Making Progress, Work: FDR’s Executive Order Creates the Works Progress Administration

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Having taught a number of classes on the Great Depression and New Deal era for the History Department at Florida International University over the last ten years, I have often encountered students who assume that President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the American welfare state. On this anniversary of the signing of the executive order creating the Works Progress Administration, I thought that I would take this opportunity to provide some clarity as to the intentions and goals of the WPA. While it is true that most of the federal social security programs we continue to enjoy today were implemented by the Roosevelt Administration, it is worth noting that FDR was very much opposed to doling out welfare checks.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

Even while recovering from a crippling bout of polio, Roosevelt ran for and was elected governor of New York as a reform candidate for the Democratic Party in 1928, and was reelected in January 1931 as the crisis of the Great Depression crippled the state and national economies.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca & Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In October, 1931, Governor Roosevelt secured an appropriation of $20 million dollars for his Temporary Emergency Relief Administration (TERA), hiring New York City social worker, Harry Hopkins to serve as executive director. Roosevelt was ideologically opposed to handing out relief checks, essentially paying able-bodied people not to work; instead, his program was designed to provide more than 160,000 unemployed New Yorkers with temporary financial assistance in return for their labor on conservation and other work projects.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Within two months of being sworn in as President of the United States in March, 1933, Roosevelt replicated the success of TERA by steering the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) through both houses of Congress. Under the auspices of the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, on May 6, 1933, FDR signed into existence the Works Progress Administration and appointed Hopkins its director.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

By 1935, 3 million unemployed men and women were working on WPA projects, building roads and highways, public schools, hospitals, airports, and recreational facilities across the nation.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In addition to creating new infrastructure, the WPA also put “starving artists” to work designing posters and painting murals for federal post offices and courthouses;

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchase

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Photograph, WPA mural in Post Office in Chicago, Illinois

The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

…writers to work on state guides designed to encourage domestic tourism;

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

…theatrical performers back on stage performing in Federal Theatre plays and productions;

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

…and unemployed musicians to work playing symphonies in orchestra pits and outdoor band shells to entertain a depression-weary public.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

FDR’s New Deal did not ultimately defeat the depression and many of its projects were rolled back and suspended once the outbreak of the Second World War kick-started the economy with production for the defense-industry. Programs like the WPA had, however, provided much-needed relief for millions of unemployed persons desperate to get “back to work.” It also provided the nation  with needed infrastructure improvements and socially-useful projects.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Christopher DeNoon

~ by "The Chief" on May 6, 2017.

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