The Works Progress Administration was one of the marquee programs of the New Deal. Launched in 1935, the program was aimed at addressing widespread unemployment in the wake of the Great Depression. Over its eight-year lifespan, the WPA — which was just one of more than 30 programs under the New Deal umbrella — directly employed about 8.5 million Americans and put them to work modernizing America.
Water lines and sewage treatment plants were built. Airports and highways connected the nation. Schools, post offices, courthouses, and other public buildings rose up across the country. Murals were painted. Books were written, and parks were constructed. Astronomical data was recorded. Plays were performed. Children were vaccinated.
When in 2010 Brent McKee lost his job providing prisoners in Maryland with legal resources — a job he told people he could do forever — he found an odd resonance with the WPA. “Before I was laid off, other people were getting laid off by the hundreds and thousands,” he recalls. Amid the endless reporting and commentary on the unemployment crisis, though, something caught his attention. “I started hearing people talk about the WPA.”
The breadth of the WPA’s work was, to use McKee’s word, “mind-boggling.” But what has become of it all? McKee put his research skills to work learning what he could, and what he found amazed him.
The WPA is still around us, he says, if only you know where to look. And he’s here to help you find it.