired


*85,000 public buildings built, improved, or repaired (excluding schools)


*8,000 new or improved parks


*18,000 new or improved playgrounds & athletic fields


*2,000 swimming & wading pools


*4,000 new or improved utility plants


*16,000 miles of water lines installed (enough water line to extend from New York to India...and back again)


*24,000 miles of sewer lines installed (nearly enough to circle the globe)


*950 airports/airfields built, improved, or repaired


*1,500 nursery schools operated

*225,000 concerts performed


*475,000 works of art


*276 full length books


SOURCES FOR THESE TOTALS
: Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943,  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 134-36 (available for download at: http://lccn.loc.gov/47032199), & Nick Taylor, American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR put the Nation to Work, New York: Bantam Books, 2009 paperback edition, pp. 523-24.      

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 2. Maryland Facts & Figures

      If the legacy of the WPA has perhaps (or probably) been forgotten on the national scale, it has certainly been forgotten in Maryland (hence my web project here).  In my research and travels, I have found that most of the WPA projects in Maryland are unknown, unmarked, and unacknowledged.  For example, many people don't know that they're working in a WPA-constructed building or enjoying a WPA-created park.  Many times I have asked something along the lines of "Do you happen to have any information about the history of this building, or the WPA's involvement?" and then replied to with a blank stare and/or the question "What's the WPA?"  I even encountered this phenomenon in the city of Greenbelt, a city built with an enormous amount of WPA labor.  Furthermore, I have yet to see a Maryland state historical marker mentioning the WPA.  And while a few WPA-built structures/projects have some sort of WPA marking on them, e.g., a corner stone or plaque, the vast majority do not.  This is a shame, since we're not honoring the hard work and public contribution of our elders and ancestors.  This is not intended as a criticism of Marylanders, however.  Until I did the research, and until I traveled across the state, I was clueless myself.  If we are not taught these things, how could we know?

     Some of the large projects the WPA carried out in Maryland (or provided assistance with) include: Catoctin Mountain Park & Camp David; Patuxent Research Refuge; the Ocean City Inlet; the widening of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal; the construction of the city of Greenbelt; and the construction of Baltimore Municipal Airport (Maryland's first large airport).  There was also construction at military bases like Fort Meade, historic preservation work at places like Antietam National Battlefield, work that promoted environmental protection at places like Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and endless roadwork, public building construction, water & sewer line installation, and so on.  Maryland also had a WPA Orchestra that provided free and low-cost concerts, a writer's program that produced the book Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, and there were various WPA education programs for both children and adults.  That this voluminous history has been forgotten (or not taught in the first place) is really quite astounding.

Here are just some of the accomplishments of the Maryland WPA:

*1,900,000 garments & other articles created in sewing room projects

 
*1,300,000 school lunches served
                
*1,348 miles of new or improved roads (enough roadwork to make a round trip from Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland to Ocean City...twice)

*237 new or improved bridges


*5,000 new or improved culverts


*400 schools built, improved, or repaired


*2,000 public buildings built, improved, or repaired (excluding schools)


*64 new or improved parks


*165 new or improved playgrounds & athletic fields


*9 swimming & wading pools


*39 new or improved utility plants


*124 miles of water lines installed (enough to extend from the Naval Academy in Annapolis to Assateague Island National Seashore on the Atlantic Ocean)


*185 miles of sewer lines installed


*7 airports/airfields built, improved, or repaired

SOURCE
: Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-1943,  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 134-36 (available for download at: http://lccn.loc.gov/47032199)

Here are some more interesting facts:


*** Employment in the Maryland WPA reached its peak of 24,607 in 1936.  ("WPA In State To Close Up,"
Baltimore Sun, December 5, 1942, p. 7)

*** About $76 million was spent on Maryland WPA projects, which is about $1 billion in today's dollars.  About $58,652,000 came from the federal government, and about $17,500,000 came from local sponsors of the projects.  Local sponsors were Maryland towns, cities, and counties that proposed the projects, and had to fund some percentage of each proposal before the WPA would assist.  (Same source as previous)


*** Pay varied, but Maryland WPA workers made about 50 to 73 cents per hour, which is about $6.55 to $9.56 in today's dollars.  ("Earnings Of WPA Workers Larger,"
Baltimore Sun, April 9, 1942, p. 28).

