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Works Progress Administration

WPA project in Mayetta from Kansas Memory

Swimming pools, libraries, courthouses, bridges, and other public buildings are still-visible examples of the Works Progress Administration story in Kansas. But there’s more to the story that isn’t as easy to see when driving along Main Street. The WPA also promoted education and preserving and sharing culture.

In the 1930s America faced a crisis. The stock market had crashed, causing many to lose everything they had. Unemployment went through the roof, and many lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their hope. To make matters worse the Midwest wasn’t receiving the rain it required to feed the nation. For farm families in Kansas and other plains states, eroding topsoil created a “dustbowl” where crops failed to thrive. Between a bleak economic outlook and monstrous dust storms rolling across the state, these were figuratively and literally dark times in Kansas.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration in 1935 as part of his New Deal. He thought to provide relief to citizens by putting people to work on public projects. In this way people would be employed, and the country would be improved. More than $11 billion was spent building highways, roads, bridges, and public buildings. In addition to revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure, Roosevelt wanted the WPA to give Americans “a more abundant life” with “the first completely democratic art movement in history.” WPA cultural programs employed writers, performers, musicians, actors, and artists who created more than 15,000 pieces of public art in the first six months of the program.

In Kansas WPA cultural and educational programs included classes on literacy, vocational training, housekeeping, citizenship, and parenting. These classes helped Kansans learn new skills to better their lives, and their employment prospects. It also gave them something to focus on, beyond the tough times in their lives. Public art appeared on buildings and libraries flourished. Some projects, like bookmobiles, recreation programs, and hot school lunches became a core part of our culture and exist still today.

As the nation entered World War II, WPA war service programs directly supported the war effort and defense health and welfare programs focused on those at home. Recreation centers in the eastern half of the state provided entertainment for soldiers stationed at Forts Riley and Leavenworth. Childcare centers and nursery schools were opened near industrial centers to provide assistance for working mothers.

At its peak, the WPA employed more than 50,000 Kansans and three million people within the U.S. However, the demand for workers created by the war, along with the draft and enlistments, nearly wiped out unemployment in the nation and the WPA was terminated in June 1943.

Whether the WPA was successful in accomplishing its goals is debatable, but the stories told by the buildings, documents, and historic images are a valuable part of our cultural heritage. Many of the works created from WPA projects have made our homes and communities what they are today.


Entry: Works Progress Administration

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2010

Date Modified: April 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.