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WPA (in Wisconsin) | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

WPA (in Wisconsin)

WPA (in Wisconsin) | Wisconsin Historical Society

A federally funded program intended to put the unemployed back to work and stimulate the economy during the Great Depression.

The Nation's Problem

The stock market crash of 1929 caused widespread poverty and unemployment as banks folded, businesses went bankrupt, and factories shut down. By 1933 more than 12 million Americans were out of work (about 25% of the labor force). In Wisconsin, by 1933 the majority of the state's banks had closed, retail sales and tax collections plummeted, and nearly 400,000 residents were on welfare or some other kind of relief.

The Government's Solution

To address the crisis, in 1935 Congress authorized the Works Progress Administration to create jobs and stimulate the economy. They funded it with an appropriation of $5 billion ($82 billion in today's dollars). Wisconsin participated eagerly in the WPA, setting up a state administration as soon as funds became available. In 1939, the program's name was changed to Works Projects Administration but the abbreviation remained accurate.

WPA projects were required to have a local sponsor who paid a portion of the cost and to recruit their workers from the ranks of the unemployed and those on relief. In Wisconsin, about three-fourths of the funding went to construction and engineering projects, and a quarter to professional projects and community service work.

Results of the WPA in Wisconsin

Between 1935 and 1943, WPA construction crews created 22,889 miles of roads, erected 1,456 new buildings, laid 1,588 miles of water pipes and sewers, constructed 504 dams, built 17 airports, and planted 63 million trees in Wisconsin.

Between 1935 and 1940, professional and community service programs taught 9,437 people how to read and write, served 3.1 million hot lunches to school children, gave citizenship classes to 3,611 immigrants, and manufactured or repaired 4.5 million articles of clothing or bedding. Other programs performed work or taught classes in the arts, music, and literature, including the Wisconsin Writers' Project and Arts Project, the Wisconsin Public Records Survey, and the Milwaukee Handicraft Project.

On average, the WPA employed 43,000 people per year in Wisconsin. Wages averaged about 60% of those paid to workers performing the same jobs in the private sector. About $318 million was spent in Wisconsin during the life of the program, $220 million of it going to wages.

The End of the WPA

The WPA was not the only public works initiative undertaken during the Depression. Other federal programs separate from WPA included the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the state of Wisconsin operated its own relief and public works agencies.

In the early 1940s, as World War Two approached, the federal government helped American industry gear up for the war effort. The resulting economic growth and the war itself provided jobs for millions of workers, and the WPA was phased out. It formally ended in 1943 after giving work to more than 8 million Americans during the greatest economic collapse in the nation's history.

Learn More

[Source: Lackore, James The W.P.A. in Wisconsin (Masters Thesis, Univ. of Wisconsin, 1966); Wisconsin Dept. of Public Welfare, "The W.P.A. in Wisconsin: 1935-43" in Public Welfare Review (first quarter, 1943). ]