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The WPA Under the Federal Works Agency

In the establishment of the Federal Works Agency, various Federal agencies concerned with public works and services were grouped together. At the same time the National Youth Administration, which had been administratively a part of the WPA, was transferred to the administration of the Federal Security Agency. [Note 1]

Grouped under the FWA, according to Reorganization Plan No. 1, were "those agencies of the Federal Government dealing with public works not incidental to the normal work of other departments, and which administer Federal grants or loans to State and local governments or other agencies for the purposes of construction."

The other administrations grouped within the Federal Works Agency were the Public Works Administration, the United States Housing Authority, the Public Roads Administration (formerly the Bureau of Public Roads of the Department of Agriculture), and the Public Buildings Administration.

(The Public Buildings Administration was a combination of the Public Buildings Branch of the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, and the Branch of Buildings Management of the National Park Service, so far as it was concerned with public buildings operated for other departments or agencies.)

Each of the constituent administrations of the Federal Works Agency was headed by a commissioner serving under the general direction of the Federal Works Administrator.

After the establishment of the Federal Works Agency, all project applications of the Work Projects Administration were cleared through the Federal Works Agency rather than through the Bureau of the Budget before being submitted to the President for approval.

The appointment and classification of administrative employees in the central administration of the Work Projects Administration were also cleared with the Federal Works Agency. The general orders, including wage schedules, and major policy matters were approved by the Federal Works Administrator before being issued by the Commissioner of Work Projects.

In July 1942, the President designated the Federal Works Administrator as Acting Commissioner of the Work Projects Administration, and he in turn delegated the responsibility for the administration of the WPA to the Deputy Commissioner of Work Projects.

Liquidation of the WPA

On December 4, 1942, the President wrote to the Federal Works Administrator, agreeing with him that liquidation of WPA project operations should be affected as soon as possible.

The WPA program had been considerably reduced after the close of the fiscal year 1942. When the President wrote on December 4, 1942, 5,000 WPA projects were in operation. By the middle of March 1943, all construction and training projects had been closed out in more than half of the States. (See page 58.)

Normal project operations were closed out in all States by April 30, and the WPA ceased to exist officially on June 30, 1943. The Federal Works Administrator, in the Second Deficiency Appropriation Act, 1943, approved July 12,1943, was given authority to set up within the Federal Works Agency a division for the liquidation of the WPA.

This Division assisted in the disposition of WPA property, attended to the settlement of claims, and performed similar necessary functions.

All necessary employment, pay roll, and other important administrative records of the WPA have been placed on approximately 135,000 reels of microfilm. These records are under the direction of the operations officer of the Federal Works Agency.


Persons desiring employment on WPA projects made application for such work at approved local public welfare agencies. Investigation was then made by these agencies with respect to the applicant's need and employability. Eligible applicants were certified and referred to the WPA for employment. [Note 2]


Need and employability were the two fundamental qualifications for WPA employment. But eligibility for WPA employment was limited by rules that changed somewhat from time to time.

In addition to need and employability, the main criteria affecting eligibility were: limitation of employment to one person in a family; active registration with the United States Employment Service; special restrictions imposed by Congress; relinquishment of Social Security benefits; age limitations; residence requirements; and the exclusion of persons currently serving sentence in penal or correctional institutions.

The broad principles of eligibility were set forth by the WPA in accordance with Federal legislation. WPA rules and regulations concerning eligibility were interpreted and applied by State and local welfare agencies in the process of certifying and referring persons to the WPA for employment. [Note 3]

There was a lack of uniformity in the local interpretation of these regulations. Doubtful cases were reviewed and investigated by the employment division of the WPA, which might refuse to accept local certifications of eligibility, and whenever necessary made certifications of Its own.

In general, however, the certifications or referrals made by local welfare agencies were accepted by the WPA.


The WPA, at the outset of its operations in 1935, accepted as eligible for project employment all employable persons in need who had been on State emergency relief rolls in May of that year, and all those not on such rolls whom the local relief agencies further certified as eligible.

The number newly certified was so large that the total employment soon exceeded the 3,000,000 persons for whom funds had been provided; and the WPA therefore ruled in October 1935 that only persons certified before November 1 would be eligible for employment during the remainder of the fiscal year.

This limitation of eligibility was maintained until July 1, 1936, at which time the new appropriation act reopened intake for WPA employment and gave newly certified persons the same eligibility as those whose need status dated further back.