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 3. Criticism of the WPA

      It's been my observation that whenever the government--especially the federal government--performs an action, or creates a law or program, that is designed to help those in need, a flurry of criticism and panic ensues.  This can be seen throughout America's history, during attempts to end slavery, or give women the right to vote, or prohibit small children from working in mines, or in the legislation to create Social Security, or Medicare, or the recent attempts to see that more Americans have access to affordable health insurance or have extended unemployment benefits while unemployment rates remain high.   

      The WPA, i.e., the federal effort to provide work for the jobless during a time of extremely weak private sector job growth, was no different. Speaking about work programs for the unemployed in 1935, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia said "we have a class of people in this country that just cannot understand anything spoken in humane terms, but they will understand you when you speak to them in terms of tons of steel, thousands of brick, and so forth..." (Smith, p. 105--see reference list at bottom).  

      So, the WPA--like many other New Deal programs--was under constant political attack.  Some people felt that certain programs of the WPA, like the Federal Theater Project, were akin to communism.  Others felt that those who worked in the WPA were lazy "shovel leaners," who did nothing more than dig ditches and fill them back up again (in actuality, the WPA workers did dig ditches and fill them back up again--but critics omitted the part about a water main or sewer line being installed before the ditch was re-filled).  Some derisively said the WPA stood for "We Piddle Around," or "We Poke Along." 

      On May 8th, 1938, Harry Hopkins defended the New Deal (including the WPA) from criticism--made by former President Herbert Hoover--that the New Deal was leading America towards fascism.  Hopkins said of the New Deal:

"Is it dictatorship to operate a government for all the people and not just for a few?  Is it dictatorship to guarantee the accounts of small depositors and keep phony stocks and bonds off the market?  Is it dictatorship to save millions of homes from foreclosure?  Is it dictatorship to give a measure of protection to millions who are economically insecure and jobs to millions who can't find work?"  ("Hopkins Denies Relief Waste In Reply To Hoover On Fascism," Washington Post, May 9, 1938, p. XI).  Hopkins was, of course, referring to New Deal policies and agencies such as FDIC, the SEC, and the WPA.  

      In Maryland, not long after the WPA was dissolved, the Baltimore Sun published a very interesting letter to the editor, sent in from  a New Yorker.  The letter writer wrote:

"Wouldn't it be better to educate our youth in American ideals, to earn their own living instead of looking to the Government for work.  We had a WPA, and what did we gain by it?  Millions of jobs made for the people, not many of them necessary, and a great many not only unnecessary but actually useless and extravagant..."  ("No New WPA," Baltimore Sun, September 17, 1944, p. 10)

     There are all sorts of interesting things going on in this letter, e.g., the relationship between (1) consumer purchasing power (or lack thereof) and (2) business decisions involving hiring & investment, but I'll let you ponder them.  Suffice to say, for now, that the letter writer's attitude was common then, and is common now.  In fact, this type of misrepresentation of what the WPA did, coupled with the fact that so many Americans have never even heard of the WPA to begin with, is (in my opinion) the number one barrier to the creation of a new WPA.

     So...was the writer to the Baltimore Sun right?  Was the work of the WPA useless?  Did the WPA make zero improvements to the U.S. economy?  Everyone will make their own decisions of course, but please consider the next section (as well as my photo exhibits) as you make yours.          

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 4. Did it Work?

      The eternal questions about the WPA, and the New Deal, are: "Did they work?" and "Did they end the Great Depression?" My answer is: Yes they worked, but no, they did not end the Great Depression. 

