Review of the WPA Program – 1942


The Work Projects Administration, a unit of the Federal Works Agency since July 1, 1939, was established in 1935 with the primary purpose of providing work for the unemployed on useful public projects.

The activities of the WPA in achieving this objective during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1942, are reviewed in this report. A final report covering the entire eight-year period of operation of the WPA program is to be published at a later date. For this reason, the report for the fiscal year 1942 is considerably shorter than previous annual reports.

The report contains special sections on the war activities and the vocational training activities carried on by the WPA. The remainder of the report is devoted to three sections that bring up to date previous statements on employment, expenditures, and accomplishments.

The fiscal year 1942 for the Work Projects Administration was a period of further adjustment to the Nation's emergency defense program which, after Pearl Harbor, became the Nation's war program.

Review of the WPA Program

Wherever possible the labor of workers on the WPA rolls was utilized for the construction of facilities and the provision of services which would aid the war effort. A program was set up for the training of workers in the manual occupations needed in war industries. More than a third of the WPA program was devoted to defense and war activities during the fiscal year 1942. The remainder of the program continued the construction and improvement of public facilities and the provision of various services to communities.

WPA War Work

The WPA has been doing work for the military and naval authorities since 1935. WPA projects at military and naval reservations in prewar years helped greatly in the rehabilitation of utilities and other physical equipment of our armed forces. When the national emergency was declared in the summer of 1940. it was recognized that many of the WPA projects undertaken for civilian use were now of military value. A large number of roads, bridges, and airports constructed in peacetime now became an integral part of the Nation's defenses.

WPA work for the armed forces was increased and speeded up in the fiscal year 1942. Project workers constructed and improved barracks, mess halls, garages, warehouses, training fields, rifle ranges, administration buildings, hospitals and infirmaries, roads, water and sewer lines, and other structures and utilities at military and naval establishments.

Service projects provided leadership at recreation centers for the use of members of the armed forces and war industry workers. Other WPA service project work included the making of maps, posters, and other visual educational aids; the tabulation of weather data; the giving of assistance to libraries, aid to health agencies in a program of venereal disease control, and other kinds of clerical assistance to agencies overburdened with war activities.

Other WPA work directly useful to the war program included civil airport construction and improvement, construction and improvement of access roads and utilities, and health and welfare services in war industry centers.

Under Congressional legislation enacted in June 1940 and continued in subsequent years, projects of the types described above were eligible for certification by the Secretary of War or the Secretary of the Navy as of importance to the war effort. Such certification was necessary in order to secure the benefit of priority in obtaining materials and was the basis of exemption from restrictions applying generally to WPA hours and wages.

At the beginning of the fiscal year 1942, 34 percent of all WPA workers were engaged in war work; by the end of the fiscal year the percentage of workers on war projects had risen to about 41 percent. The number of workers on war projects in mid-June 1942 was 287.000, of whom 205,000 were employed on certified war projects.

Of the 287,000 WTA war workers, more than 185,000 were doing construction work, and nearly 64,000 were on service projects, while 3S,000 were taking vocational training courses in preparation for private employment in the war industries.

The fiscal year 1942 was the seventh in WPA history. Over this whole seven-year period, more than 25,000 buildings had been constructed, enlarged, or improved for the use of the armed forces. During the same period, about 800 airports and more than 4,000 airport buildings had been built, enlarged, or improved.

A special feature of WPA war work in the fiscal year 1942 was scrap collection, carried on at the request of the War Production Board. Between October 1941 and the end of June 1942, 44.000 tons of steel rail had been removed from city streets by WPA workers. In an agricultural and urban scrap collection campaign, between the latter part of April and the end of June 1942, WPA workers collected more than 27,000 tons of scrap metal and about 2,000 tons of rubber.

Project Activities and Accomplishments

The general range of project activities in this fiscal year was nearly as broad as in former years, despite the gradual shift in emphasis to projects directly or indirectly aiding the war effort. About three-fifths of all WPA project expenditures in the fiscal year 1942 were made on work which, while often indirectly aiding the Nation's war effort, was undertaken primarily for the civilian population.

It is, of course, impossible to make a distinct cleavage between civilian benefits ami benefits to the war program. Roads built for civilian use in nonstrategic areas may at any moment become of military importance.

The practical distinction is that some roads and not others received certification as of importance to national defense. Noncertified roads, chiefly for the benefit of rural districts, continued to be built by WPA workers in the fiscal year 1942, though less extensively than before.