Congress did not attempt to define need. A practical method of measuring need, however, had been used by many welfare agencies. Total family Income and re- sources were measured against an estimated minimum budget for a family of a given size in the locality.

If the total family resources fell more than 15 percent below the minimum budget, then (in the best current relief practice) the family was entitled to public relief. This budgetary deficiency principle had been promulgated by the FERA.

After the dissolution of the FERA, however, the relief standards of various States dropped sharply. In many communities, extreme destitution had to be shown before persons would be certified either for direct relief or for WPA employment.

In other communities there was a more liberal interpretation of need. The WPA made an effort to secure an improvement in social welfare standards and practices in backward areas, but at the close of the WPA program the criteria by which need was locally determined were still far from uniform.

The applicant for WPA employment was interviewed mid investigated by the local relief agency in order to determine whether the extent of his need was such as to entitle him to public relief. This was known as the means test.

The WPA reviewed the certification of all project workers In the winter of 1936-37 to ascertain how many persons no longer in need were continuing to hold WPA jobs; and, in some States, such reviews were made periodically by the state WPA or by the certifying agency.

Persons found to be no longer in need were dismissed from employment. In the ERA Act of 1939, Congress directed the WPA to investigate the need of all WPA workers once every 6 months and to separate from the WPA rolls any persons not found in need. [Note 4] Subsequent acts required such review only once in 12 months.

Although WPA project employment was intended for needy workers, exceptions were permitted. It was necessary, as in the preceding FERA work relief program, to make such exceptions in order to provide adequate supervision of projects and to obtain certain necessary skilled and professional workers not available from the relief rolls.

By Executive order, in May 1935, It was directed that "at least 90 percent of all persons working on work projects shall have been taken from the public relief rolls," unless otherwise specifically authorized by the WPA.

The WPA in February 1937 ruled that 95 percent of all WPA workers in each State must be those certified as in need of relief. State administrators were authorized to permit the employment of noncertified workers up to 10 percent on any project, while maintaining the required State-wide average of certified workers.

In the defense and war period, exemption from this limitation was authorized by the Commissioner of Work Projects to any extent found necessary for the efficient prosecution of projects of importance to national defense.

The proportion of noncertified workers was well under 5 percent of the total employment through most of the period of program operations. In the last year the average was about 5 or 6 percent.


Employability on WPA projects was chiefly a matter of health and physical fitness for the kinds of work available. [Note 5]

At the beginning of the WPA program, workers were accepted as employable on the basis of their recent employment on FERA work relief projects; later, employability was determined by the local welfare agencies, subject to WPA review.

Increasing care was taken to avoid giving work to people not physically fit, and project workers found unfit for manual labor were removed from the WPA rolls unless they could be shifted to suitable work.

The relatively high accident rate which had marked the previous public work programs, particularly at the beginning of the CWA program in the winter of 1933-34, was evidence of the need not only for a sound safety program but also for a more careful determination of the employability of workers assigned to public work projects.

Unemployed persons anxious for work often concealed facts about their physical condition and certifying agencies were frequently influenced by the desire to remove from the local relief rolls as many families as possible.

The WPA, in accordance with an Executive order, ruled at the outset that no person was eligible for WPA employment whose physical or mental condition was such as to make his employment dangerous to his own or others' health or safety; though physically handicapped persons might be employed at work which they could perform safely.

In most States, if there appeared reason to doubt a worker's employability on grounds of physical or mental health, he was required to obtain a doctor's statement.

The facilities afforded by clinics and hospitals for free examination were used whenever available; and in some places, physicians were employed by the WPA to examine all persons before they were assigned to project work.

These medical examinations were given to all workers assigned to work camp projects where they were housed in barracks.

Sometimes, however, physical disabilities were discovered only after a worker had been assigned to a project. In these instances, the WPA employment division reviewed the case, dismissed the worker if he was found to be unemployable, and entered the information on its records.

If the same worker was, at a later time, again referred by a local welfare agency to the WPA for employment, the WPA rejected him.

In some instances it was possible to assist the worker in securing free medical or surgical treatment which would remove his disability and make his employment possible; the WPA cooperated with local public welfare agencies toward this end.

In some other instances it was possible to assign the worker to another type of work which he was capable of performing.