     The New Deal (including the WPA) worked, because it helped reversed negative trends (see data chart below).  But the New Deal did not end the Great Depression altogether, because unemployment rates remained unacceptably high until America was fully engaged in World War II.  Some scholars have pointed out that Roosevelt--contrary to popular thought--was actually a bit of a deficit hawk, and that he was not nearly as "Keynesian" as officials like Marriner Eccles and Harry Hopkins were.  Therefore, he was hesitant to let the WPA and the New Deal grow to a size that would have ended the Depression.  This line of reasoning seems to have some merit, since the so-called "Roosevelt Recession" (1937-38) occurred after Roosevelt began to draw down the WPA.  The unemployment rate increased, and both the GDP and Dow Jones sank.  When WPA rolls were increased again, the economic recovery re-appeared.  Also, as few would dispute, World War II did end the Great Depression; and World War II required massive government spending, far more than what was required for the New Deal programs.  This begs the question: What would have happened if the WPA had hired even more unemployed people and paid them, say, 50% more?  Would the resulting increase in consumer purchasing power have ended the Great Depression sooner?

     David M. Kennedy (1905-1996) had some interesting comments about the New Deal programs when interviewed for the book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.  Kennedy worked for the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve during the Great Depression (he would later serve as the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President Nixon).  Kennedy argued that "Roosevelt gave us quite a bit of hope, early.  He probably saved us from complete collapse, in that sense.  But he did not answer the things.  Many of his programs were turned on and off, started and stopped...shifting gears.  Because we had never been in anything like this...He started many things going, but they were turned on and off.  We had the NRA, the WPA and these things--they'd come and go.  You never could get clear-cut decisions...(Roosevelt) was a dramatic leader.  He had charm, personality, poise and so on.  He could inspire people.  But to me, he lacked stick-to-it-iveness to carry a program through" (pp. 274-75, 1986 paperback edition).  Again, this begs the question of whether a larger, more sturdy WPA would have ended the Depression sooner (though Kennedy himself began to sour on government programs).

      Dr. Jason Scott Smith, in his book Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956, suggests that we evaluate programs like the WPA in terms of what they contributed to the economy--in the form of infrastructure projects--and not whether they completely solve unemployment.  Smith, and other scholars, highlight how the WPA improved America's infrastructure, thereby setting the stage for America's strong, post-World War II economic growth.  In other words, the roads, bridges, airports, etc., that the WPA built helped America move goods and services in greater volume, and with greater speed, to a greater number of places.

     So far, I've discussed macro-level topics.  But there is another way to evaluate the effectiveness of a public works employment program: The impact it has on the individual people who need help.  For example, on an individual level, the WPA offered a job to people who could not secure employment in the private sector or in regular government job openings.  This meant a paycheck, some degree of self-respect, food for the family, and learning new skills (or maintaining existing ones).  In this sense, the WPA was a huge success.  In the January/February 2012 edition of the History Channel magazine, a reader wrote in: "If not for FDR, my family, from the anthracite coal region Pennsylvania in the 1930s, would have gone to bed hungry more times than not.  WPA and the Relief Program that Roosevelt instituted literally put food on our table."  ("Roosevelt helped set table," p. 64)

     In the November 21, 2011 edition of The Nation magazine, a reader wrote:

"In the early '30s we had a president who gave us hope.  In our little town of 600, federal assistance made it possible to construct an entire municipal water system...This resulted in jobs for carpenters and plumbers too.  Some dozen women, including my widowed aunt (with four children), were employed in the 'sewing room' making overalls and shirts for those who could not afford to buy them...An older brother, a cousin and many other young men enrolled in the CCC and constructed a county lake, still in recreational use today...My father and other tenant farmers were hired to repair a bridge.  Although we were very poor, we had the feeling that our government cared and was doing something about poverty and unemployment.  In 2011 that feeling is gone" ("When America Didn't Need To Occupy," pp. 2 & 26).        
     In the book Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, an interviewee states: "...my father immediately got employed in this WPA.  This was a godsend.  This was the greatest thing.  It meant food, you know.  Survival, just survival" (p. 86, 1986 paperback edition). 
  
