Despite Startling Success, the WPA was Derided and Ridiculed by Opponents

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(Third in a series of articles on American Work Projects of the Great Depression).

Resistance and Criticism was Anticipated – And Proactively Confronted – by the Program’s Creators

“It’s not easy. You can’t care very much what people are going to say because when you’re handling other people’s money whatever you do is always wrong. If you try to hold down wages, you’ll be accused of union-busting and grinding down the poor; if you pay a decent wage, you’ll be competing with private industry and pampering a lot of no – accounts; if you scrimp on production costs, they’ll say your shows are lousy; and if you spend enough to get a good show on, they’ll say you’re wasting the taxpayer’s money. Don’t forget that whatever happens, you’ll be wrong.”

Harry Hopkins to Hallie Flanagan. Hopkins recruited Flanagan to create a nation-wide theater project that employed thousands of previously unemployed Americans.

In recruiting for the most successful work project in American history, the project’s creator sought to immunize the programs leaders against criticism he regarded as inevitable. Hopkins would repeatedly warn leaders of the project that they couldn’t “care very much what people are going to say … because whatever you do is always wrong”. 1

CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) boys at work.

Although Hopkins identified short-sightedness and greed as the origin of hostility to the work program, antagonism towards the program had several sources. Most of the criticism reflected a strong attachment to entrenched ideological inclinations. Other types of opposition reflected an abiding cynicism unanchored to ideology, while still other attacks were motivated by personal vendettas and political score-settling.

Vigorous Self-Policing

Despite wild charges and an occasional blunder, WPA was run efficiently and free of scandal. Hopkins had implemented a system of vigorous self-policing through an investigations unit.2 Roosevelt’s seventh fireside chat in 1935 anticipated attacks on the program before they occurred and called on people to vigilantly observe work projects to ensure that they remained free of corruption:

“There are chiselers in every walk of life. Every profession has its black sheep…The most effective means of preventing such evils in this work relief program will be the eternal vigilance of the American people themselves. I call upon my fellow citizens everywhere to cooperate with me in making this the most efficient and the cleanest example of public enterprise the world has ever seen. … If you will help, this can be done. I therefore hope you will watch the work in every corner of the nation. Feel free to criticize. Tell me of instances where work can be done better, or where improper practices prevail.” He called the effort “the most comprehensive work plan in the history of the nation” with “two hundred and fifty or three hundred kinds of work that will be undertaken.”3

Ideologically Based Opposition

Effective work projects and vigorous self-policing efforts would not be sufficient to curb criticisms attributable to entrenched attachments to right-wing and left-wing ideology, however. While ideologues at both ends of the political spectrum would regularly condemn the program, the harshest attacks tended to derive from the right and were expressed as propaganda. Some partisan leaders used the term “conservative” to refer to an attachment to a set of assumptions regarding the role of government. Regardless of the nature or extent of social or economic crisis, such partisans bristled at the prospect of a government program employing millions of Americans. Even those who were more open to the program – such as congressional democrats who used the term “Conservative” to refer to deeply held assumptions and beliefs – feared that it would be impossible to wean employees from jobs created by the WPA once workers became accustomed to them.4

Although criticism from the left counterbalanced the generally harsher attacks coming from the right, opposition from the left could also be extreme, and would sometimes be violently acted out. Some union organizers feared that the WPA threatened their ability to organize workers and increase wages. In several instances, Unions disrupted WPA schedules. Strikers threw stones at men working on a Lower East Side housing project in New York and in Jasper, Alabama, a WPA driver was peppered with birdshot as he prepared to drive a truckload of workers to a job that had shut down.5

Corrosive Impacts of Attachment to Ideology

While almost all of the WPA projects were managed effectively, there were several “boondoggles” that were highly publicized by right-wing ideological critics of the program. In other cases, deeply entrenched leftist ideological convictions internal to managers and workers within the WPA hampered the program’s effectiveness. The latter problem was nowhere more evident than in the WPA Writer’s project, where ideologues who were “love-struck by various forms of left-wing thinking” crippled many projects. The following description reflects the corrosive culture that persistently plagued the writer’s projects:

“(I)deological arguments raged in the big city project offices where writers tended to be concentrated. Many of them were love-struck by various forms of left-wing thinking, from anti-fascism and socialism to the communist party and beyond…The communists moved in on the projects very quickly”…They were quick to organize and prone to strike – and most of all, they were dizzily attached to their pet interpretations of radical ideology. The poet Harry Roskolenko, a Trotskyite, called the NY project ‘more of a Leftist five-ring circus than a fertile field for thought about research and writing’…In Boston, the novelist and poet Conrad Aiken who took a relief job on the Massachusetts project, quit after five months of coping with Marxist editors who objected that his work stressed American individualism rather than collective achievement. When ideologically driven workers didn’t work and were fired for not working, they were quick to charge that it was their politics, not their idleness, that was to blame. All supervisors could do was to try and stay above the fray. The left-wing poet and newspaperman Orrick Johns got the job as second direct of the NY project by convincing administrators that it took a radical to oversee radicals, but even he couldn’t bring about a productive peace between the factions. That the writer’s project had nothing to show for its first few months was enough to prompt attacks.”6

