Abstract: FDR's social and economic programs during the 1930s improved the quality of life for many American workers. Specifically, the federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided stable income and a much-needed shot in the arm of self-respect for skilled workers. Substantial effects from this program are still visible in today's society.
The Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression
In 1932, 13 million people in the United States were unemployed (Gusmorino, par. 23). Home foreclosures and bankruptcies were common. A large percentage of the American population was desperate. The worst economic situation they had ever faced, the Great Depression, was caused by a number of factors, many of which were beyond the control of the average man and woman. These factors included inequality in the distribution of wealth, stock market speculation, drought, and a weak international economy (Gusmorino, pars. 1-23). At a time when the American public needed leadership, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) did his best to rise to the challenge. His presidency, lasting from 1933 to 1945, is best known for its unparalleled length and the far-reaching impact of its social programs. In his memorable first inaugural speech, which contains the now-famous quote "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself," FDR proposed immediate action with relevant changes (First Inaugural Address (1933) pars. 1-26). The basic tenet of the New Deal relief plan was the creation of state and federal agencies, whose sole purpose was to generate jobs. Many conflicting viewpoints exist among historians. Some praise the innovation of the New Deal agenda, and others condemn it as a source of current social and economic problems. "Work Relief in the Great Depression," an essay by Edward Robb Ellis, examines one of the major organizations of the New Deal program and its dramatic impact not just on the working class, but on America itself.
In May of 1935, President Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Works Progress Administration, commonly known as the WPA (Ellis 204). Prior to this time, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided public assistance through direct relief, much like today's welfare system. The relief was funded by the federal government, and was administered by individual states and cities (Ellis 201). It was known as "the dole" (Ellis 203). Hunger and homelessness forced many people into the social stigma associated with being "on the dole". The WPA was created as a way to provide public assistance without shame, and to help revive a lagging economy. During the eight years it existed, the WPA employed over 8.5 million people in over 3,000 counties nationwide. More than $11 billion was spent on nearly 1.5 million projects (Ellis 205). No undertaking of this magnitude had occurred before. Most of the projects completed in that era are still in use today. The workers employed by the WPA "built 651,087 miles of highways, roads and streets; constructed, repaired or improved 124,031 bridges; erected 125,110 public buildings; created 8,192 public parks and built or improved 853 airports" (Ellis 205). These statistics are impressive, if not staggering, but they raise the question of how the government was able to fund such an ambitious undertaking. In 1935, "...the Senate and House passed a joint resolution giving the President the relief money he had sought - $4 billion in new funds and $880,000,000 unused from previous appropriations" (Ellis 203-04). If such funding was readily available, how did the country find itself in such a dire economic crisis to begin with? This is not addressed in Ellis's essay, but it is an idea that would be interesting to research further.
The WPA accomplished much more than just building and refurbishing the country's infrastructure. This organization is responsible for the preservation of much of the nation's culture. "The New Deal did more to promote culture than any previous administration in the history of this nation..." (Ellis 205). The arts division included 4 programs - one each for music, art, theater, and writing (Ellis 205-06). Combined, these programs employed over 40,000 out-of-work musicians, actors, producers, directors, playwrights, stagehands, electricians, artists, writers, and editors (209). The music program created over 253 symphony orchestras. More than 100 million people heard their music. Over 500,000 students attended free music classes (207). "Project workers dug out and recorded American folk music the Cajun songs of Louisiana, the Indian-flavored songs of early Oklahoma, the British-born ballads of Kentucky mountaineers, the African-inspired songs of the Mississippi bayous" (Ellis 207). The art project maintained 66 community art centers, attracting 6 million visitors. One of the highlights of the art project was the Index of American Design, which included over 7,000 photographs, paintings, and sketches of every early American art and craft imaginable (208). The theater project featured plays written by George Bernard Shaw and Sinclair Lewis. It drew support and patronage from nearly every walk of life (210). It employed actors to perform in "Living Newspapers" - innovative, dramatized versions of daily news (209), which can be viewed as an early form of today's newscasts. The writer's program produced an American Guide Series, listing up-to-date travel and interest information on American states and cities. The finished product included 378 books and pamphlets (206). Their most impressive achievement was the historical records survey, in which millions of pages of documents were preserved using microfilm (Ellis 206).
Throughout the article, Ellis points out that FDR was aware of the probability of political corruption. This was due to the massive amount of money spent and the vast territory covered. FDR quelled the majority of the corruption by appointing trustworthy administrators, such as Harry Lloyd Hopkins and Aubrey Williams. Wages paid to employees typically exceeded the amount spent on materials (203). In a shocking display of forward thinking, Aubrey Williams insisted that women receive equal pay to that of their male counterparts. After teasing him briefly, his boss, Harry Hopkins, agreed (204). The WPA had to tread a thin line concerning wages; they "paid wages slightly higher than the grants for direct relief but lower than wages prevailing in private industry" (204). The exception to this was in the South, where earnings had not kept pace with the rest of the country. The WPA was "by far the biggest employer and spender of all the New Deal agencies" (Ellis 205). It should be noted that, for all the good that was accomplished by the WPA, unchecked government spending alone would never have pulled this nation out of the Great Depression. If America had not become involved in World War II, it's nearly impossible to say how or when the Depression would have ended.
During a period of time that could have caused artistic endeavor to cease completely, the government sponsored projects of the WPA promoted an outpouring of creativity. They made our rich, historical culture accessible to millions of Americans who may otherwise have been unaware of its existence. I commend Roosevelt for recognizing the dire situation that many Americans faced, and for accepting federal responsibility in the care of American citizens. Even though some of his programs may be criticized, at least he took action and attempted to get working people back on their feet. While many aspects of the New Deal's WPA improved life for hundreds of thousands of Americans, I don't believe that it was intended to be a cure-all to last through the ages. It was a quick fix, and at the time that it was improvised, it worked. Just as the Constitution periodically requires amendment, policies enacted in the spirit of New Deal principles should be continually monitored and updated to reflect the needs of current society.
Ellis, Edward Robb. "Work Relief in the Great Depression." The Social Fabric:
American Life from the Civil War to the Present. Vol.2. 10th ed. Ed. Thomas L.
Hartshorne, et al. New York: Pearson, 2006. 201-215.
Gusmorino, Paul A., III. "Main Causes of the Great Depression". Gusmorino World. 13 May 1996. 12 Feb. 2007. .
"Historical Documents. First Inaugural Address (1933)". Internet Public Library: POTUS. 24 Jan. 2007. School of Information, University of Michigan. 12 Feb. 2007. .