The WPA –the Works Progress Administration (1935-1943)--was the most ambitious jobs program in our country’s history. The WPA hired people of all ages and both genders, with an emphasis on providing jobs for heads of families. The majority of its spending went for construction, but it also created work opportunities for seamstresses and teachers, factory workers and housewives, painters and musicians, librarians and archeologists, actors and writers. Overall during its eight-year history, the WPA created jobs for more than 8 million people.
But the WPA did not have a placid life. Follow the program through the eight years of its existence, and you will see practically every contentious issue of the day bubble to the surface—race, class, and gender; the role of the market versus the public sector; issues of art and censorship; accusations of political influence; and disputes over the proper balance of responsibility between Washington and local government. With this background as context, this lecture will explore what the WPA achieved, the challenges it faced, what it meant to the people involved, and what we can learn from it today.
Sandra Opdycke, Ph.D. is a retired historian. She recently published When Women Won the Vote, about the woman suffrage movement. She has also written books about the flu epidemic of 1918, the WPA of the 1930s, and Bellevue Hospital, as well as a biography of Jane Addams, an historical atlas of American women’s history, and several co-authored books and articles on social policy. She worked for a number of years at Hudson River Psychiatric Center, and later taught American History and Urban History at Bard, Vassar, and Marist Colleges. She serves as an occasional lecturer at the Center for Lifetime Studies in Poughkeepsie.