(renamed Work Projects Administration, 1939)
President Roosevelt created the WPA on May 6, 1935 with Executive Order No. 7034, under authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Harry Hopkins was the first (and most well-remembered) administrator of the WPA, serving from July 1935 through December 1938 .
The WPA was the largest and most diverse of the New Deal public works programs. It was created to alleviate the mass unemployment of the Great Depression and by the time it was terminated in 1943, the WPA had put 8.5 million Americans back to work .
The majority of WPA projects built infrastructure, such as bridges, airports, schools, parks, and water lines. In addition, the Federal Project Number One programs undertook theater, music, and visual arts projects, while other service programs supported historic preservation, library collections, and social science research. The WPA also employed women in sewing rooms and school classrooms and cafeterias, and in the later run-up to war it improved many military facilities.
The volume and diversity of work was so large that one researcher wrote at the time: “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” . An inventory of WPA accomplishments in the Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43 includes 8,000 new or improved parks, 16,000 miles of new water lines, 650,000 miles of new or improved roads, the production of 382 million articles of clothing, and the serving of 1.2 billion school lunches .
The WPA employed people directly. A typical project began at the local level, with city and county governments assessing their needs and unemployment numbers. Proposals were then sent to a WPA state office for vetting before being forwarded to headquarters in Washington, D.C. and, finally, to the president for final approval. Projects could be rejected anywhere along this three-step process, and were not imposed on local communities by the Federal government. Normally, localities had to provide about 12-25% to trigger federal funding of WPA projects .
In 1939, after a federal government reorganization, the Works Progress Administration was renamed the “Work Projects Administration” and was placed under the newly created Federal Works Agency. With the advent of World War II and absorption of the ranks of the unemployed into war production and the military, the WPA was gradually shut down. Official termination came on June 30, 1943, per a December 4, 1942 presidential letter to the Federal Works Administrator, while the Second Deficiency Appropriation Act of July 13, 1943 established liquidation procedures.
Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 7-10. (2) Ibid. at p. iii (“Letter of Transmittal”). (3) Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1943, p. 126. (4) See note 1, at pp. 134-136. (5) See note 3 at p. 147 and note 1 at p. 9.