On the WPA: FDR Ridicules Opponents, Calls for ‘Boondoggling Our Way Out of the Depression’

by Pam Lowry

In the spring of 1935, it was obvious to President Roosevelt that more measures would have to be taken to put Americans back to work. The Civilian Conservation Corps was providing work and income for young men and for a large group of veterans, and the large-scale infrastructure programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were getting off the ground, but there were still millions of unemployed Americans, many of them unable to see where their next meal was coming from.

Therefore, on April 8, 1935 the President signed an appropriations bill aimed at providing work relief. The next month, a Presidential Order used funding from that bill to establish the Works Progress Administration. The concept of providing relief to the unemployed through useful jobs, rather than a simple dole, had several aims. It provided hope and a sense of self-worth to the unemployed, while giving them the buying power which would lead to increased production of goods and services.

In addition, the jobs which were provided were not random or make-work: they were requested by counties, cities and towns which needed roads, schools, water systems, health clinics and other infrastructural projects. President Roosevelt had made it clear that each local area had to decide what projects it needed and then had to match the skills which would be needed for the projects with the skills of the unemployed in that area. By March, 1936, more than 3,400,000 people obtained work through the program, not counting the youth in the Civilian Conservation Corps.

WPA Workers building a sewer system in St. Paul, MN. ( Library of Congress)


President Roosevelt wrote that “There has been a growing conviction on the part of the Congress and myself that the time had come when the Federal Government could well afford to withdraw from the field of direct relief, leaving that responsibility to the various States and localities, and to establish a larger Works Program for the unemployed who were employable….With respect to work projects, the State and local governments were given the responsibility, with few exceptions, of originating and planning the work to fit local needs and also of determining the eligibility of workers on the basis of actual need. At the same time, through Federal approval of these projects and through the carrying out of a Federal wages and hours policy and by means of Federal accounting and purchasing, there were obtained a general centralized planning and responsibility.”

Roosevelt continued by saying that “On the average, 85% of the Federal funds spent on W.P.A. projects went directly into wages for labor….Taking the program as a whole, local funds made up 16% of the total expenditures on W.P.A. projects, the proportion increasing steadily, and 80% of these local contributions was used for materials, supplies and equipment….In the few exceptions in which the projects were not initiated by States, cities, villages, towns, counties, districts, highway commissions, boards of education, boards of health, park boards, etc., the W.P.A. itself acted as sponsor. These activities were usually devoted to artistic and historical and clerical work which was designed for the so-called white-collar workers.”

Although the program operated for eight years, the number of workers enrolled in it peaked in February of 1936. Improving economic conditions soon enabled President Roosevelt to call for smaller appropriations in succeeding years. In total, the program employed more than 8.5 million people on 1.4 million projects. These projects created 650,000 miles of highways, 125,000 public buildings, 8000 parks, 850 airports, and sponsored the construction and repair of 124,000 bridges.

The overall figures only give a hint of the scope of the program. The public buildings constructed and repaired included schools, hospitals, courthouses and fire stations as well as gymnasiums, stadiums, playgrounds, athletic fields and other recreational facilities. The work on water supply systems included water mains, aqueducts, storage tanks, reservoirs, dams, treatment plants, pumping stations, storm sewers, mosquito control and fish hatcheries. The work on health infrastructure included the conducting of medical and dental clinics, nursing visits, and immunizations.

On the cultural side, there were over 2,000 branch libraries and almost 6,000 traveling libraries established. Classes were given in music, theater and art, and the famous Writers’ Project produced a valuable series of guides to the individual states and recordings of living history. Books and maps were transcribed into Braille, while literacy, vocational and nursery school classes were established all over the country.

1936-37 WPA Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis (Library of Congress)

During his 1936 campaign tours, Roosevelt often referred to the work of the W.P.A.; and, in fact, many times he was speaking in, or within sight of, an edifice constructed by the program. On October 15, the President spoke at Atwood Stadium in Flint, Michigan, and recalled the height of the depression: “I am thinking of Flint as it was in January, or February, or March of 1933, and Flint was not the only city that faced conditions of desperation. Faced with that widespread suffering from unemployment, this Administration, as you know, has followed a fixed policy – a policy that does not believe in the dole, on the ground that temporary charity without work results in a breakdown of self-respect….

“And so we have come through the worst economic crisis in our history, and we have kept our morale. Money spent to do that was money soundly invested. We faced that choice in 1933; and it was a test of what I call straight economic thinking and good economic statesmanship, even if some professors did not agree with us.

“We could have gone into the relief problem by spending, let us say, a dollar for a dole. That dollar for a dole would have kept unemployed men just alive – just in a state of suspended animation. Or we could think beyond our noses and spend, say, a dollar and a half on work instead of a dollar on a dole. That extra half dollar would maintain the normal relationships of the unemployed with their families and their grocers, and their merchants, and so on down the line. They could later slip back into normal industry in a normal way.

“Yes, we chose to spend money in order to save men. But who can measure in dollars and cents what the self-respect and the morale of a people mean to their Nation? They must be measured, rather, in terms of the preservation of the families and the normal life of America.

“But work relief has done more than that. In these many communities throughout the land, it has helped the unemployed to make a contribution of social value to the life of the Nation. Across the entire country a far-reaching series of structures has been built by the working unemployed – and I see a W.P.A. sign right out there by the gate – structures which for generations to come will contribute to the well-being and permanent happiness of the Nation.

“Remember that no project has been adopted by the Federal Government except on recommendation of the local community itself. You people of Michigan initiated the projects in Michigan. And the people of the other States also told us which projects they wanted in their States. In the vast majority of cases your advice was good. This year you and I have noticed that the projects which are being criticized are never the projects in the community in which the critic lives. They are generally a thousand miles away.

“You can look in your own towns, your own counties all through America, to see for yourselves what this work relief program has done – in schools and roads and pavements and reforestation and flood prevention and sanitation and in fifty or a hundred different types of undertakings that have no peacetime parallel in all of our history.”

President Roosevelt’s critics called many of the W.P.A. projects “boondoggles,” and the image they used was of workers leaning endlessly on their shovels. Roosevelt turned the tables, and referred, with a slight wink, to successful projects completed in each town he visited as “boondoggles.” People got the message. Here is what he said when he visited New Jersey: “I want to say just one word about the usefulness of what we are doing. There is a grand word that is going around, “boondoggle.” It is a pretty good word. If we can “boondoggle” ourselves out of this depression, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the American people for many years to come.”


Published with the permission of Colin Lowry