      In his autobiography, Jim Otto: The Pain of Glory, the Hall of Fame center for the Oakland Raiders tells us:
"...dad worked for the Works Progress Administration, building roads and parks during the Depression.  In those struggling times, it was the only work he could get" (p. 22, 1999 hardcover edition).

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     Perhaps one of the most interesting assessments of the entire New Deal program came from Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican challenger to President Roosevelt.  When asked later, "Do you feel the New Deal saved our society?" he responded, "By and large?  Yes."  (Hard Times, p. 336)

     Below is a data chart showing unemployment rates, GDP changes, and Dow Jones industrial averages during the New Deal era and a few years before and after the New Deal era (I consider the "core" New Deal era to be from 1933 through 1943).      

Some key developments to consider when viewing the chart:

1933:
FDR takes office in March, creates Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC, 1933-1942), Civil Works Administration (CWA, 1933-1934), and Public Works Administration (PWA, 1933-1943).

1935:
Works Progress Administration (WPA) created on May 6, 1935 (ends on June 30, 1943).

1937 (Summer):
Based on signs of economic improvement, Roosevelt scales back the WPA.  The economy begins to drop off, and some call this the "Roosevelt Recession," blaming the president for cutting back on New Deal programs too soon.

1938:
By April 21, 1938, WPA enrollment is back up to 2.5 million.  It reaches its peak in November of 1938, at over 3.3 million.

1941:
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, thus starting America's full involvement in World War II.

1942-43:
The CCC, PWA, and WPA all draw to a close.  

Unemployment Rate 1*

Unemployment Rate 2**

GDP (% change from previous year, in current dollars. Increases in bold.)

Dow Jones at end of year (approximate)

 1928

 -----

-----

 -----

 300

 1929

 3.2%

3.2%

 -----

 241

 1930

 8.7%

 8.7%

 12.0%

 163

 1931

 15.9%

 15.3%

 16.1%

 78

 1932

 23.6%

 22.9%

 –23.2%

 60

 1933 (FDR, New Deal Begins)

 24.9%

 20.6%

   3.9%

 99

 1934

 21.7%

 16.0%

 +17.0%

 104

 1935

 20.1%

 14.2%

 +11.1%

 143

 1936

 16.9%

 9.9%

 +14.3%

 181

 1937

 14.3%

 9.1%

   +9.7%

 122

 1938

 19.0%

 12.5%

   6.3%

 154

 1939

 17.2%

 11.3%

   +7.0%

 150

 1940

 14.6%

 9.5%

 +10.0%

 131

 1941

 -----

 -----

 +25.0%

 111

 1942

 -----

 -----

 +27.7%

 119

 1943

 -----

 -----

 +22.7%

 135

 1944

 -----

 -----

 +10.7%

 152

 1945

 -----

 -----

   +1.5%

 193

 1946

 -----

 -----

   0.4%

 176


*The "Lebergott" numbers, which do not count workers in work-relief programs as employed
.

**The "Darby" numbers, which do count workers in work-relief programs as employed.

 SOURCES FOR THIS CHART:

1. Robert A. Margo, "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Volume Seven, Number Two, (Spring 1993), pp. 41-59.

2. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, http://www.bea.gov/.  (Last visited July 7, 2012)

3. Dow Jones & Company, Interactive Learning Center, http://www.djaverages.com/.  (Last visited December 26, 2011)

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 5. Was the WPA Perfect?

     The WPA was not a perfect program, and if we ever create a modern WPA it will behoove us to learn from the original's mistakes.

