From Ohio History Central
Young African American children at a feeding program at Butler County Emergency School, a Works Progress Administration program, 1936.
On April 8, 1935, the United States Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt hoped that his New Deal would allow Americans to cope with the Great Depression, would help end the current economic downturn, and would help prevent another depression from occurring in the future.
The most important accomplishment of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This government office hired unemployed Americans to work on various government projects. Many of these projects were similar to ones sponsored by the Public Works Administration. During its existence, the WPA constructed more than 600,000 miles of roads and built or repaired more than 124,000 bridges, 125,000 public buildings, 8,000 parks, and 850 airport runways. In addition to hiring people from traditionally working-class backgrounds, the WPA also created programs for academics, actors, and artists. Among these programs was the Federal Arts Project, which paid artists to paint murals in public buildings, to teach art classes, and to catalog pieces of art. The Federal Writers' Project hired people to compile histories of communities across the United States. The Federal Theater Project employed actors and directors to bring live theater productions to towns and cities throughout the United States.
In the first six months that the WPA existed, more than 173,000 Ohioans, including both men and women, found employment through this program. More than 1,500 unemployed teachers in Ohio found work through the WPA teaching illiterate adults how to read. In twelve separate counties, primarily in southeastern Ohio, more than twenty-five percent of families had at least one member working for the WPA during the late 1930s. By the end of 1938, these various workers had built or improved 12,300 miles of roads and streets and constructed 636 public buildings, several hundred bridges, hundreds of athletic fields, and five fish hatcheries. WPA employees made improvements to thousands of more buildings, roads, and parks within Ohio. WPA artists also painted a number of murals in Ohio post offices.
Although the United States Congress reduced funding for the program in 1939, the WPA remained in operation until June 30, 1943. By this point in time, the Great Depression had ended, and unemployment had dropped tremendously due to the creation of thousands of jobs associated with World War II. During its short history, the WPA's more than 1.4 million projects had employed approximately 8.5 million people. Historians generally conclude that the Works Progress Administration failed to meet its wider goal of providing jobs for all unemployed American workers. This is true, but the WPA also provided a sense of self-worth to American workers who attained jobs through the program. Rather than just receiving a government handout, these workers felt that they were contributing to the United States and earning an honest and valuable living.