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The Works Progress Administration and the New Deal


Grade level: middle and high school

Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 as part of his "New Deal" to put as many people back to work as possible during the depression era. These were desperate times for U.S. citizens and any work at all was welcomed. The WPA chartered three projects to help the unemployed: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Writers' Project, and the Federal Theater Project. In addition, the WPA initiated numerous construction projects, which resulted in 116,000 buildings 78,000 bridges. Most of the construction projects were administered by state and local governments, but the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, Oregon, was built and owned by the U.S. government to encourage tourism in Oregon and to employ workers. The WPA eventually employed 8.5 million people and spent almost $11 billion on this program before it went defunct. With the advent of World War II, the nation's economy and employment improved, and the WPA was no longer needed.

    Students will:
  • Research the New Deal administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Write a skit that illustrates the hardships of the depression era, the purpose of the New Deal and WPA, and how the New Deal helped America through the depression.
  • Act as either the husband or wife in the written skit.

National Standards:

National Social Studies Standards

Standard 2:
Time, Continuity, and Change
Human beings seek to understand their historical roots and to locate themselves in time. Such understanding involves knowing what things were like in the past and how things change and develop. Knowing how to read and reconstruct the past allows one to develop a historical perspective and to answer questions such as: Who am I? What happened in the past? How am I connected to those in the past? How has the world changed and how might it change in the future?

Standard 6:
Power, Authority, and Governance
In exploring this theme, students confront questions such as: What is power? What forms does it take? Who holds it? How is it gained, used, and justified? What is legitimate authority? How are governments created, structured, maintained, and changed? By examining the purposes and characteristics of various governance systems, learners develop an understanding of how groups and nations attempt to resolve conflicts and seek to establish order and security. Through study of the dynamic relationships among individual rights and responsibilities, the needs of social groups, and concepts of a just society, learners become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers when addressing the persistent issues and social problems encountered in public life.

  • Depression-era costumes (may be brought in by the students)
  • Great Lodges of the National Parks: Pacific NW Lodges (PBS video)

    Start with: About an hour and drives east of Portland sits Oregon's highest mountain.
    End with: Timberline was completed in 1937 and dedicated by President Roosevelt.

    Start with: And depression era art decorates nearly every wall.
    End with: But they were also teachers and taught other people to be the ironsmiths, woodcarvers, and weavers.

  • Videos obtained from CRM/McGraw-Hill Films, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Del Mar, California 92014, telephone (714) 453-5000 (for sale or rent):
    The New Deal (25 minutes)
    Dust Bowl (30 minutes)
    Life in the Thirties (52 minutes)


No special preparation is needed

  • Begin a class discussion by using a KWL chart [what the students know (K), what the students want to learn (W), and what they did learn (L)]. Elicit from the class what they already know about the depression, Roosevelt's New Deal, and the WPA. Ask: Does anyone know someone who lived during the depression? How did the depression start? What was the "dust bowl?" What was life like in the 1930's? Write their comments in the K column of the chart, and have them write them on their own chart. Then ask them what they'd like to know about the depression and write their answers in the W column of the chart while they do the same on their own chart.
  • Tell the class that they will be viewing a video on the Timberline Lodge in Mt. Hood. Ask them to pay particular attention to why the plan to build the Timberline Lodge was different from the national Park lodges. Once the video is over, ask the class why the government decided to build the lodge.
  • Begin the Life in the Thirties video. Instruct the students to take notes on their L portion of the KWL chart as they view the video. Explain that this chart will be used for the basis of the skits they will write about this time period.
  • Continue as above with the New Deal and Dust Bowl videos.
  • Students then research the depression era and the New Deal to learn how and why the Works Progress Administration was formed. Students read original documents from the New Deal Document Library (see resource list) to understand the effort put into getting people back to work. Add any additional information to the L portion of their KWL charts.
  • Give students a few days to think about what they will include in the skit and with whom they will work. Let them choose their partners to write and enact a skit that summarizes life in the 1930's.
  • Students will write their skits with the following premise: a man and wife are discussing their financial situation and his possible employment with the WPA to work on the Timberline Lodge. The skit will describe their hopes, concerns, terms of employment, and what it must have been like to try to find a job during that era.
  • Perform the skits in class or for the whole school
Assessment Suggestions:
  • Accuracy and completeness of the KWL charts
  • Depiction of life in the 1930's (did the skit realistically portray the time period?)
  • Enthusiasm in the portrayal of their characters
  • Take a field trip to a major city's (or state) library to see what is available on WPA projects in your particular state. Try to call the city or state historian to see what information s/he may have on local projects.
  • Interview people who lived during the Depression and then report back to the class on the interview.
  • Invite one or two of the more interesting interviewees to speak to the class.


Eden, R., 1989, The New Deal and its Legacy: Critique and Reappraisal

Howard, D.S., 1943, WPA and the Federal Relief Policy

Lane, M.D., and Steegmuller, F., 1938, America on Relief

Louchheim, K., 1983, The Making of a New Deal: the Insiders Speak

Sternsher, B. (ed.), 1999, Hope Restored: How the New Deal Worked in Town and Country