WPA was an Early Experiment with Workfare

The Works Progress Administration—the WPA, along with the NRA, the FERA and the FWP was one of the "alphabet soup" agencies that distinguished the administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was also an early experiment in making welfare recipients work for their checks.

The idea was simple. During the Great Depression, tens of millions were out of work, millions were hungry. Communist agitators were proclaiming the death of capitalism, the more radical calling for outright revolution—even as early as 1928, the Communist Party won nearly 200 votes from disgusted and disillusioned Otter Tail County residents. Discontent was rising all across America. President Roosevelt—believing he must forestall social unrest—vowed to act. People would need government financial assistance in order to survive, but he correctly believed outright cash welfare was "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." The WPA seemed a compromise between foundering private enterprise and outright welfare.

It worked like this: Any level of government—township, county, or state—could assess a need and supply materials. The Federal government would provide wages averaging $75 per month to unemployed carpenters, masons, laborers (and in some cases writers and artists) to work on projects for the public good. Between 1935 and 1942, the WPA employed over eight million Americans. Across Minnesota, the resulting numbers are impressive—20,000 miles of new roads, 500 bridges, 21,000 culverts, 70 miles of retaining walls, 1000 schools, 40 stadiums, 400 miles of sewer line. In Otter Tail County alone, some two thousand took home WPA paychecks. The WPA built much of the State Hospital and the county fairgrounds in Fergus Falls, many of Maplewood Township’s roads, the first addition to the Rothsay school. In Pelican Rapids, WPA workmen labored to construct the long stone retaining wall along 5th Street SE and the city’s first sewer plant, that for nearly fifty years arguably performed better than its troublesome replacement does today.

Ironically, Otter Tail County’s farmers initially fell through the cracks in government concern. After all—the government reasoned—farmers owned property, which technically kept them from being destitute. Indeed, in the first few years of the Great Depression, farmers were envied by their city cousins. At least a farmer could eat out of the garden and poach an occasional deer for fresh meat. But by the mid 1930’s, the predictable near extinction of the local deer herd and a severe drought reduced many farmers to feeding their children unsalted cornmeal mush and boiled muskrats. By 1936, unpaid property tax left Otter Tail County with nearly three quarters of a million dollar revenue shortfall. Helpless to aid suffering farmers, the county commission successfully petitioned farmers inclusion in the WPA.

Some farmers were put to work improving roads immediately adjacent to their property—so they might also continue their daily chores. Others went to work on an ambitious program sponsored by the WPA and the Minnesota Department of Conservation—the forerunner of today’s DNR—to restore drought ravaged Otter Tail County lakes. Farmers were planting corn on what was once the bottom of Lake Alice in Dora Township. On Pelican Lake, tourists were playing badminton where they used to catch northern pike. Since the department thought it difficult to communicate the economic impact of local tourism, they stressed the value of water for municipal and agricultural use, contributing $485,000 to restore 63 lakes and clean up the Pelican and Otter Tail rivers. The WPA supplied wages for an estimated 585 man-years of labor. The low concrete dams that still control water levels on Pelican, Lizzie, Long, and Stalker lakes are all legacy of that effort.

In spite of it’s impressive accomplishments, the WPA did not meet with universal approval. A skeptical senator buttonholed WPA administrator Harry Hopkins in a capitol corridor and demanded consideration of the program’s long-term negative effects. "Senator," Hopkins was reputed to have said, "people have the bad habit of eating in the short-term." Locals—noting the inactivity of some participants—dubbed the WPA the "We Piddle Around." A well-worn joke went thus: Lars reported to a WPA site. A moment later he was complaining to a foreman. He did not have a shovel like the others. The foreman did not understand since the others weren’t working. "I know," Lars said, "but I deserve something to lean on, too." The editor of the Perham Enterprise Bulletin was considerably more direct when asked if he could handle a couple of WPA clerks sent to index back issues of his paper. "Shooting is the only profitable way of handling them."

The WPA was undeniably an early example of bureaucracy run amok—"too wide, too tall, too broad" the Daily Journal complained, "too heavy...with no administrator having authority to do more than collect his pay." Results were predictable—confusion, wasted effort, conflicting orders from Washington, St. Paul, and the Detroit Lakes district office—and, of course, five carbon copies of every document on onion skin paper. Local politicians chafed over a wage scale that paid outstate workers less than their counterparts in the Twin Cities, since "everybody knows a skilled worker in Minneapolis is not as smart as an Otter Tail County farmer."

But for all its shortcomings, the WPA put the money where it was most needed, into the pockets of working class Minnesotans. And the infrastructure it created—the roads, bridges, the parks, the schools, facilitated rural Minnesota’s belated entry into the Twentieth Century.

~Roger Pinckney