It continued and extended relief programs similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) started by Herbert Hoover and the U.S. Congress in 1932. Headed by Harry L. Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. The program built many public buildings, projects and roads and operated large arts, drama, media and literacy projects. It fed children and redistributed food, clothing and housing.
Until closed down by Congress and the war boom in 1943, the various programs of the WPA added up to the largest employment base in the country — indeed, the largest cluster of government employment opportunities in most states. Anyone who needed a job could become eligible for most of its jobs. Hourly wages were the prevailing wages in the area; the rules said workers could not work more than 30 hours a week but many projects included months in the field, with workers eating and sleeping on worksites. Before 1940, there was some training involved in teaching new skills and the project's original legislation went forward with a strong emphasis on family, training and building people up. The role and participation of labor unions in WPA processes is unclear.
The WPA reflected the strongly-held belief at the time that husbands and wives should not both be working (because they would take one job away from a breadwinner.) A study of 2,000 women workers in Philadelphia showed that 90% were married, but wives were reported as living with their husbands in only 15 percent of the cases. Only 2 percent of the husbands had private employment. "All of these [2,000] women," it was reported, "were responsible for from one to five additional people in the household." In rural Missouri 60% of the WPA-employed women were without husbands (12% were single; 25% widowed; and 23% divorced, separated or deserted.) Thus only 40% were married and living with their husbands, but 59% of the husbands were permanently disabled, 17% were temporarily disabled, 13% were too old to work, and the remaining 10% were either unemployed or handicapped. An average five years had elapsed since the husband's last employment at his regular occupation. [Howard 283] Most of the women worked in sewing projects, where they were taught to use sewing machines and made clothing, bedding and supplies for hospitals and orphanages.
Civil rights leaders initially complained that African Americans were proportionally underrepresented. African-American leaders made such a claim with respect to WPA hires in New Jersey: "In spite of the fact that Negroes indubitably constitute more than 20 percent of the State's unemployed, they composed 15.9 per cent of those assigned to W.P.A. jobs during 1937." [Howard 287] Nationwide in late 1937, 15.2% were African American. The NAACP magazine Opportunity check referencehailed the WPA: [February, 1939, p. 34. in Howard 295]
It is to the eternal credit of the administrative officers of the WPA that discrimination on various projects because of race has been kept to a minimum and that in almost every community Negroes have been given a chance to participate in the work program. In the South, as might have been expected, this participation has been limited, and differential wages on the basis of race have been more or less effectively established; but in the northern communities, particularly in the urban centers, the Negro has been afforded his first real opportunity for employment in white-collar occupations.
The goal of the WPA was to employ most of the unemployed people on relief until the economy recovered. Harry Hopkins testified to Congress in January 1935 why he set the number at 3.5 million, using FERA data. At $1200 per worker per year he asked for and received $4 billion.
Many women were employed, but it was a mere amount compared to men. Many women were unemployed at this time. "On January 1 there were 20 million persons on relief in the United States. Of these, 8.3 million were children under sixteen years of age; 3.8 million were persons who, though between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five were not working nor seeking work. These included housewives, students in school, and incapacitated persons. Another 750,000 were persons sixty- five years of age or over. Thus, of the total of 20 million persons then receiving relief, 12.85 million were not considered eligible for employment. This left a total of 7.15 million presumably employable persons between the ages of sixteen and sixty-five inclusive. Of these, however, 1.65 million were said to be farm operators or persons who had some non-relief employment, while another 350,000 were, despite the fact that they were already employed or seeking work, considered incapacitated. Deducting this two million from the total of 7.15 million, there remained 5.15 million persons sixteen to sixty-five years of age, unemployed, looking for work, and able to work. Because of the assumption that only one worker per family would be permitted to work under the proposed program, this total of 5.15 million was further reduced by 1.6 million--the estimated number of workers who were members of families which included two or more employable persons. Thus, there remained a net total of 3.55 million workers in as many households for whom jobs were to be provided." [Howard p 562, paraphrasing Hopkins]
The WPA employed a maximum of 3.3 million in November 1938. Worker pay was based on three factors: the region of the country, the degree of urbanization and the individual's skill. It varied from $19/month to $94/month. The goal was to pay the local prevailing wage, but to limit a person to 30 hours or less a week of work.
Total expenditures on WPA projects through June, 1941, totaled approximately $11.4 billion. Over $4 billion was spent on highway, road, and street projects; more than $1 billion on public buildings; more than $1 billion on publicly owned or operated utilities; and another $1 billion on welfare projects including sewing projects for women, the distribution of surplus commodities and school lunch projects. [Howard 129]
Some who were critical of the WPA referred to it as "We Poke Along," "We Piddle Along" or "We Putter Around." This is a sarcastic reference to WPA projects that sometimes slowed to a crawl, because foremen on a government project devised to maintain employment often had no incentive or ability to influence worker productivity by demotion or termination. This criticism was due in part to the WPA's early practice of basing wages on a "security wage," ensuring workers would be paid even if the project was delayed, improperly constructed, or incomplete. Other denigrating references to the WPA in popular culture include:
Harry Offenhartz is thought to have been the last "new-dealer," and member of the WPA when he passed away in 1998 at the age of 93. Offenhartz also began The New Heritage Music Foundation to honor his New Deal era heroes.