     Probably the most recurring problem was political patronage.  This is where a local supervisor would lead a WPA worker to believe that their job was in jeopardy if they did not vote a certain way, or contribute a percentage of their paycheck to a local political campaign or organization.  This, of course, is unacceptable.  I doubt this would be as much of a problem today as it was back then, simply because the media is much more wide-ranging and aggressive today (i.e., today's government bureaucrats and supervisors are under closer scrutiny).

     A second problem with the WPA was a high turnover rate, due to workers finding private employment or using up their allotted time (typically, WPA workers could not work for the WPA longer than about 18 consecutive months).  This caused inefficiency, since more time had to be devoted to training new hires.  To some degree, this is simply the "nature of the beast."  However, in a modern WPA program, this type of inefficiency could be reduced by extending the consecutive amount of time a person could be enrolled in the WPA, perhaps to 2-4 years.

     Another problem was that workers would sometimes avoid private sector work to stay in the WPA.  It seems this problem was not usually caused by a desire to avoid work, or because of pay differences, but because the worker felt more stability in the WPA.  In other words, there was a fear that if they accepted private employment, and were laid off, they might not get back in the WPA, and thus end up in a worse situation than if they had rejected the offer of private employment.  However, considering the misery of unemployment and poverty that many of these people went through, I have a difficult time blaming them (indeed, it's a very rational decision).  This problem could be avoided in a new WPA by making enrollment in the WPA less difficult, so the worker knows that if their new private sector job results in a lay off, they can easily come back to the WPA. 

     Another stumbling block for the WPA was worker strikes.  I am very pro-union (both in the private sector and the public sector), but I'm not sure if allowing strikes in a work-relief program is wise (interestingly, Harry Hopkins was not very tolerant of the strikes).  For starters, this sours public opinion, and a sour public opinion does not bode well for a public relief program.  Also, the idea of work-relief is not to maintain the worker's previous standard of living but to provide some small amount of income, and also some skill-learning and/or skill-maintenance.  On the other hand, no worker should have to put up with abusive working conditions.  Instead of allowing strikes, though, it would probably be better to set up a thorough, independent ombudsman office to investigate and mediate complaints with individual workers.

     Yet another criticism of the WPA was its involvement in, and partial administration of, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  However, this was a sign of the times.  Racism was more rampant, and people were scared.  If the WPA hadn't been involved, some other bureaucracy would have.  In other words, the WPA's involvement was an unfortunate manifestation of the country's unfortunate hysteria-based desire.      

     To conclude, some people criticize the WPA for the types of problems I discuss here, and some would argue against the creation of a new WPA because of these troubles.  But very few man-made things are perfect, and I believe that dealing with imperfection is a fact of life.  For example, there have been thousands of investment scheme debacles in American history.  But, outside of communist and socialist organizations, has America ever seriously considered doing away with the investment market?  No.  Instead, you deal with the imperfection by creating regulations and laws designed to prevent Ponzi schemes, insider trading, accounting fraud, etc., as best as possible.  The same philosophy should be utilized if we ever create a new WPA.                       

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 6. References

These are the main sources of information I used for the historical synopsis above:

Baltimore Sun.  Various articles (see text for some of the specific editions).

Federal Works Agency.
  Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43.  Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946.  Available for download at http://lccn.loc.gov/47032199.

Howard, Donald S.
  The WPA and Federal Relief Policy.  New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943.

Leighninger, Robert D.
  Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.  Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2007 (paperback edition).

Margo, Robert A.
  "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s."  Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 41-59.

Rauchway, Eric.
  The Great Depression & The New Deal: A Very Short Introduction.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. 

Smith, Jason Scott.
  Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006 (2010 paperback edition).

Taylor, Nick.
  American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work.  New York: Bantam Books, 2008 (2009 paperback edition).

Terkel, Studs.
  Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression.  New York: The New Press, 1986 paperback edition.  Originally published in 1970 by Pantheon Books, Random House.

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

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