Airport work was placed in the category of certified war projects. Construction of public buildings was largely but not entirely in military or war industry areas. The construction and improvement of hospitals had a special wartime value in any area. Noncertified building construction, a diminishing category, included new school buildings erected to replace old and unsafe structures.

Water treatment and sewage disposal plants were constructed, and water mains and sewer lines laid. General park work was scarcely carried on at all, but playgrounds were constructed in many localities. In general, large construction for recreational purposes was discontinued.

Malaria control work was undertaken especially for the protection of military encampments. Conservation work, such as tree planting and work at fish hatcheries, continued on a smaller scale. Employment on the WPA work program was being reduced, and it was reduced most rapidly in the field of construction for civilian use and benefit.

The service part of the WPA program was to a considerable extent turned into war work; and here again, the distinction between work of importance for war purposes and other work is sometimes merely a formal distinction between certified and noncertified projects.

The nursery school program was expanded to include the children of mothers working in war plants and of men in the armed forces. Adult educational work was concentrated particularly upon literacy and naturalization classes, and on vocational training.

Library extension work was in large part for the benefit of the armed services. Public health activities—clinics and venereal disease control especially—were expanded in military and war production areas. School lunches were continued, with increased local support, in all parts of the country.

Work on sewing projects included the reconditioning of army clothing and equipage. A considerable part of the work performed on research and records projects and art and music projects was related to the war emergency. WPA service projects in general, however, continued to serve civilian needs of communities.

The figures showing the work performed by the WPA in seven years arc impressive. About 664,000 miles of highways, roads, and streets were constructed and improved. A lar?c portion of all airport work throughout the Nation was done by the WPA.

Waterfront improvements include more than 700 docks, wharves, and piers. About 5,700 new school buildings have been constructed, and more than 33,000 others enlarged or improved. More than 200 new hospitals were built and about 2,000 improved or reconstructed.

WPA workers built 140 new libraries and enlarged or reconditioned 900 others. The construction and improvement of recreational facilities included more than 8,500 new recreational buildings, 3,000 new athletic fields, and more than 8,100 parks.

WPA workers built nearly 950 sewage treatment plants and laid nearly 16,000 miles of water main and distribution lines. More than 15.000 miles of drainage ditches were dug in malarial areas.

Under the WPA service program workers repaired or renovated about 94,000,000 books, served more than 1,000,000,000 school lunches, and made 375,000,000 garments and 111.000,000 other articles in sewing rooms.

Educational and other cultural services have been extended to large numbers of children and adults through the projects on this program.

Vocational Training

Dining the defense and war period, several new training programs were set up to prepare WPA workers for private wartime jobs.

A national project for the training of workers in the occupational skills required in the defense industries was carrier! on under the sponsorship of the War Production Board and the co-sponsorship of the United States Office of Education.

The WPA selected the workers to be trained, and paid thorn WPA wages during a course of training, which in different schools varied from four to twelve weeks. The instructors and supervisors were furnished by the United States Office of Education.

Classroom instruction was supplemented by shop practice. About 32.000 trainees were enrolled in these classes on June 10, 1942.

Small machine shops, not yet drawn into war production, were used as auxiliary shops in this training program; and more than 1,400 trainees "ere in auxiliary shops at the end of the fiscal year.

In addition, there was an in-plant training Program, in which selected WPA workers were paid learners' wages by the WPA during a four weeks' training period in war production plants; if their work was satisfactory, they were then put on the plant pay rolls. On June 16, 1942, more than 1,500 WPA workers were taking in-plant training.

Women as well as men were trained for war industry work. Many women formerly employed on sewing projects were taught to operate small bench machines; other women were trained in work ranging from light aircraft riveting to blueprint reading. About 4,900 women were receiving training on vocational projects at the end of the fiscal year.

A nation-wide project for the training of WPA workers as airport servicemen was operated under the sponsorship of the Civil Aeronautics Administration and the United States Office of Education. The airports used as training stations were selected by the CAA, the instructors were furnished by the United States Office of Education, and the trainees were selected, assigned, and paid wages by the WPA during a training period of 90 days.

At the end of the fiscal year, more than 500 WPA workers were receiving such training. Approximately 35.000 persons were in training under all the above wartime training programs in June 1942.

In addition, the WPA conducted two other training programs not directly related to the war program. The WPA household workers training program was reorganized so as to train only WPA workers, who were paid for 12 weeks while being trained.

