Reformism: The Works Progress Administration
“The New Deal is plainly an attempt to achieve a working socialism and avert a social collapse in America; it is extraordinarily parallel to the successive ‘policies’ and ‘Plans’ of the Russian experiment. Americans shirk the word ‘socialism’, but what else can one call it?” — H.G. Wells
The Works Progress Administration was the largest and most ambitious American New Deal agency, employing millions of people, mostly unskilled men, to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads. In a much smaller project, Federal Project Number One, the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects. Almost every community in the United States had a new park, bridge or school constructed by the agency. The WPA’s initial appropriation in 1935 was for $4.9 billion, about 6.7 percent of the 1935 GDP.
Headed by Harry Hopkins, the WPA provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. At its peak in 1938, it provided paid jobs for three million unemployed men and women, as well as youth in a separate division, the National Youth Administration. In its eight year span, the WPA employed 8.5 million people. Most people who needed a job were eligible for employment in some capacity. Hourly wages were typically set to the prevailing wages in each area. Full employment, which was reached in 1942 and emerged as a long-term national goal around 1944, was not the goal of the WPA; rather, it tried to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment.
“The stated goal of public building programs was to end the depression or, at least, alleviate its worst effects;” sociologist Robert D. Leighninger asserted, “millions of people needed subsistence incomes, and work relief was preferred over public assistance because it maintained self-respect, reinforced the work ethic, and kept skills sharp.” The WPA was a national program that operated its own projects in cooperation with state and local governments, which provided ten to thirty percent of the costs. Usually, the local sponsor provided land and often trucks and supplies, with the WPA taking responsibility for wages, as well as, for the salaries of supervisors, who were not on relief. The WPA sometimes took over state and local relief programs that had originated in the Reconstruction Finance Corporation or Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs. The WPA, like the CCC before it, was liquidated on June 30, 1943, as a result of low unemployment due to the worker shortage created by the onset of World War II. Many historians argue that in just eight short years, the WPA left a greater mark on the American landscape than any other government program in all of American history.
So, how Does this Relate to Reformism?
The share of Federal Emergency Relief Administration and WPA benefits for African Americans exceeded their proportion of the general population. The FERA’s first relief census reported that more than two million African Americans were on relief during early 1933, a proportion of the African American population, 17.8%, that was nearly double the proportion of whites on relief, 9.5%. This was during the period of Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South, when African Americans were largely disenfranchised. By 1935, there were 3,500,000 African Americans, men, women and children on relief, almost thirty-five percent of the African-American population; plus another 250,000 African-American adults were working on WPA projects. Altogether during 1938, about forty-five percent of the nation’s African-American families were either on relief or were employed by the WPA.
Civil rights leaders objected that African Americans were proportionally underrepresented. African American leaders made such a claim with respect to WPA hires in New Jersey, stating, “In spite of the fact that blacks indubitably constitute more than 20% of the State’s unemployed, they composed 15.9% of those assigned to W.P.A. jobs during 1937.” Nationwide in 1940, 9.8% of the population were African American. This pattern was the same in every state in the Unite States. Further, the WPA mostly operated segregated units, as did its youth affiliate, the National Youth Administration. Blacks were hired by the WPA as supervisors in the North; however of 10,000 WPA supervisors in the South, only eleven were black. The operation was simple. The federal government delegated operations to the states, who then delegated operations to local authorities, who then handed out job assignments based on need, and in the South, especially, those jobs were less likely to be assigned African Americans. Historian Anthony Badger argues, “New Deal programs in the South routinely discriminated against blacks and perpetuated segregation.” So, basically, if you were black you had better take a step back. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.
So, how else can this Relate to Reformism?
About fifteen percent of the household heads on relief were women, and youth programs were operated separately by the National Youth Administration. The average worker was about forty years old, about the same as the average family head on relief. WPA policies were consistent with the strong belief of the time that husbands and wives should not both be working because the second person working would take one job away from some other breadwinner. A study of two thousand female workers in Philadelphia showed that ninety percent were married, but wives were reported as living with their husbands in only eighteen percent of the cases. Only two percent of the husbands had private employment. Of the two thousand women, all were responsible for one to five additional people in the household.
In rural Missouri, sixty percent of the WPA employed women were without husbands twelve percent were single; twenty-five percent widowed; and twenty-three percent divorced, separated, or deserted. Thus, only forty percent were married and living with their husbands, but fifty-nine percent of the husbands were permanently disabled, seventeen percent were temporarily disabled, thirteen percent were too old to work, and the remaining ten percent were either unemployed or handicapped. Most of the women worked with sewing projects, where they were taught to use sewing machines and made clothing and bedding, as well as supplies for hospitals, orphanages, and adoption centers. Basically, what this meant was that the only way that a woman could work was if her husband was completely disabled; and even then, she was limited to what was considered menial labor that paid poorly and provided very little for their family’s survival. Her pay would certainly not have matched that of her husband’s had he been able to get a WPA job in her place. See, the government gives to the people in one hand and takes away from them in the other.