Works Progress Administration

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The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by Executive Order in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal effort to continue relief efforts during the Great Depression. The program was wracked with croniism and favoritism and is regarded by many as a waste of effort which may have actually worked to prolong the Great Depression.[1]

Misuse of Federal funds to give jobs and buy elections


In the 1938 election Senator Alben Barkley was being opposed for the Democratic nomination in the primary in Kentucky by "Happy" Chandler, then governor of the state. During the election grave charges were made in the Scripps­Howard newspapers about the manner in which WPA workers in Kentucky were being forced to support the administration candidate. A special Senate committee investigated the charges. [2]

In the first WPA district of Kentucky, one WPA official went to work on Governor Chandler. He took his orders from the administration political headquarters in Kentucky. He put nine WPA supervisors and 340 WPA timekeepers on government time to work preparing elaborate forms for checking on all the reliefers in the district. Having done this they then proceeded to check up on the 17,000 recipients who were drawing relief money to see how they stood on the election.

In the second WPA district, another WPA official who was the area engineer, managed a thorough canvass of the workers in Pulaski and Russell counties. The WPA foremen were given sheets upon which they had to report on the standing of the reliefers in the political campaign. It became a part of the WPA organization in Kentucky to learn how many of the down­ people on government relief had devotion to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The reliefers were asked to sign papers pledging themselves to the election of the senior senator from Kentucky. They were given campaign buttons and told to wear them and there were instances where, if they refused, they were thrown off the WPA rolls.

This occurred in a Democratic primary election where only Democrats could vote. But there were a lot of poor Republicans in Kentucky who couldn't vote in the Democratic primary so long as they were Republicans. So they were told to change their registration and become Democrats, or no WPA jobs for them.

A lady employed in the Division of Employment in WPA District 4 in Kentucky got a letter from the project superintendent asking her for a contribution to the Barkley Campaign Committee. A district supervisor of employment in District 4 told her that the election was drawing near and that she might be criticized if she did not contribute since she was employed on WPA, that she should be in sympathy with the program and be loyal and he stated also that he was a Republican but he was going to change his registration. Then he told her she would be permitted to contribute if she liked in the amount of two per cent of her salary. Letters went out from the superintendent to practically all of the reliefers. The assistant supervisor of the WPA, who got $175 a month, sent a check for $42.50 as a result of this letter and another getting $1800 a year gave $30.

Here is a sample of the letter sent out. It was from the project superintendent for whom these people worked:

"We know that you, as a friend of the National Administration, are anxious to see Senator Barkley reelected as he has supported the President in all New Deal legislation ... If Senator Barkley is nominated and elected by a large majority there is definite possibility of his being the candidate of the Democratic party in 1940. Think what this would mean for Kentucky.
"We know you will appreciate the opportunity of being given a chance to take an active part in reelecting Senator Barkley by making a liberal contribution towards his campaign expenses. Such contribution is actually underwriting a continuance of New Deal policies."

Reliefers were allowed to pay on the installment plan. The letter went on:

"As the enclosed subscription blank indicates, you may pay one­half of your contribution now and the balance by July 16."

Worker after worker testified that he received the above letter or one like it and had made contributions in proportion to the pay he was getting, usually about two per cent.

In Pennsylvania, where Senator Joe Guffey presided over the destinies of the Democratic party, the story was much the same. Men who supplied trucks to WPA were solicited for $100 each in Carbon County. The owners of the trucks were requested by WPA officials to visit representatives of certain political leaders at their homes. Ten or twelve at a time went and many of them contributed. In Lucerne County it was the same. They were told to call at Democratic headquarters and make their contributions. In Montgomery County, the WPA workers got letters stating that at the direction of the senator from Pennsylvania (Guffey) and the state committeeman, a joint meeting of WPA workers would be held on a certain date and they were told "there will be no excuse accepted for lack of attendance."

The evidence showed that WPA workers in this county, including timekeepers and poor women on sewing projects, were requested and ordered to change their registration from Republican to Democratic and in many cases those who refused were fired. There was testimony that there were a number of Republicans on the WPA project near Wilkes Barre. They lived in Wilkes Barre and they thought they had a right to continue to be Republicans. They soon discovered that the right had vanished when they became wards of the New Deal and as punishment, 18 were transferred from the project near Wilkes Barre to a project 35 or 40 miles from their homes because they refused to discard their Republican buttons.


In Pennsylvania [3]

 work­cards were issued by the Party entitling the recipients to employment on the state highways and these were distributed by political groups. Some of these cards entitled the holders to employment "for two to four weeks around election time." In one county, from September, 1935 to September, 1938, the WPA spent more than $27,000,000 on highways. 

A man in Plymouth, Pa., was given a white­collar relief job before election at $60.50 a month. He was told to change his registration from Republican to Democratic. He refused and very soon found himself transferred ­from a white­collar job to a pick­axe job on a rock pile in a quarry. There he discovered others on the rock pile who had refused to change their registration.


It was the same in Tennessee where the WPA was lighting a fire under Governor Browning. [4] Reliefers who were for Browning ­if it could be proved ­were excommunicated from the payroll. They were asked for contributions ­of two per cent. One man was asked to put up $5. He didn't have it. He was summoned the next day. The collector had decided to reduce his tribute to $3. He didn't have that. He was told to get it. He had to borrow it. Another, assessed twice before, rebelled. "You don't have to pay," he was told, "but if you don't you'll have a hell of a time getting on the WPA." African-Americans on relief were made to put up 25 and 50 cents.


In Cook County, Illinois, where Kelly and Nash carried the New Deal banner, 450 men were employed in one election district and dismissed the day after election. Seventy reported to do highway work and were told to go to their voting precincts and canvass for votes for the Horner­Courtney­Lucas ticket. These 450 men cost $23,268. All of them had their work­cards initialed by the campaign manager in Northern Illinois for the Horner­Courtney­Lucas ticket.

This investigation covered four states. There is not the slightest doubt, however, that what happened in these four states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Illinois, happened in greater or lesser degree in most of the states of the Union. Of course these jobs were done by men in the field while Mr. Hopkins sat in Washington and pretended to be quite innocent of it all. Indeed, after the findings of the committee were made public, Hopkins declared he had made his own investigation and denied all the charges. But the committee said: "After still further investigation of its own, it adhered to its own findings." It also called attention to an address made by Aubrey Williams, Mr. Hopkins' chief deputy administrator, at a big WPA conference on June 27, 1938, in which he said: "We've got to stick together; we've got to keep our friends in power."


  1. More about the WPA. Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. 1 April 2007.
  2. Facts relating to the 1938 election activities of the WPA are taken from the official report of the U. S. Senate Committee on Campaign Expenditures, quoted in The Roosevelt Myth, John T. Flynn, Fox and Wilkes, 1948, Book 1, Ch. 6, Harry the Hop and the Happy Hot Dogs
  3. Records on Relief, Time magazine, Oct. 19, 1936,
  4. "People Would Be Shocked!", Time magazine, Aug. 08, 1938.