Organization of the WPA Program

The Works Progress Administration was established by Executive Order No. 7034, dated May 6, 1935. This action was taken by the President under the authority of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, approved April 8, 1935.

Four years later, in the President's Reorganization Plan No. 1 (prepared pursuant to the Reorganization Act of 1939 and effective July 1. 1939), the Works Progress Administration was Incorporated in the Federal Works Agency and was renamed the Work Projects Administration.

At that time the title of the head of the WPA, Administrator of the Works Progress Administration, was changed to Commissioner of Work Projects.

As originally designed, the WPA was to have two important functions. First, it was to operate a Nationwide program of "small useful projects" designed to provide employment for needy employable workers. Second, it was to coordinate the activities of the "Works Program."

The Works Program and the WPA

Playing a part in the Works Program were a large number of Federal agencies, grouped together under that title by the President; among these agencies the Federal funds appropriated by the ERA Act of 1935 were to be distributed for the purpose of creating emergency public employment.

More than 40 Federal agencies cooperated in the operation of projects under the Works Program. These included regular bureaus of the Federal Government and previously established emergency agencies, along with the new agencies created with authority to operate work projects.

The latter group included the WPA, which was made responsible for the "holiest, efficient, speedy, and coordinated execution of the work relief program as a whole, and for the execution of that program in such manner as to move from the relief rolls to work on such projects or in private employment the maximum number of persons in the shortest time possible."

To assist in administering the program, Executive Order No. 7034 created a Division of Applications and Information of the National Emergency Council, which was given the responsibility for the pre- liminary screening of all project applications and their proper routing for review.

Copies of applications were sent to the Bureau of the Budget for review, and in the case of non-WPA projects they were then sent to the WPA for investigation as to the availability of relief labor at the location of the project.

WPA projects had been reviewed by the WPA itself with regard to this factor prior to submission to the National Emergency Council. From the National Emergency Council, project applications were submitted to the Advisory Committee on Allotments, which was the principal consultative body used by the President to determine allocation of work relief appropriations.

The bulk of allocations had been made by October 1935, and henceforth applications as authorized were submitted directly to the President through the Bureau of the Budget. Coordination of the various activities of the Works Program by one of its constituent agencies, the WPA, was beset by obvious difficulties.

In practice, the WPA was chiefly concerned with reviewing projects to see whether they could be performed principally by relief labor and with recommending projects on which nonlabor costs were not excessive.

It had been provided in Executive Order No. 7046, dated May 20, 1935, that at least 90 percent of all persons working on any Works Program project should be taken from the public relief rolls, "except with the specific authorization of the Works Progress Administration."

The WPA exempted several Federal agencies from this requirement at their urgent request, and temporarily relaxed that requirement for work done under contract. [ ]

The provision of sufficient employment, rather than co- ordination, became the chief responsibility of the WPA. Before the year was out, the WPA was providing the vast bulk of Works Program employment because many other agencies had found themselves unable to provide much or any emergency employment.

In the 3-year period ending June 30, 1938, about three-fourths of all Works Program employment was provided by the WPA, about one-eighth by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the remaining eighth by the Public Works Administration and all the other agencies combined.

During the 3-year period the WPA and the PWA divided between themselves the large field of State and local public works construction, and the WPA provided Nationwide employment to non-construction workers on its service projects.

The WPA continued to report on Works Program employment through June 1938, at which date a direct appropriation was first made for the WPA program.

The term "Works Program" then fell into disuse; but the WPA and the other public works agencies that were carried on with funds appropriated by subsequent ERA acts (including the NYA through the fiscal year 1939) are sometimes referred to as the Federal Works Program.

Intergovernmental Relationships Under the WPA Program

The WPA did not make use of the grant method in operating its own program of work projects. In planning the intergovernmental relationships under the WPA program, use was made of the experience gained under the grant system of the FERA.

While the grant system had worked well in other fields in the past, FERA experience indicated that there were difficulties in using the grant method in connection with so complex a problem as the operation of a work program for the destitute unemployed.

