Low Rent Homes for Low Income Families
Low Rent Homes for Low Income Families
Date: c. 1940
Source: Library of Congress. "By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1936–1943." 〈http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wpaposters/wpahome.html〉 (accessed July 23, 2006).
About the Author: The United States Library of Congress is the nation's official library, with responsibility for collecting and organizing historically significant documents, photographs, and digital media.
The Great Depression was one of the most trying eras in American history. Widespread unemployment, thousands of bank failures, and the collapse of the economy meant that even Americans desperate for work faced bleak prospects of finding employment. In a fundamental shift in government policy and citizen attitudes, President Roosevelt embarked on a massive social relief effort, making the federal government for the first time the insurer of last resort for American citizens. The Social Security System was among the major programs begun during the New Deal, and it went on to become the largest legacy of this massive effort to restart the economy and guarantee sustenance for citizens.
Roosevelt's first term had focused on creating a massive social safety net. Despite the scope of these efforts, however, the new programs failed to substantially improve economic conditions. In launching his second term, Roosevelt feared that continuing to simply distribute money to unemployed workers would keep them fed but would also demoralize them. To address this concern the Roosevelt Administration established the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935, which was renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939.
The WPA was tasked with hiring and coordinating labor to complete "small useful projects" throughout the nation. These projects encompassed a surprisingly diverse range of occupations, from man-ual labor and construction to art and writing. Federal Project Number One, a massive cultural development project sponsored by the WPA, included five separate efforts: the Federal Art Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the Historical Records Survey.
Federal One, as the project was nicknamed, would become the largest single federal initiative ever devoted solely to arts and culture, and within one year of its launch employed more than 40,000 artists and other employees. In addition to producing works of art, these employees also conducted thousands of art and music classes for other citizens and presented an average of 4,000 musical performances each month.
The WPA is most commonly remembered for its enormous construction projects. In a 1939 brochure the agency's director listed some of its accomplishments up to that date: 279,000 miles of roads built or improved, 29,000 new bridges constructed, 15,000 parks and athletic fields built or improved, 544 sewage treatment plants constructed, and 250,000 homes hooked into sanitary sewer systems. In addition, the WPA built more than 17,000 public buildings such as schools, post offices, and hospitals. Consistent with its underlying purpose of supporting poor families, the WPA limited its hiring almost entirely to heads of households, while single men received aid through other programs.
In 1939, the WPA began construction of a low-income housing project in Cleveland, Ohio. Valleyview Homes Estate included more than five hundred brick and concrete homes built at a total cost of $3.5 million. The neighborhood, designed as temporary housing for families displaced by the Depression, included a community center and offices, and featured murals and sculptures created by WPA artists.
LOW RENT HOMES FOR LOW INCOME FAMILIES
See primary source image.
As the Works Projects Administration expanded, it continued to spend the vast majority of its funds on salaries and other direct payments to workers, putting the bulk of its funding directly into beneficiaries' hands. In addition, with the WPA charged to invest in publicly beneficial projects that would not compete with private firms, its efforts frequently stimulated private sector spending as well, multiplying the local economic impact of WPA investment. By 1936, the agency employed approximately one-fourth of the nation's unemployed workers, and its immense popularity helped sweep President Roosevelt to a landslide reelection.
Critics of the WPA claimed that it was bureaucratic and inefficient in its operations, and they took steps to shrink it in the following years, limiting the length of time an individual could work for WPA and cutting wages. In response to the proposed wage cuts, several thousand WPA construction workers went on strike, though their efforts were unsuccessful. A 1939 Senate report harshly criticized the WPA and further bolstered the claims of the agency's critics. In the years leading up to and during World War II, the U.S. economy recovered and unemployment largely disappeared. In 1943, the Works Projects Administration was officially dissolved. During its lifetime the agency spent about $11 billion and employed a total of 8.5 million workers.
In the years since Valleyview Homes Estate opened in 1940, about half the houses were torn down due to disrepair or to make way for a highway project. In 2005, the remaining 240 homes in the neighborhood were demolished to make way for a new housing development funded by a $19.5 million federal housing grant. Several of the depression-era murals and other artistic creations remaining in Valleyview were salvaged prior to its demolition.
Becker, Heather, et al. Art for the People: The Rediscovery and Preservation of Progressive and WPA-Era Murals in the Chicago Public Schools, 1904–1943. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2002.
Denoon, Christopher. Posters of the WPA. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Hiler, Megan, et al. An Ornery Bunch: Tales and Anecdotes Collected by the WPA Montana Writers Project. New York: Falcon, 1999.
Taylor, Zanthe. "Singing for Their Supper: The Negro Units of the Federal Theater Project and Their Plays." Theater 27 (1997): 42-59.
Westbrook, Robert. "A Nice WPA Job." Dissent 53 (2006): 124-127.
Indiana University Lilly Library. "The Works Projects Administration in Indiana." 1996. 〈http://www.indiana.edu/∼liblilly/wpa/wpa.html〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).
National New Deal Preservation Association. "New Deal/WPA Art in Cleveland, Ohio." 2006. 〈http://www.wpamurals.com/cleveland.html〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).
University of Texas: THSA Online. "Works Project Administration." 2001. 〈http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/WW/ncw1.html〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).