Work Projects Administration (WPA) from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland

Work Projects Administration (WPA) from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland

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The WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION (WPA) in Cleveland provided needed income for a substantial portion of the city’s population as well as improving and developing the area’s transportation network, parks, and recreational facilities. The primary purpose of the WPA program, part of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act passed in April 1935, was to give employment to those on relief, the bulk of whom were unskilled. Cleveland’s unemployment averaged over 23% of the estimated labor force of 508,870 during the first half of 1935, and that increased when the Federal Emergency Relief Administration closed down almost 100 projects in July, putting an additional 7,000 workers on the direct relief rolls.

When the federal program began as the Works Progress Administration in the fall of 1935, municipal and county officials and the Metropolitan Park Board devised work projects, some of which required large capital outlays. Local plans had to be revised, however, when the federal government gave preference to less durable labor-intensive work-relief projects where the bulk of the money would be used for wages rather than materials or equipment. Although the federal government projected that some 40,000-50,000 people would be employed in Cuyahoga County by Nov. 1935, the program was not operational until mid-December. In order to qualify for jobs, workers on relief rolls had to be certified employable by the WPA, and eligible workers were assigned jobs on projects that had been planned locally and approved by Washington. The local sponsor was expected to pay 10% of the project’s cost (raised to 20% in Dec. 1936), and frequently this requirement was met by providing materials or equipment. However, there were not enough jobs for all those qualified, putting a burden on the local direct relief programs and heightening the conflicts between city and state officials over additional funds. Despite the inadequacies of WPA funding, Cleveland mayor HAROLD H. BURTON† was a staunch supporter of the New Deal program.

In the 6 years the program operated, WPA projects included airport and street improvements, development of Metropolitan parks and the city’s zoo, cultural gardens, parks, and recreation facilities. The first segment of the shoreway (I-90) and public-housing units for the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority were constructed. The WPA also sponsored federal arts projects which employed artists in local music, theater, writing, and art activities (see HISTORICAL RECORDS SURVEY). The number of available WPA jobs fluctuated during the period according to the size of the relief rolls and the amount of employment available in private industry. The number of WPA workers reached an all-time high of 78,000 in Oct. 1938 when local plants such as FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP. and Thompson Products (TRW) began calling back their employees; by Nov. 1939 local WPA employment had been reduced to 30,000. The business climate continued to improve during 1940-41 and by Mar. 1942 the program was phased out as the war effort drastically reduced the work relief rolls. A survey of the WPA in Cleveland showed that about 27% of Cleveland’s population (comprising workers and their families) benefited from the employment it provided.

Dunfee, C. Dennis. “Harold H. Burton, Mayor of Cleveland” (Ph.D. diss., Dept. of History, CWRU, 1975).

Green, Howard Whipple. Unemployment and Relief in Cleveland (1938)

Harold H. Burton Papers, WRHS.

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