It was on this day in 1935 that Congress approved funding for President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, known as the WPA, a program designed to put unemployed Americans back to work. The WPA was run by Roosevelt’s right-hand man, Harry Hopkins, a former social worker and public health administrator. Hopkins was a firm believer in the benefits of good work, even though employment was more expensive for the government than giving direct handouts. He said, “Give a man a dole and you save his body and destroy his spirit; give him a job and pay him an assured wage, and you save both the body and the spirit.” A worker’s average salary was $41.57 per month. By the time the WPA was dissolved in 1943, it had employed more than 8.5 million people, working on 1.4 million projects.
The WPA’s main focus was on public works, especially infrastructure projects. The WPA was funded for eight years, and during that time workers built or repaired 650,000 miles of roads, 124,00 bridges, 8,000 parks, 39,000 schools, and 85,000 other public buildings. They also worked on airports, dams, sidewalks, swimming pools, sewers, utility plants, and playgrounds. They served more than a billion school lunches, operated 1,500 nursery schools, and sewed half a billion garments.
Most of the WPA workers were men — more than 85 percent. In an attempt to distribute jobs as broadly as possible, only the “head of household” of each family was allowed to work for the WPA. Of the women who were employed, many worked in sewing rooms, producing millions of clothes, diapers, quilts, toys, and other items, which were distributed to public institutions or needy families (sometimes right back to the women themselves). The women tried to make the items fashionable and unique so that the people who wore them wouldn’t be marked as welfare recipients.
Another branch of the WPA was its arts programs, collectively known as “Federal One,” which included the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Theater Project. At first, Harry Hopkins was criticized for including artists — some people argued that they never had steady jobs to begin with, so shouldn’t be considered unemployed. Hopkins responded: “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” Of more than 8 million people who worked for the WPA, only 40,000 were employed by Federal One, but the list included Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, Kenneth Rexroth, Arthur Miller, and Orson Welles.
Artists working for the Federal Art Project collectively created more than 18,000 sculptures and 100,000 paintings and murals. The “easel artists” — who worked in offices or studios, as opposed to mural artists — were required to clock in at 8 a.m. and back out at 4 p.m. if they wanted to receive their day’s pay. Jackson Pollock sometimes showed up in his pajamas in order to make the morning cutoff. But besides the strict hours, the “easel artists” were given a lot of leeway — they were unsupervised, and they were allowed to choose their subjects and styles, unlike the mural painters, who were usually instructed to paint American motifs. Mark Rothko was asked to submit an oil painting every four to six weeks, which would be given to a public building.
The flagship project for the Federal Writers’ Project was a series of state-by-state guidebooks, but writers also collected folklore, indexed newspapers, recorded slave narratives and other oral histories, and wrote essays about great American literature. John Steinbeck wrote of the WPA guidebook series: “It was compiled during the Depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.” W.H. Auden wrote: “The Arts Project of WPA was, perhaps, one of the noblest and most absurd undertakings ever attempted by any state.”
from The Writer’s Almanac, with Garrison Keillor