Of all of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) is the most famous, because it affected so many people’s lives. Roosevelt’s vision of a work-relief program employed more than 8.5 million people. For an average salary of $41.57 a month, WPA employees built bridges, roads, public buildings, public parks and airports.

Under the direction of Harry Hopkins, an enthusiastic ex-social worker who had come from modest means, the WPA would spend more than $11 million in employment relief before it was canceled in 1943. The work relief program was more expensive than direct relief payments, but worth the added cost, Hopkins believed. “Give a man a dole,” he observed, “and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit”.

The WPA employed far many more men than women, with only 13.5 percent of WPA employees being women in the peak year of 1938. Although the decision had been made early on to pay women the same wages as men, in practice they were consigned to the lower-paying activities of sewing, bookbinding, caring for the elderly, school lunch programs, nursery school, and recreational work. Ellen Woodward, director of the women’s programs at the WPA, successfully pushed for women’s inclusion in the Professional Projects Division. In this division, professional women were treated more equally to men, especially in the federal art, music, theater, and writers’ projects.

When federal support of artists was questioned, Hopkins answered, “Hell! They’ve got to eat just like other people.” The WPA supported tens of thousands of artists, by funding creation of 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture that decorate public buildings nationwide. The federal art, theater, music, and writing programs, while not changing American culture as much as their adherents had hoped, did bring more art to more Americans than ever before or since. The WPA program in the arts led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The WPA paid low wages and it was not able to employ everyone — some five million were left to seek assistance from state relief programs, which provided families with $10 per week. However, it went a long way toward bolstering the self-esteem of workers. A poem sent to Roosevelt in February 1936, in block print, read, in part,

“I THINK THAT WE SHALL NEVER SEE
PRESIDENT LIKE UNTO THEE . . . 
POEMS ARE MADE BY FOOLS LIKE ME,
BUT GOD, I THINKMADE FRANKLIN D.”

My American Experience

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