Why is FDR's WPA historically significant?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The Works Progress Administration was the creation of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a means of ameliorating the effects of the Great Depression, by putting millions of people to work, a way of creating vast improvement in the nation's infrastructure, and an organized effort to create and preserve the rich culture of the nation, in literature, art, photography, and song.  Its importance in the history of the United States is inestimable.   

First, four million people were employed by the WPA, paid the prevailing wage in their communities.  These people were thus able to provide for their families, preventing homelessness, malnutrition, and even starvation, while able to maintain their self-respect as workers, not accepting handouts from the government.  These people were then able to spend money, which had a ripple effect that helped to pull us out of the Depression, a sort of "trickle up" process.  

Second, many of the projects taken on by WPA workers were to improve or repair infrastructure.  Roads, bridges, and retaining walls were built or repaired.  Flood control projects were accomplished.  Public buildings, parks, and playgrounds were built.  All of these were significant contributions to our communities as well as a means of promoting subsequent economic and social growth.  Hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements accrued to all of the states, and there are probably few people in the Unites States who do not live within a few miles of some infrastructure improvement done by the workers of the WPA. Less than a mile from my house are the beautiful bridges and retaining walls of a small local park, done by these workers when my parents were children.  The scope of the work done by the WPA was extraordinary. 

Third, there were a number of programs under the umbrella of the WPA that created and preserved all sorts of American art forms.  Two such programs were the Federal Writers Program and the Federal Arts project.  These employed unemployed writers and artists.  Writers such as John Steinbeck were thus employed.  There were many projects of great literary, historical, and cultural value created, for example, the Slave Narratives, and guides for each state.  Artists created great public beauty, sculptures, murals, and other works of art, to be enjoyed by all.  Many a courthouse has murals done through one of these programs.  The riches created and collected are incredible.

The importance of the WPA in our nation's history, economics, and culture reverberates to this day, offering a model of the dignity of work, the necessity of good infrastructure, the value of art in our everyday lives, and the importance of the federal government's role in the economy.

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