Better Housing

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Better Housing

The Solution to Infant Mortality in the Slums


By: Anthony Velonis

Date: 1940

Source: © Corbis.

About the Artist: Anthony Velonis (1911–1997) was a master silkscreen printer and painter who created a number of posters for the Federal Art Project branch of the WPA during the Depression. This photograph is part of the collection of the Corbis Corporation, headquartered in Seattle, with a worldwide archive of over seventy million images.


The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was a Depression-era government program created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 and headed up by Harry L. Hopkins. The WPA incorporated a broad extension of Herbert Hoover's Emergency Relief and Construction Act of 1932 and Roosevelt's 1933 Federal Emergency Relief Act programs. The project was designed to create work and income for the unemployed—particularly unskilled blue collar workers and artists, musicians, and writers. Most projects were in construction, building, or repairing necessary structures across the country, such as highways, airports, sewers, public libraries, and recreational areas. Projects in the arts included theater productions, concerts, the painting of murals, and the Federal Writers Project. WPA employment was designed to provide relief until the economy recovered, and at its highest level, in November 1938, employed 3.3 million workers. In families with more than one person of working age, only one of them could work for the WPA, the idea being to provide some relief to as many households as possible. Workers' pay was based on their skills, region of the country, and how urban the area was, making anywhere from nineteen to ninety-four dollars per month for up to thirty hours of work per week. Although the president initiated the program, Congress financed it. Once World War II began, and unemployment dropped significantly due to wartime projects, the WPA was no longer necessary, and Congress ended it in 1943.



See primary source image.


A significant part of the WPA was the design and creation of a series of posters that had the twofold purpose of providing work for artists during the Depression and of advertising the many different government-sponsored programs and projects available at the time, ranging from theatrical productions to educational programs to community activities and health and safety programs. The posters were first done by hand, then created as silk screens, woodcuts, or lithographs, and sometimes were signed by the artist. Anthony Velonis perfected the mass production of the posters in 1936. Predating the WPA by a year, the New York Mayor's Poster Project was part of the Civil Works Administration and served as an inspiration for the national version of the program.

The Depression era and the height of the WPA's productivity coincided with a movement to change the state of housing in the United States, particularly in large cities such as New York. It began with the movement to cease groundless evictions, which became particularly important as unemployment numbers rose and people despaired of making ends meet. After that, there were protests in favor of public housing and wartime rent control and for better conditions in what was essentially slum housing. The first public housing projects were built, advertised by the WPA as a safer, cleaner, healthier option that would, among other things, help lessen the high infant mortality rate of the day. Tenant organizations also began to grow in number and power. Under left-wing guidance, particularly that of the Communist party, tenants drifted away from mass protests and toward organizations of professional advocates. Additionally, the building of new public housing provided much-needed employment for both skilled and unskilled workers.

New Deal relief programs contributed to the overall decline in infant mortality during the latter part of the Depression. At the start of the 1930s, unemployment was over twenty percent and, even after the WPA and other programs were implemented, never dipped below ten percent until the economy began to recover. Logically, a decline in income leads to increases in poverty, and food, medical care, and housing become scarcer, leading to a greater risk of disease and even death, particularly for the very young and the elderly. Poor nutrition during pregnancy also leads to an increased number of miscarriages, stillbirths, and infants born prematurely or without the strength to survive. As social welfare programs were expanded and new ones introduced, the infant mortality rate improved. While the number of deaths still varied widely depending on the geographical region of the country, infant mortality lessened noticeably between the early 1930s and the implementation of the New Deal programs, such as the WPA. It is possible that, since the infant mortality rate was already dropping prior to the Depression, the New Deal programs merely assisted it in resuming its downward trend in the wake of the most serious Depression years, but it is equally possible that the New Deal programs unto themselves were useful in fighting back the effects of poor housing and nutrition.



Denoon, Christopher. Posters of the WPA. University of Washington Press, 1987.

Kirst, Sean. Popular Relief: The WPA Years. City Newspaper, 1985.

Macmahon, Arthur Whittier, Millett, John David, and Ogden, Gladys. The Administration of Federal Work Relief (FDR and the Era of the New Deal). Da Capo Press, 1971.

Web sites

Environmental Protection Agency. "Indicator: Infant Mortality." <> (accessed May 27, 2006).

Fishback, Price V., Michael R. Haines, and Shawn Kantor "Births, Deaths, and New Deal Relief During the Great Depression." Princeton University. September 2005. < citypanel29.pdf> (accessed May 27, 2006).

Naison, Mark. "From Eviction Resistance to Rent Control Tenant Activism in the Great Depression." Tenant Net: The Tenant Movement in New York City, 1904–984. < html> (accessed May 27, 2006).