The new WPA setup was designed specifically to avoid the difficulties that had existed under the grant method.

The essential feature of the grant system in the United States has been the donation of funds raised by one level of government to another level of government, usually under certain conditions prescribed by the grantor with regard to the use of the funds.

The FERA had followed this grant-in-aid pattern in making Federal funds available to the States. As soon as a transfer of funds was made by the FERA and receipted for by the governor, title to the funds passed to the State.

Although, technically, Federal funds became State funds when receipted for by the governor, the FERA still had the obligation of seeing that the funds were spent honestly, that certain relief standards were maintained, and that a sound work program was carried out in all the States.

Under the FERA program, the States accepting Federal relief grants agreed to conform to Federal regulations in regard to relief practices.

The FERA had Federal field representatives who reported to Washington concerning the effectiveness with which these regulations were enforced; and the FERA's Division of Investigation examined alleged dishonest practices.

The Federal officials of the FERA, moreover, through cooperative relationships, exerted considerable influence upon State and local relief agencies. Where such indirect control was unavailing, other steps could be taken. In theory, at least, further grants could be refused until compliance was secured.

However, refusal to grant further Federal funds to States, when they showed themselves unwilling to comply with Federal regulations accompanying grants, would have inflicted grave suffering on needy people.

As a last resort, the grant system, based on cooperative intergovernmental relationships, could be discontinued in any State and a Federal relief agency set up in its place.

It was in fact found necessary to Federalize relief and work relief in six States during the FERA period; but this extreme action was taken only as a last resort.

The abandonment of the grant-in-aid method for the new work program of the WPA meant the setting up-of a system of direct Federal administration extending into the States and their subdivisions.

Under the grant system, it had proved very difficult to operate required work programs in certain cities. This difficulty resulted from the fact that in some States the governor or the legislature, and sometimes both, wished to have only direct relief given to the unemployed of the cities.

It had become clear that, if useful work programs were to be operated in some cities, it would be necessary to establish direct Federal-municipal relations, instead of dealing with cities through State governments.

Consequently, in order to effect a more adequate safe- guarding of Federal funds, to raise the standard of public work programs, and to foster the development of public work programs in all municipalities where they were needed and wanted, the WPA was set up as a Federal program.

All WPA officials, from Washington down through the State and district offices, were Federal employees. The project workers, too, were paid by the Federal Government through checks issued by the Treasury Department.

Materials and equipment that were required for administrative use or that were supplied by the WPA to assist in project operations were bought through the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department.

Because of these Federal controls, the WPA is usually referred to as a Federal program. Use of this term, however, has tended to obscure the fact that the work program of the WPA was actually a cooperative Federal-State-local arrangement.

There was more Federal control than under the FERA program, but States and localities still continued to have very large responsibilities under the WPA program.

For example, the determination of the eligibility of applicants for employment on WPA projects was designed to be the responsibility of State and local welfare agencies.

The WPA and State and Local Relief Agencies

The liquidation of the FERA, which was effected as rapidly as was feasible after July 1, 1935, meant that the Federal Government ceased to donate relief funds to the State emergency relief administrations.

The State emergency relief administrations and their local branches remained intact in most States, operating with State and local relief funds. These relief agencies were asked by the Federal Government to cooperate with the WPA by certifying those relief clients who were eligible for WPA employment.

The standards of eligibility were set by the WPA, and the final determination of eligibility was eventually made a Federal, instead of a local, responsibility. However, the local relief agencies usually performed the real screening process, investigating and certifying the need of applicants and their suitability for WPA project employment.

Sponsorship of WPA Projects

The planning and operation of WPA projects Illustrates the Important responsibilities of local governments under the program. Projects sponsored by State agencies and by other Federal agencies were only a small part of the program. The vast majority of the projects were planned and initiated by county, city, township, and village governments and their various agencies. [ ]

Although suggestions for local projects suitable for pro- viding employment for the needy unemployed might come from civic organizations, private citizens, or WPA officials, as well as from local public officials, formal proposals for the operation of WPA projects had to be made by a public agency legally empowered to sponsor the work proposed.

