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WPA Archives - Vintage Brochure - Introduction to the WPA - 1939


As a governmental unit the WPA cooperates with States, counties, cities, and towns, and with various other public agencies, departments, and bureaus. As a work-relief program it is geared to meet the changing conditions of unemployment.

For these reasons the WPA program is necessarily a complex one.

Many taxpayers (and we are all taxpayers in one way or another) do not understand how the WPA operates—what it does, what it does not do, and why.

This is shown by the many inquiries that come to our State and Washington offices.

It is for the purpose of answering these inquiries, and of informing the American people about the WPA program, that this factual question-and-answer booklet has been prepared.


Administrator. April 17, 1939.

Questions and Answers on the WPA

  • What is the WPA?
    The Works Progress Administration is a Federal agency which cooperates with State and local governments in carrying out needed public improvements and services, in order to provide work and wages for the needy able-bodied unemployed. The local governments plan and sponsor the projects, and the WPA helps to operate them.
  • What other Federal agencies provide emergency employment?
    The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); the National Youth Administration (NYA); the Public Works Administration (PWA); and those agencies which operate emergency projects in addition to their regular programs. (See Question 66.)
  • Does the WPA give relief without work?
    No. Direct relief is provided by States and localities and is intended primarily for the care of unemployable people.
  • Why does the Federal Government give work to the able-bodied needy unemployed, instead of direct relief?
    This policy was adopted in the conviction that work is better than direct relief—because work preserves the skills and self-respect of the workers and makes them fit to return to private industry; because our communities are greatly in need of the public projects on which the unemployed are set to work; and because work projects bring a valuable return to the communities and the Nation for money expended in assisting the unemployed.
  • What is a WPA project?
    It is any useful public work on which the Federal Government and some tax-supported public body have agreed to cooperate, through the WPA, in order to provide work for the needy unemployed. The project is a community or State enterprise which the WPA helps to carry out; the completed project belongs to the community or State.
  • Are WPA projects planned locally or federally?
    Ninety-five percent of all WPA expenditures are for projects planned by such local sponsors as city councils, county commissioners, and boards of education, or State agencies. The arts projects of the WPA are chief among the few planned by the Federal Government.
  • What is the sponsor of a WPA project?
    The sponsor of a WPA project is a State, municipal, or other goverrnental agency which proposes that the WPA assist it in carrying out a local public improvement or public service. Plans and specifications for the work are submitted by the sponsor. The proposed work must be one which the sponsor has legal authority to do. Since the WPA must use its funds largely for wages, the sponsor must agree to provide most of the materials and equipment necessary. The sponsor's share of the total cost of a project is correspondingly larger when the local improvement desired by the com­munity requires large quantities of material or equipment.
  • On what basis does the WPA approve a proposed project?
    There must be needy unemployed workers in the locality with the skills required for doing the work. The project must be on public property. * It must be socially useful. It must not be a part of the regular work of the sponsoring agency, such as should be wholly financed out of its own regular funds. And most of the Federal funds requested must be used for the wages of project workers.

    * On private property only when rented or leased by a public agency; or when easements in the public interest have been secured by a public agency; or when a State or local government officially pronounces the work to be in the interest of public health and safety.
  • Does work begin on a WPA project as soon as it is approved?
    Not necessarily. Communities are encouraged to maintain a reserve of approved projects so that there will be no delay in starting a new project when it is needed to provide employment.
  • What are the chief kinds of work done by the WPA?
    The proportions of WPA funds spent on different types of work up to December 1938 were as follows:
    1. 37% for highways, roads, and streets—of which a large proportion are farm-to-market and other secondary roads
    2. 11% for parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, and other outdoor recreation facilities
    3. 11% for education, library projects, statistical surveys, recreation, and other white-collar and professional projects
    4. 10% for sewing and canning projects (the former employing more than half of all women WPA workers)
    5. 9% for construction and rehabilitation of public buildings—schools, hospitals, courthouses, recreation buildings, etc.
    6. 9% for sewer systems and other public utilities
    7. 4 1/2% for conservation projects—forestation, erosion control, irrigation, and water control
    8. 2 1/2% for new municipal airports and the enlargement and improvement of old ones, and transportation and navigation projects
    9. 2 1/2% for sanitation projects, other than sewers, such as elimination of stream pollution and eradication of mosquitoes and other pests
    10. 2% for the four arts projects—the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theatre Project, and the Federal Writers' Project
    11. 1 1/2% for all other types of projects

The WPA also does emergency work in times of flood, storm, and other disasters. It is able to supply a large force of workers quickly to meet an emergency. For the purpose of supplying such help, WPA projects are immediately closed in the disaster area and the workers are made available for rescue and rehabilitation work.

Although men perform most of the heavy or dangerous tasks, frequently many women WPA workers serve as emergency cooks, nurses, and helpers. Rescue work, the moving of families from danger, care for the homeless, the distribution of food and clothing, the restoration of roads, the repair of water mains and other public utilities, the removal of debris, and the work of restoring sanitary conditions—all these tasks fall largely on WPA workers.

Recently in the New England storm disaster, 100,000 WPA workers were immediately mobilized and thrown into the work of rescue, relief, and restoration. During and after the Mississippi-Ohio floods of 1937 the WPA gave the same kind of help to stricken communities.


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