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What is the Works Progress Administration?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a United States government agency established during the New Deal era of the late 1930s. It was funded by Congressional mandate and ordered by President Franklin Roosevelt as an effort to hire millions of unemployed Americans for the purpose of building public buildings, roadways and other facilities. An estimation by the government itself states that nearly $7 billion US Dollars (USD) were spent between the years of 1936 and 1939 alone. As part of the New Deal, many historians cite the creation of the WPA as one of the primary motivating factors in reinvigorating the American economy following the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The program lasted until 1943, when the United States was forced to make domestic cuts in order to fund the war effort of World War II.

Following the onset of the economic downturn of the 1930s, President Herbert Hoover attempted to stimulate a financial recovery in the American economy through the passage of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. The purpose of this program was to stimulate the private sector by making $2 billion USD in loans available to businesses. By the late 1930s, it was determined by the following administration that further investment was needed to supply jobs to the nation's unemployed. The Works Progress Administration focused on constructing and helping with projects throughout the nation, particularly in rural areas.

Some of the many projects overseen by the Works Progress Administration included a strong focus on the arts, education and training as well as aid for children and the needy. It also worked to bring media to the masses and teach more Americans to read. Additional training programs were implemented to retrain workers for the jobs of the future and occupations that would benefit society. Other programs, particularly the National Youth Administration, a sub-agency, focused on providing relief for children around the country, many who were orphaned or abandoned and living in squalid conditions in both rural and urban areas.

One of the great advances the Works Progress Administration provided was relief to single women and mothers as well as African-Americans, both of which were disproportionately hit by the Great Depression. Many women were also forced during the period to take the place of breadwinners for the family. According to statistics from the time, a large percentage of men were either disabled or too old to work during the time period. Additionally, the African-American population was subject to the same standards in the hiring process as their white counterparts. While this made many civil rights activists angry at the time, historically it stands as one of the first times the population was provided with equality in the workplace.

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