The Great Depression Origins of the Works Progress Administration (WPA)

A portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt

On Black Thursday, October 24th 1929, there was a sudden and devastating collapse in U.S. stock market prices, ushering in a decade-long era of economic depression. The effects of this major stock market crash were felt all around the world, as prices, interest rates, and spending fell, and unemployment went up. Today, we know of this period as the Great Depression, and most Americans also know the relief efforts of the presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt as the driving force that pulled the U.S. out of this depression.[30]

The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was one of several programs created as a part of the New Deal. The Roosevelt Administration’s plan to alleviate the depression consisted of multiple reform, relief, and recovery programs. It was created by President Roosevelt on May 6th, 1935, and Harry Hopkins was appointed as the first administrator. Though there were multiple public works programs created during the New Deal, the WPA remains known as one of the largest and most diverse, creating mass jobs that focused on building infrastructure, creating jobs in the arts, supporting historical preservation and research, and employing women in sewing rooms and school classrooms. These efforts were quite successful, and by the time the WPA was terminated in 1943, the program had employed about 8.5 million Americans.[31]

Typically, the projects under this administration began on a local level, with each individual city involved having their own local governments assess the needs and unemployment numbers of the community. The governments of involved cities would draft their own proposals and send them to a WPA state office for vetting, then to the national office in Washington D.C., and finally to the President.[32] Proposals could be rejected at any of these steps- there was such a strict process because the WPA needed to make sure that their limited funds were going to the cities that truly needed them the most.[33]

A photograph of WPA workers at work on a project site in Rochester, New York