What Was the WPA?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a New Deal agency which was designed to combat unemployment while also stimulating the economy. During the Depression years, this agency was one of the largest employers in the United States, and its work can be seen in every American state today. Like any major social welfare program, the WPA had its share of critics and problems, but it was also hailed as an immensely helpful and productive organization.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated several programs, such as the Works Progress Administration, in an attempt to alleviate the Great Depression.

The roots of the WPA can be found in the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), a government agency established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 to deal with the widespread unemployment caused by the Depression. In 1935, FERA was dissolved and replaced by the WPA, which was meant to expand on the offerings of the earlier agency. The agency was terminated in 1943, when the outbreak of war greatly improved the health of the American economy, making many of its programs unnecessary.

A large part of the WPA budget went into the construction of public works and facilities such as dams, roads, civic buildings, parks, public libraries, and sewer systems. The agency hired unemployed workers to accomplish these tasks, thereby alleviating the strain of unemployment while also improving America's public works. Many projects are still in operation today, as most visitors to sites in the National Parks System are aware. Some of these projects may not have been strictly necessary, but they were often appreciated once the work was finished.

In addition to finding public works, the WPA also provided employment for struggling artists, writers, and composers. The Federal Arts Project sponsored numerous works of public art including the now-famous murals which can be found in many sites around the United States. The agency also sponsored theatrical productions, novels, and concerts. WPA funding also helped to preserve important historical records, which many Americans use today to track genealogy and to learn more about the history of their regions, and many oral histories from the 1930s were collected with the assistance of these funds.

In addition to creating jobs for unemployed Americans, the WPA also offered job training and education, and its funds provided food, shelter, and other needed services for the poor. Some people criticized the agency for spending government money on seemingly frivolous projects, but these projects undoubtedly contributed a great deal to the American life, and many Americans continue to enjoy the benefits of the initiatives today.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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