A project proposal had to show the estimated cost of the proposed work, and what part of the cost the sponsor was prepared to bear; it also had to show the amount and kinds of labor required. A proposal for a construction project had to be accompanied by preliminary engineering plans and sketches.

The sponsors of WPA projects had to agree to provide the engineering plans and specifications because they were responsible for the architectural and engineering features of such projects.

The sponsors of all projects also agreed to complete the project or a useful unit of the project if for any reason the project could not be completed by the WPA.

The projects when completed belonged to the sponsors. No Federal funds were provided for the purchase of land, and the sponsors agreed to maintain and operate the completed project at their own expense.

All proposals were forwarded by the sponsors to the State WPA office. There they were reviewed to ascertain whether or not the work proposed was eligible under the Federal law authorizing WPA operations and whether or not the proposal complied with WPA regulations.

If a proposal was found acceptable, It was used as the basis of a project application, which was a formal request by the State administrator for authority to spend Federal funds on the work described.

The project applications were then sent to the Washington office of the WPA, where they were reviewed and approved or disapproved. Final approval was given by the President.

Approved or authorized projects were released for operation at suitable times by the State administrator in cooperation with the sponsors. Working drawings and detailed job schedules were frequently prepared by the sponsors in the period between approval of projects in Washington and the release of projects for operation by the State administrator.

The release of projects for operation, the temporary suspension of project operations, and the termination of projects, all depended on the number of needy unemployed persons in the community and on the amount of Federal funds appropriated to carry on the WPA program.

To secure approval, the proposed project had to provide employment for the needy unemployed persons available in the local community. Many projects were held in re- serve until other projects in the community had been completed or until enough qualified unemployed persons had been certified to the WPA for employment.

The vast majority of persons certified for employment on the WPA program were unskilled workers, and it became necessary for the sponsors in many cases to use their own funds to hire the skilled workers required in carrying out the projects needed in their community.

This was especially true of projects for the construction of school buildings and other public buildings, since this work required a high percentage of skilled workers.

Sponsors shared in the program by paying a portion of the cost of the project No fixed minimum percentage was set by the WPA for the individual sponsor's contribution; the ERA Act of 1939 contained a provision that sponsors' contributions within a given State must aggregate 25 percent of the cost of all projects approved after January 1, 1940.

This sponsor percentage was applied to a State as a whole rather than to individual projects. Nonlabor costs, for which sponsors' contributions were chiefly used, varied greatly between different kinds of projects. Some local governments were financially less able than others to make substantial contributions to project costs.

In some cases, state governments assisted local governmental units by providing State funds to augment local sponsors' contributions. A sponsor's contribution might include office space, supplies, materials, equipment, tools, skilled labor, and technical supervision.

In sponsoring WPA projects, State and local governments took into consideration the fact that they had the responsibility for financing their direct relief programs. To the extent that WPA employment was provided In any locality, there were fewer persons in need of direct relief. This was one of the incentives for the sponsoring of WPA projects by State and local governments.

The chief incentive for sponsorship, however, was the desire to secure useful public improvements and services of various kinds. The need for construction projects was readily recognized, and projects for the construction and improvement of highways, roads, and streets, water supply and sewerage systems, and public buildings of many kinds, were widely in demand.

Service projects were ordinarily sponsored by agencies of local government, and those which were organized on a state-wide basis had definite relations with local agencies of government as cosponsors. Small but important groups of cultural projects concerned with music, art, and writing were at first organized and sponsored as Federal projects but were later operated under state and local sponsorship.

The WPA and Other Federal Agencies

As has been indicated, a relatively small number of projects, financed by WPA funds and employing needy unemployed persons in about the same proportion as on WPA operated projects, were sponsored and operated by other Federal agencies.

Funds for the operation of such projects under the Works Program were allocated by the President under the authority of the ERA Acts of 1935, 1936, and 1937.

The ERA Act of 1938 authorized the Works Progress Administrator to allocate WPA funds to other Federal departments or agencies for the operation of projects similar to those prosecuted by the WPA. This practice was continued by subsequent ERA acts.

