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YES! Magazine

The Case for a New WPA

Why many are calling for a modern incarnation of the Depression-era program.

Kate McCormack

One of the most powerful images of the Great Depression, "Migrant Mother" depicts 32 year-old Florence Thompson, a pea picker, with her children in Nipomo, Calif..

Photo by Dorothea Lange, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The image catches your breath. The look etched on the mother's face
reveals more about the hard lives of migrant workers during the 1930s
than any history book. The photo, by Dorothea Lange, is one of the most
famous shots in American history and an iconic representation of the
Great Depression. Lange captured it while participating in the Farm
Security Administration's photography project, a division of the Works
Progress Administration (WPA).

In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt took office with the promise of
government action to relieve destitution, unemployment had reached
nearly 25 percent. As part of that commitment, his administration
created the WPA, a permanent jobs program that put 8.5 million Americans
to work between 1935 and 1943. The WPA was a massive public undertaking
that changed the face of a growing nation. In addition to providing
jobs to millions, it brought the nation's transportation system into the
20th century and brought art to people of all classes, leaving the U.S.
with a rich legacy of oral history and artistic masterpieces.

Many organizations are calling for a modern incarnation of the WPA
both to assist
the nation's 6.5 million long-term unemployed
and to advance
national priorities, from transitioning to clean energy to modernizing
infrastructure to supporting the arts. A new WPA could help support:


In 1938 the WPA was the largest employer in the nation. For every job
it created, two jobs in the private sector were created indirectly.
Today, with unemployment seemingly stuck above nine percent and concerns
that young workers will never fully recover from slow-starting careers,
a new WPA, like its predecessor, could be the answer. The WPA was an
important strategy for lowering unemployment and reducing the human
suffering of economic recession. Government can hire people that the
private sector typically does not: the long-term unemployed, young
people without work experience, people from chronically underemployed
populations, older workers nearing retirement, and workers with criminal
backgrounds. Job experience and training can help these workers move
into new industries for the long term.

Green Infrastructure

A new WPA could also help modernize an American infrastructure in
desperate need of overhaul. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave
the U.S. a grade of "D" in categories ranging from drinking water to
transit to hazardous waste management, and estimates that $1.6 trillion
in investment is needed over five years to bring dams, bridges, roads,
sewers and other public projects up to par.

The first WPA played a huge role in modernizing the United States'
19th century infrastructure. Workers built 650,000 miles of roads,
78,000 bridges, and 125,000 public buildings. The WPA built parks, zoos,
public pools, golf courses, and even ski hills, many of which are still
in use.

This incarnation of the WPA should focus on creating
green jobs
to decrease U.S. reliance on fossil fuels. WPA workers
could perform overdue energy assessments on public buildings and help
boost their energy efficiency; build improved and expanded transit
systems; or overhaul sewer systems to stop disastrous overflows and
protect fresh water sources. 

The Arts

The WPA also brought art to the public through Federal Project Number
One, which included the Federal Art, Theater, Music, and Writers'
Projects. During the life of the WPA, musicians performed 225,000
concerts for 150 million people, many of whom had never seen a concert.
They also produced nearly 475,000 works of art, which still decorate
post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings.


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The Farm Security Administration's (FSA) photography project
documented the life of the rural poor through photos. The motto of the
program was "introducing America to Americans." The project produced
more than 160,000 photos, many of which are iconic today, and captured
the struggles of thousands of Americans.

The FSA was not the only project determined to "introduce America" to
her citizens. The Writers' Project original goal was to produce
accessible, detailed guides to every state in the union so that people
could learn about their country. But one of the project's most enduring
and important was the Slave Narrative Collection. Between 1936 and 1938,
writers conducted more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves in
seventeen states. The interviews gave ex-slaves the opportunity to
describe what they had lived through and are an important part of the
nation's collective memory.

modern day Writer's Project could bring music, art, and theater back to
cash-strapped public schools. It could also hire journalists and
writers who have been laid off from the shrinking newspaper and
publishing industries to collect oral histories from survivors of World
War II and the Civil Rights Era.

is advocating for a new WPA, while Campaign for America's Future and
many other organizations are pushing the Local Jobs Act for America, a
bill designed to save local jobs and services, authored by California
Rep. George Miller. Notably, the Local Jobs Act lacks WPA-style funding
for artists. You can show your support for a modern WPA by signing their
petitions, and by calling on Rep. Miller to add funding for the arts to
the Local Jobs Act.

It is difficult to quantify the priceless legacy of WPA projects; the
highest honor that could be paid to the visionaries of the past would
be to repeat their efforts. Maybe the time has come to "introduce
America to Americans" all over again.


  • The Food of a Younger Land
    Author Mark Kurlansky unearths a Depression-era project to document the country's food traditions.
  • Protecting Workers, Not Corporations
    By actually regulating businesses and standing up for workers' rights, the new Department of Labor is part of a "quiet revolution" in government. 
  • Climate Hero, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins
    With unemployment near 10
    percent and the economy struggling to recover, how do you convince
    Americans to get involved in solving the climate crisis?

Kate McCormack wrote this article for YES! Magazine,
a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with
practical actions. Kate is a freelance writer currently living and
working in Zacatecas, Mexico. She volunteers with a transnational
workers' rights law center where she participates in outreach to migrant
workers about their labor rights in the United States.

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