On this day in 1935, the so-called “big bill,” the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act (at, sorry KRK, 49 Stat. 115) became law, appropriating around $5bn “to provide relief, work relief and to increase employment by providing for useful projects.” Under the terms of the law, Franklin Roosevelt created and defined the Works Progress Administration “to move from the relief rolls to work on such projects or in private employment the maximum number of persons in the shortest time possible.”

There’s a lot in this story, and I can only tell part of it here (much more is in this book, of course). Maybe the thing to start with is the year: 1935, two years after Roosevelt took office. The New Dealers took a long time to resign themselves to providing national relief.

At the start, in May of 1933, there had been the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, with half a billion dollars of money it could grant to the states for relief, thus respecting the tradition of federalism. It proved to be too little too slowly. By the autumn of that year, the administration felt moved to act more precipitously. Roosevelt created the Civil Works Administration, charged with hiring four million people. Which it did, by January 1934. And it’s credited with getting many Americans through the record cold winter of that year.

But it made Roosevelt nervous; he didn’t want federal relief “to become a habit with the country.” So before spring thaw had quite come, he’d decided to fire the four million. Which he did.

By the end of 1934, Roosevelt saw that the government had spent some, but achieved little and, he wrote, “I hope to be able to substitute work for relief.” Hence WPA, which hired Americans to do “useful projects.” They built public works; they plied their artistic trade if they had one; they collected a record of vanishing America as it existed.

In 1938 a WPA relief worker said,

The way I look at it is this. This is a rich country. I figger it ain’t going to hurt the government to feed and clothe them that needs it. Half of ’em can’t get work, or just ain’t fixed to handle work if they get it…. We’ve got the money. Plenty of it. No sense in the big fellows kicking about a little handout to the poor. Matter’s not if some ain’t deserving….

This little speech exists because the WPA recorded it, with programs like the Federal Writers’ Project, trying to “take down the exact words of the informant,” trying to hear America. They recorded the testimony of sharecroppers and the memories of slaves. And they published it.

And they got in trouble. The House Un-American Activities Committee brought Hallie Flanagan to book for staging radical theater (which sometimes they didn’t stage). Flanagan did the best she could; Congressman Joseph Starnes interrupted her discussion of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, saying “You are quoting from this Marlowe. Is he a Communist?”

Concerns about encouraging unlawful immigration led to increasing legal restrictions on the WPA’s ability to hire immigrants. Concerns about corruption gave rise to the Hatch Act, to prevent federal employees using public resources to conduct campaigns. In 1943, Congress eliminated WPA. To quote William Leuchtenburg, it

built or improved more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900 school buildings, 1,000 airport landing fields, and nearly 13,000 playgrounds. It restored the Dock Street Theater in Charleston; erected a magnificent ski lodge atop Oregon’s Mount Hood; conducted art classes for the insane in a Cincinnati hospital; drew a Braille map for the blind at Watertown, Massachusetts; and ran a pack-horse library in the Kentucky hills…. employed actors, directors, and other craftsmen to produce plays, circuses, vaudeville shows and marionette performances… turned out about a thousand publications, including fifty-one state and territorial guides; some thirty city guides; twenty regional guides … a notable series of ethnic studies…. made use of the talents of … Conrad Aiken, … John Cheever and Richard Wright….

And by and large it was vastly more loved than hated. When in 1939 Congress killed the Federal Theater Project and other projects could continue only if they got other sponsors to bear 25% of their cost, the Writers’ Project got adequate contributions from every single one of the states.

WPA drew criticism for being a boondoggle and for providing opportunities for corruption. When a 1939 Gallup poll asked Americans to pick “the worst thing the Roosevelt Administration has done,” 23% picked WPA—more than picked any other agency.

But in the same poll, when asked to name “the greatest accomplishment of the Roosevelt administration,” more named WPA—28%—than named anything else.