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What is the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act?

Dan Cavallari
Updated May 17, 2024
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During the Great Depression, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposed a series of programs, laws, and other economic stimulants to help the country get back on its feet again. Roosevelt called this course of action the New Deal, and as part of the New Deal, Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. This act was passed on 8 April 1935, created several government employment programs aimed at getting Americans working again.

One of the agencies created by the Act was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The largest of the New Deal agencies, the WPA gave jobs to millions of Americans and put them to work building roads and bridges, constructing buildings, and working on other public works projects. Further, employees of the WPA spent time feeding hungry children and distributing goods such as clothing to needy families. This Emergency Relief Appropriation Act program also created literacy and arts programs, as well as media, arts, and drama programs. At one point, the WPA was the largest employer in the country.

The Federal Art Project was another arm of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act that fell under the auspices of the WPA. The primary goal of this project was to employ out-of-work artists to create posters and murals for non-governmental agencies such as schools or hospitals. This short-lived program put artists to work both creating art and researching it, as well as teaching it within the community.

Similarly, the Federal Art Project, another arm of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act under the auspices of the WPA, employed thousands of people to research and write. One major project was the creation of state guides to all the states in the U.S., as well as the territories of the time. These guides outlined the history, culture, and descriptions of both the state as a whole and the individual cities and towns. As the FWP progressed, some writing became political, as many felt left-wing views needed to be defended as right-wing criticism of Roosevelt's policies became prevalent.

As the country began pulling out of the Great Depression in the early 1940s, employees of the WPA started training for factory jobs instead of many of the other activities they had pursued for years. Since World War II was just beginning, the government thought this training would prepare the country for the strains being placed on factories. Eventually, as unemployment declined and the war effort ramped up, funding for the WPA was halted.

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Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
Discussion Comments
By horsebite — On Oct 17, 2011

My great uncle was a WPA worker. They did a huge amount of work building roads, dams, expanding the national parks, and all kinds of other public works projects.

If you go out West, a lot of places have plaques or signs that tell you that they started out as WPA projects.

The program had its critics, and they weren't entirely without a point, but I think it was a good thing to give people meaningful, beneficial work to do rather than just paying them to sit around. That kind of thing destroys people. They become dependent and unemployable, and you have a lifelong problem with someone who will always need, or at least want, money from the government. Better to give them work to do and the opportunity to learn a skill and get some exercise.

By parkthekarma — On Oct 17, 2011

It's great that artists got paid to create things during the Depression, and I'd rather see people get paid to work than just be handed money for doing nothing, but where does it stop? There's a reason most artists can't make a living - nobody wants to buy what they produce. That sounds a lot like the market talking to me.

Nothing against art by any means, and I do think that there is a place for government support of artists. But I don't think that you should pay legions of mediocre artists to do buys work just so they don't have to get a "real" job.

I respect anyone who can create things, and I know it's hard to make it. But we can't forget the government doesn't make any money. It just takes money. And every dollar given to someone was taken from someone else.

Everything in moderation, including moderation.

By KLR650 — On Oct 16, 2011

@indemnifyme - The economic impact of the war on terror can't really be compared to WWII. Even though we've been over there for 10 years now, there is a very small percentage of the country involved in the fighting. In World War II there were millions in uniform. Whole town had no men of military age in them, everyone was overseas fighting.

And WWII was a massive sinkhole of government money. Income taxes were raised to very high levels, and unprecedented amounts of money were borrowed as well through War Bonds, which were very aggressively marketed to Americans as an investment and a patriotic duty to buy.

Now, the benefit of that huge expenditure of tax money was that there was pretty much full employment for any man not in the war and pretty much any women who wanted it too. This was also a big time for women to enter the workforce in new ways, like the famous "Rosie the Riveter" working in factories building tanks and airplanes and all kinds of other things for the war effort, which was a new kind of job for most of the women.

And the current war does create lots of very good paying jobs. A lot of military equipment can't be built overseas for security reasons, so there are good manufacturing jobs here in the States to build it. Same with Aircraft and helicopters. Overall, though, the relatively low levels of production haven't created anywhere near the job boom that WWII did, and in general the war has been a huge drain on the economy.

By indemnifyme — On Oct 16, 2011

@sunnySkys - I agree, we definitely could have used the Works Progress Administration in the recent past!

I think it's so interesting that the WPA wasn't needed anymore because of World War II. It's ironic that war acted as a financial stimulus at that time, despite the overwhelming casualties that were suffered by all the countries involved. And yet our most recent conflicts with other countries certainly didn't stimulate our economy any!

By sunnySkys — On Oct 16, 2011

That Roosevelt was really a genius! I had no idea that any of the government jobs during the Depression had anything to do with art or writing. I thought they were all basically construction jobs.

I wonder why our government didn't do something like this during the most recent recession. Rampant joblessness was a big problem then too! With the amount of new technology we have, I'm sure the government could have created some jobs in a lot of different sectors.

By kylee07drg — On Oct 15, 2011

My grandfather was a writer, and he was seeking work during the time of the Great Depression. He was one of the writers who got the job of composing state guides.

I think it’s awesome that he had a part to play in this documentation. He brought scattered information together, and by reading his work, people came to know things they had never known about other states and cities.

I’m sure the information is out of date now, but he kept copies of the guides that he wrote and passed them on to me. I love reading about how things were in my state a long time ago.

By cloudel — On Oct 14, 2011

I think it’s great that the government gave artists a chance to get paid for using their skills. I imagine it was even harder back then than it is now to find work as an artist. I am a painter, and I can’t imagine how happy I would be if the government told me it wanted to pay me for my work!

If I had been alive back then, I definitely would have taken advantage of that job. I know I wouldn’t have been able to do construction work, so having the option to use my talent and make money off of it would have been great.

Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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