In 1940 the WPA ruled that persons suffering from certain permanently handicapping disabilities were not eligible for employment unless their education, training, and experience qualified them for special tasks with which those disabilities would not Interfere.

It was also ruled that only after careful consideration was employment to be given to persons known to be suffering from physical dis- 'abilities which required medical direction and super- vision to assure continued employability.

Limitation of Employment

WPA employment was given to only one person in a family. The Executive order establishing this rule permitted the WPA to grant exemptions but the WPA did not use this authority to any significant extent.

It was expected that the security wage payments made to WPA workers would suffice to meet the needs of families of average size. Younger members of large families might be given NYA or CCC employment; and in some States maintaining direct relief programs, supplementary direct relief was given to large families.

It was ordinarily to the head of the family that WPA employment was given. In some communities during the early years of the WPA program, there was a disposition to pass over the head of the family in favor of a younger and stronger worker.

This practice was objected to, however, on the ground that It would tend to weaken the responsibility and authority of the family head and injure the family structure.

Moreover, in many cases, the younger member of the family could not be depended upon to devote his wages to the support of the family.

In general, it became established as a principle that the family head or normal wage earner of the family, if eligible, should be the one certified to the WPA for employment.

The certification of another member of the family was accepted by the WPA if the family head was ill and unable to work for a considerable time, or if he had some part-time employment, or If he did not possess the skill or ability required for projects on which there were vacancies.

Some local agencies consistently refused to certify any but family heads. There was no formal exclusion of single or unattached persons from WPA employment, but heads of families were very generally given preference in assignments to projects.

Young unmarried adults who left a family group and set up independent households were not ordinarily recognized as separately eligible for WPA employment until 6 months had elapsed.

Registration With the USES

It was required that all workers making application for WPA employment be registered with the United States Employment Service, and that WPA workers maintain active registration with the United States Employment Service, In order that they might more readily find employment in private industry.

There were areas in which for a time this requirement could not be enforced because no public employment offices existed. Itinerant service subsequently provided by the United States Employment Service made possible a more general conformity to the rule.

Congressional Restrictions

No requirement as to citizenship was made in the ERA Act of 1935, but the act of 1936 provided that the WPA should not knowingly employ any alien who was illegally within the United States.

The 1937 act restricted the employment of aliens to those who, being legally in this country, had made application for citizenship prior to the enactment of this legislation.

The employment of aliens by the WPA was entirely prohibited by the act approved February 4, 1939, and all WPA workers were required to make affidavit that they were Citizens of the United States. Subsequent legislation continued this provision.

The ERA Act of 1939 forbade employment on WPA projects of any person who advocated, or was a member of an organization that advocated, the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence; and the ERA act for the fiscal year 1941 forbade the employment of any Communist or any member of a German Bund organization. Subsequent legislation continued these pro- visions.

Relinquishment of Social Security Benefits

The concurrent operation of the Social Security program raised questions as to the eligibility for WPA employment of persons entitled to or receiving social security benefits of any kind. The amount of these benefits was often so small that they failed to provide for the minimum requirements of the recipients. WPA employment policies and practices varied in regard to the eligibility of such persons.

Persons eligible for unemployment compensation benefits, as well as those receiving such benefits, were at first excluded from WPA employment.

This policy was found to result in serious hardship, on account of the long waiting period and the inadequacy of the benefits, which were often as low as $5 and sometimes as low as $1.50 a week.

On the request of state WPA administrators, exemptions were granted from the previous ruling, so that workers entitled only to very small unemployment benefits could choose between such benefits and WPA employment.

In 1941 the policy was further modified; workers whose unemployment benefits were not more than 75 percent of the unskilled "A" wage rate were permitted to choose between such benefits and WPA employment.

By this time the general employment situation was improving rapidly, and the modified policy was put into effect only in those States in which the inadequacy of unemployment compensation was most marked.

It was also uncertain whether needy persons who were entitled under the Social Security Act to old-age assistance, aid in behalf of dependent children, or aid to the blind, should be excluded from WPA employment.

During the first 3 years of the WPA program these questions were decided by State and local certification agencies or by State WPA administrators.

Persons included in the first two groups, the aged and those with dependent children, were very widely employed on WPA projects; and there was some employment of the blind on special projects.