Other WPA workers were trained for periods of three to six months for professional duties in hospitals and institutions. and were paid WPA wages during the training period. More than 1,600 persons were in training in mid-June 1942 under these two programs.

Vocational courses, which include business English, arithmetic, typing and stenography, are a part of the TV PA's adult education program intended to serve tin* public in general. In January 1942. more than 55.000 persons were enrolled in those vocational courses.


The average employment on WPA projects for the fiscal year 1942 was 971,000. the lowest in WPA history. This was 08 percent less than I he average employment of 3,014,000 in the peak fiscal year of 1939. WPA employment for the month of June 1942 averaged only 698,000 as compared with 1,411,000 in June 1941, a decline of 51 percent.

The drastic reduction in WPA employment in recent years has been due only in part to increasing employment opportunities for WPA workers; large reductions in project operations were necessary in order to keep within curtailed WPA appropriations made for the years subsequent to 1939.

Thus, while many WPA workers left the program voluntarily in order to take private jobs, there were a considerable number of separations made necessary by the decreased funds available.

During the fiscal year 1941, I ho monthly volume of separations averaged 14 percent of monthly employment, and 45 percent of the average monthly separations were voluntary. In the fiscal year 1942, monthly separations averaged 16 percent of employment, and 56 percent of the separations were voluntary'.

A significant development during the fiscal year 1942 was the relatively larger importance of service and training projects in providing employment on the AN PA program. Construction projects still continued to be the major activity of the WPA, although this type of project employed only 58 percent of all WPA workers in «lune 1942 as against 68 percent in June 1941.

Defense and war projects were given increasing emphasis on the WPA program during the fiscal year 1942. The proportion of all WPA workers employed on such projects rose from 34 percent in June 1941 to 41 percent in June 1942.

Since many defense and war projects were exempted from the standard WPA regulations concerning maximum working hours and earnings, a rise itr employment on such projects resulted in a more than proportionate rise in hours of work and earnings.

At the end of June 1942, about 20 percent of the WPA workers were exempted from the standard limitations of hours and earnings, and practically all of them were employed on certified war projects.

During the fiscal year 1942, WPA project employees worked 1,494,000,000 hours and earned $721.100,000 on projects operated by the WPA. Because of the fewer workers employed, the total hours were 40 percent less than in the previous fiscal year, and the total earnings were 36 percent less.

Financing the Program

The fiscal year 1942 was marked by the smallest total annual expenditure of WPA funds in the history of the program. Expenditures were 33 percent below those of the previous fiscal year, and 60 percent below those of the peak fiscal year of 1939.

Total expenditures by the WPA for project operations in the fiscal year 1942 were $844,498,000; in addition, $34,717,000 was expended for administration. WPA projects operated by other Federal agencies, but financed by allocating WPA funds, brought total WPA expenditures up to $887,648,000.

The sponsors' contributions to projects operated by the WPA for the fiscal year were $381,150,000, or 31 percent of the total funds expended. In the first year of WPA operations the sponsors' contribution was only 10 percent of total funds expended.

The statutory requirement is now an average of 25 percent sponsors' contributions in each state. This requirement does not apply to certified war projects, but during the Fiscal year 1942 the sponsors contributed nearly 23 percent of the total cost of these war projects.

Of the total WPA project expenditures for the fiscal year 1942, 86 percent was for labor costs (including the wages of supervisory project personnel), and 14 percent for nonlabor costs.

In 1941, WPA nonlabor costs had been 10 percent of all project expenditures; the rise in 1942 was due to the increased proportion of war projects, chiefly construction work requiring higher outlays for materials.

General Summary

The Work Projects Administration has left lasting evidences of its operations in all parts of the country. Work projects set up to provide useful public work for the unemployed have added very greatly to the physical assets of local communities, and have established a pattern of public services that promises to endure far beyond the term of this emergency program.

The ability of needy unemployed workers to make valuable contributions to community improvement and welfare has been demonstrated conclusively. A practical method of Federal-local cooperation has been established for future use.

Many millions of unemployed workers were returned to employment in private industry with their skills largely maintained and often increased; and in the meantime the self-respect of those millions of workers and their families has been preserved. As the Nation entered into the present world struggle, it was indebted to the work program of the WPA not only for its substantial assistance to the war effort, but also for its contribution to the morale of a large portion of our population.

Federal Works Agency and Works Progress Administration, "Review of the WPA Program," in Report on [the] Progress of The WPA Program, 30 June 1042, Washington DC: United State Government Printing Office, 1942.


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