Employment on WPA financed projects was ordinarily considered WPA employment, and the workers were paid in accordance with the WPA wage scale. Employment on these projects was very small in relation to employment on projects operated by the WPA.

The work on the various projects was of considerable importance, however, in promoting conservation of natural resources, protecting farms and forests from plant disease and insect pests, carrying on valuable research studies and extending research facilities, improving the facilities and buildings of the Army and the Navy, and carrying on flood control work.

In its own operations the WPA made every effort to coordinate its project activities with the regional and national plans and standards of the various Federal bureaus and agencies which regularly carried on work of such kinds.

Airport projects, for example, were coordinated with the plans and policies of the Bureau of Air Commerce and the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Projects related to conservation, flood control, and prevention of stream pollution were subject to the approval of the appropriate Federal agencies and bureaus.

Plans for various kinds of service projects were developed with the advice and guidance of the United States Office of Education, the United States Public Health Service, and other Federal agencies and bureaus.

Under the authority of the ERA acts for the fiscal years 1942 and 1943, the WPA allocated WPA funds to other Federal agencies for administrative expenses incurred in the planning and review of WPA projects.

End Notes

The percentage of relief labor employed on the Works Program was for the week ending December 28. 1935: WPA. 95.9: CCC, 88.5: all other agencies. 72.1: and for the week ending June 27. 1936: WPA, 94.7: CCC, 87.3: all other agencies, 52.4. In February 1937, a WPA administrative order raised to 95 percent the proportion of workers who had to have a certified relief status, except for agencies previously exempted. The ERA Act of 1939 required that all other Federal agencies operating projects financed by WPA funds employ not less than 90 percent relief workers.

Each of the ERA acts specified the types of projects for which appropriated funds might be used. Section 1 (b), ERA Act, fiscal , year 1943, contains the following list of eligible project types: J ''Highways, roads, and streets; public buildings; parks, and other recreational facilities, including buildings therein; public utilities; electric transmission and distribution lines or systems to serve persons in rural areas, including projects sponsored by and for the benefit of nonprofit and cooperative associations; sewer systems, water supply, and purification systems; airports and other transportation facilities; facilities for the training of personnel in the operations and maintenance of air navigation and landing area facilities; flood control; drainage; irrigation, including projects sponsored by nonprofit irrigation associations organized and operating for community benefit; water conservation; soil conservation, including projects sponsored by soil conservation districts and other bodies duly organized under state law for soil-erosion control and soil conservation, preference being given to projects which will contribute to the rehabilitation of individuals and an increase in the national income; forestation, and other Improvements of forest areas, including the establishment of fire lanes; fish, game, and other wildlife conservation ; eradication of insect, plant and fungus pests; the production of lime and marl for fertilizing soil for distribution to farmers under such conditions as may be determined by the sponsors of such projects under the provisions of state law; educational, professional, clerical, cultural, recreational, production, and service projects, including training for manual occupations in industries engaged in production for national-defense purposes, for nursing and for domestic service; aid to self-help and cooperative associations for the benefit of needy persons ; and miscellaneous projects ; not less than $6,000,000 of the funds made available for this Aet shall be used exclusively for the operation of day nurseries and nursery schools for the children of employed mothers."


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WPA / Works Progress Administration
GG Archives

Brochures, Booklets, & Pamphlets


Farmers on Relief and Rehabilitation - WPA - 1937

Inventory: An Appraisal of Results of the Works Progress Administration - 1938

Rural Families on Relief - Research Monograph XVII - 1938

Rural Youth: Their Situation and Prospects - Research Monograph XV - 1938

Rural Youth - Their Situation and Prospects - Conclusions - 1938

New Deal for Youth - The National Youth Administration (NYA) - 1938

1935-05 The Drought and Current Farm Imports

1936-10-15 Report on Progress of The Works Program

Final Report on the WPA Program 1935-43

Handbook of Proceedures - 1937

Report on Progress of WPA Program - 1942

Other Information

WPA Reference Section