But in the fall of 1938, when a shortage of funds made necessary a sharp reduction of project employment, the central administration ruled that persons eligible for old-age assistance or aid in behalf of dependent children were to be dismissed from WPA employment.

Congress overruled this policy in its joint resolution appropriating additional funds, approved February 4, 1939, by providing that per- sons 65 years of age or older and women with dependent children were not to be barred from WPA employment. This provision was not repeated in subsequent legislation.

Certifying agencies, thereafter, decided in each case whether persons eligible for or receiving old-age benefits might relinquish them temporarily in order to be eligible for WPA employment; and the WPA ordinarily accepted the certifications of persons who had relinquished such benefits on the advice of the certifying agency.

Blind persons, under the ERA Act, fiscal year 1941, were granted permission to relinquish social security benefits temporarily in order to accept WPA employment.

Age Limitations

The minimum age requirement for employment on WPA projects was originally set at 16 years; in July 1938 it was raised to 18 years.

Although, as noted above, there was generally no maximum age limit in WPA employment, public relief agencies in some States were unwilling to certify persons more than 65 years old who were entitled to old-age assistance under the Social Security program.

Residence Requirements

Previous residence in the State or community for any specific length of time was not required by Federal law nor by WPA rules as a condition of eligibility for WPA employment.

Various State and local laws, however, established long-term requirements of residence (often 3 years) for recipients of direct relief. Many local public welfare agencies were reluctant to certify "nonresidents" for WPA employment, and a considerable number of them refused to do so.

The WPA generally agreed to the exclusion from employment of persons who had recently moved into the State or community for the purpose of getting WPA jobs; but it held that residence should be accepted as established after a year.

Exclusion of Persons in Penal Institutions

The prohibition (by Executive order) of the employment on WPA projects of persons currently serving sentence in penal or correctional institutions was in conformity with the general policy of the President and the Congress, which sought to eliminate any competition of prison labor with free labor.

End Notes

Note 1: The National Youth Administration, created by Executive order on June 26, 1936, was placed administratively within the Works Progress Administration, where it remained until July 1, 1939. The NYA program included the provision of part-time employment on work projects for unemployed youths between the ages of 16 and 25 years who were not in regular, full-time attendance at school; part-time employment and other student aid for young people in schools and colleges; job guidance and placement, apprenticeship training, and other activities in behalf of needy young people. The work of the NYA is not covered in the present report, and NYA employment is not included in WPA employment data. A complete report on the NYA has been issued by the Federal Security Agency. See also statement in Report on Progress of the WPA program, June 30, 1938, pp. 57-67

Note 2: WPA employment in this section means project employment, which includes foremen and other supervisory personnel but does not include the administrative staff of the WPA.

Note 3: For detailed discussions of WPA employment policies see Donald S. Howard, The WPA and Federal Relief Policy (New York: Russell Sage Foundation. 1943) and Report of the Committee on Long-Range Work and Relief Policies to the National Resources Planning Hoard, Security, Work, and Relief Policies, 78th Congress, 1st session, H. Doc. 128, part 3, (Washington, D. C.: U. 8. Government Printing Office, 1943).

Note 4: In the period from July 1, 1939, through December 31, 1939, the cases of 1,834,232 project workers were reviewed with respect to need. Cancelations of eligibility were made in 36,201 cases, or 2.7 percent. Of these cancelations 21,392, or 1.6 percent, were made because the persons were considered no longer in need. The other cancelations were chiefly in cases where the workers concerned could not be reached, many of them because they had recently quit their project jobs for private employment without formally notifying the WPA.

Note 5: The WPA did not accept either the age standards or the experience standards of employability set up in some branches of private industry, according to which men who were over 40 or 45 years of age and young men without previous work experience were "unemployable." Private industry, under the pressure of wartime labor needs, has to a large extent relaxed its standards with regard to age and experience.


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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

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The GG Archives is the work and passion of two people, Paul Gjenvick, a professional archivist, and Evelyne Gjenvick, a curator. Paul earned a Masters of Archival Studies - a terminal degree from Clayton State University in Georgia, where he studied under renowned archivist Richard Pearce-Moses. Our research into the RMS Laconia and SS Bergensfjord, the ships that brought two members of the Gjønvik family from Norway to the United States in the early 20th century, has helped us design our site for other genealogists. The extent of original materials at the GG Archives can be very beneficial when researching your family's migration from Europe.