Many Congressmen Behaved Destructively

“A government agency, supported by the public funds, has become a parcel of the Communist Party”

Representative J Parnell Thomas

The undisciplined and conflict-laden writer’s workplaces were used as ammunition by right-wing politician’s hostile to the program. When the House Unamerican Activities Committee declared war on these projects in 1938, the administration and the WPA were unprepared. In the words of one commentator, the program’s sponsors “failed to take the (ideological) opposition seriously until it was too late.”. Although none of the testimony that the committee heard was substantiated, none of it was contradicted by opposing witnesses. The committee produced a “Parade of colorful and high-strung crackpots and the fantasies they related produced a bumper crop of headlines…hearings rapidly degenerated into anti-Communist hysteria, paranoid rantings, and political and personal score settling.” 7. The Public Opinion Quarterly characterized the hearings against the projects as a “riot of false accusations, publicity ploys, and grandstanding” by “vigilantes, political stool pigeons, labor spies, anti-Semites, Nazi-sympathizers and criminals”.8

The False Content of Criticism

“When people talked about you, you know, leaning on the shovel, well, we did a lot of work. And a whole lot of hard work. It wasn’t no different than no other job. You earned the money.”9

WPA Worker

Almost all the content of the criticism levelled against the WPA was false. Propagandists were inclined to create narratives that involved lazy and unscrupulous workers interested in bilking the system. Yet most workers were conscientious, and diligence was the norm, not the exception.10

The vast majority of the projects ran effectively, efficiently and were free of scandal. But propagandists tended to focus on a small number of projects that were poorly planned and that had to be abandoned, such as the Ocala Canal, in Florida, and a system of dams in Northern Maine.11 The term “boondoggle” became a favorite word for enemies of the project. Favorite targets of the ideologues included animal shelters, veterinary hospitals, flood control dikes, art programs, and city-wide park improvement programs.12

Success Despite Hostility

By the time antagonism towards the program culminated in the systemic dissemination of hostile propaganda, the WPA had accomplished it goals. When the WPA ended in 1938, the unemployment rate had decreased to levels present prior to the Great Depression and most workers employed by the WPA easily transitioned to work created by the need to mobilize against the threat of Nazi Germany.

Despite the attacks, Hopkins’ never wavered in his commitment to providing Americans with meaningful work.13 Although numerous WPA projects remain viable throughout America to this day, the enduring significance of the WPA also resides in the principles that it demonstrated:

  • The prevention of poverty is as important as its amelioration, but the security of a job paying a living wage is more important than either;
  • Work optimally serves an enduring socially useful purpose;
  • Work projects must be self-policing to prevent fraud, malfeasance, and corruption;
  • Criticism – particularly ideologically-driven attacks – must be anticipated and proactively militated against. Even when such efforts are undertaken, some hostility and criticism will persist, regardless of the projects’ success.


  1. Taylor, Nick. American-Made. The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work. Bantam Books, New York. 2008. Page 182.
  2. Ibid, pages 218.
  3. Ibid, page 171.
  4. Ibid, page 134.
  5. Ibid, page 198.
  6. Ibid, page 296.
  7. Ibid, page 396.
  8. Ibid, page 413.
  9. Ibid, page 319.
  10. Ibid, page 126-127.
  11. Ibid, page 206-207.
  12. Ibid, page 216-217.
  13. Hopkins, June. Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1999. Page 204.

2 thoughts

  1. I knew a fair amount about the WPA before reading your piece, but nothing about how the program was viewed from a political perspective. It seems to be a highly relevant topic from two perspectives: I gathered from several things the president elect has said, we will be embarking on a WPA like project, much of it to address a tanking economy. WPA had a well regarded art component which was crucial to feed the soul of a country hurting from a serious depression. Much of it focused on the dignity of hard working people.

  2. Thank you for your thoughts ! As noted in another article about the WPA on this site – “Principles and Key Projects” – one of the most enchanting aspects of the WPA was the degree to which its leaders recognized the importance of beauty and the people and conditions that conduced to its creation. Artists were employed in jobs that were commensurate with their talents and skills, as Hopkins recognized that it made no sense to employ third-rate laborers when one could instead employ the creativity of first-rate artists to create beautiful and functional public spaces.

    One can only help our leaders develop the necessary vision and skills, and, once this is accomplished, develop our people’s capacity to cooperate with them.

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