One of FDR’s major goals was simply to get people back to work, and the WPA was his chief instrument for doing that. In his second “fireside chat” over the radio in May 1933, he said, “The country was dying by inches. It was dying because trade and commerce had declined to dangerously low levels… We are planning to ask Congress for legislation to enable the government to undertake public works, thus stimulating directly and indirectly the employment of many other in well-considered projects.”
The most far-reaching of the public works programs was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), established in 1935 by executive order and funded by Congress that same year.
The goal was to put unemployed people to work building projects like highways, airfields, public buildings, planting trees and doing rural rehabilitation. Workers were paid $15 to $90 a month, depending on the job. As Stan Jensen remembers it, most WPA workers on the plains got the going rate of $1.00 a day
Eventually, Congress appropriated money specifically for the WPA. The first year’s payroll totaled $4,880,000,000. That’s almost $5-billion – an amazing amount of money in the late 1930s. The WPA funds took people off the relief roles and gave them productive work.
In York County Nebraska, WPA helped finance an underpass under the railroad tracks through town and the City Auditorium (above in a QuickTime VR movie) which is still used for dances and other functions. Walter Schmitt remembers the WPA’s contributions.
During its eight-year life from 1935 through 1943, the WPA employed 8.5 million workers. They worked on 1.4 million projects, including 651,087 miles of roads, 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192 parks and 853 airport landing fields.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.