Unemployment and the WPA in Seattle

The stock market crash of 1929 plunged the country into a depression, shattering the economy. President Hoover considered relief a local responsibility and rejected a federal public-works program in 1931, focusing instead on banks and industry. In 1932, he agreed to authorize a small amount for local self-liquidating public works projects and to lend money to supplement local relief funds. President Hoover's efforts, however, did not earn him the confidence of the public. With growing unemployment and a spreading depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1933 with over 57 percent of the popular vote and carried the Electoral College 472 to 59.

One of Roosevelt's campaign promises was to address economic hardships of the American people, promising a "new deal for the American people." In his first 100 days, he introduced and Congress approved 15 major pieces of legislation establishing New Deal agencies and programs. President Roosevelt initially focused on recovery programs for agricultural and industry. Unemployment relief programs were introduced early in Roosevelt's administration. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) combined conservation with unemployment, using young men in rural areas to work on projects protecting and developing reservoirs, watersheds, forests, and parks. In the Pacific Northwest, thousands of jobs were created through the CCC building Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River.

In 1931, in Seattle, there were thousands of unemployed workers. Many unemployed lost their housing and built shacks for shelter, forming "Hooverville" along the waterfront and clusters of shacktowns elsewhere in the City. Groups of makeshift housing were called "Hoovervilles," ridiculing President's Hoover's unsuccessful attempts to alleviate unemployment. The unemployed organized to seek relief, forming the Unemployed Citizens' League in 1931, stating the objectives of employment, self-help, unemployment insurance and direct relief in their constitution. Mayor Harlin appointed a Mayor's Commission for Improved Employment in 1931 to coordinate and supplement public and private relief resources. The City contributed work relief funds for park improvements and other public works.

The Unemployed Citizens' League and the Commission for Improved Employment, joined together as the Local District Relief Organization which began working with King County in 1932. The County and the City provided direct relief by paying for various kinds of work, including: sewing, shoe repair, wood cutting, the gardening and canning of berries, and clerical work. The name was changed from the Local District Relief Organization to King County Emergency Relief and offices moved to the City-County Building in late 1932; the League became less involved in this relief effort. The County continued to provide relief until 1933, when the State created a State Emergency Relief Administration with federal funding. Additional relief was provided by the Civil Works Administration (CWA). The Washington Emergency Relief Administration (WERA) provided relief in Seattle through work on parks and public works projects. The WERA was discontinued in 1935 with the introduction of the Works Progress Administration.

The largest work relief program President Roosevelt introduced was the Works Progress Administration (WPA), later renamed the Works Projects Administration. Its goal was to take over the burden of providing work for the able-bodied unemployed. By the fall of 1935, the WPA, nationally, employed over 2.5 million workers, spending over $2 billion. This work relief program paid a salary of approximately $40 per month and had employed over 8 million workers by the time it was dissolved in 1943. The "Federal One" Project, consisting of the Federal Art Project, Federal Writers' Project, Federal Theatre Project, Federal Music Project, and Historical Records Survey, provided work opportunities to professionals in the arts and culture. The WPA worked closely with local public agencies, including municipal governments.

In Seattle, work included sewer construction, parks improvement, various engineering projects, and recreation programs, among others. The WPA also employed women, but mostly for sewing, recreational, and clerical work. Many of Seattle's parks were improved by WPA workers, who participated in remodeling, painting, gardening, and construction projects. WPA engineers also surveyed and drafted plans for parks improvements. The WPA Division of Recreation and Education worked with the Parks Department on the staffing and supervision of several recreation centers throughout the city; the programs and classes were well-attended and included music, drama, dance, and sports. WPA funds were used at the county level to do topographical and property surveys, among other projects. WPA funds were phased out by 1943.

Documents

  • Excerpts from Mayor's Message to City Council (May 25, 1931)
  • Petition of Mayor relating to appropriation of aid for unemployed (October 17, 1931)
  • Report of Mayor's Commission for Improved Employment (October 13, 1931)
  • Protest of Central Unemployed Citizens League against system of hiring labor (May 27, 1932)
  • Protest of Downtown Local Unemployed Council against forced labor (January 14, 1935)
  • Letter from State of Washington Department of Public Welfare to Seattle Park Board (July 16, 1935)
  • Letter from Mayor to City Council relating to WPA projects (August 7, 1935)
  • Petition of unemployed workers for relief by employment (May 29, 1936)
  • Report of WPA on rates of pay, hours and conditions of employment (June 22, 1936)
  • Resolution of Workers' Alliance and Project Workers' Union regarding WPA pay increase (October 24, 1936)
  • Letter and report on Community Progress by Don F. Abel, State Administrator for WPA (January 9, 1937)
  • Seattle Park Department progress report on WPA projects (June 30, 1938)
  • Letter from W.C. Hall, Junior Park Engineer, to Don Abel, WPA Administrator (March 18, 1938)
  • Report of WPA park projects in Southern Division (April 25, 1939)

Bibliography

Berner, Richard C. Seattle 1921-1940: From Boom to Bust. Seattle: Charles Press, 1992.

Hillman, Arthur. The Unemployed Citizens' League of Seattle. University of Washington Publications in the Social Sciences, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 181-270, February 1934. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1934.

Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo. The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History. Chapter 18, "Depression Decade." Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996.

The National Experience, Fifth Edition. Chapter 27, "The New Deal." New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1981.

White, Richard. "It's your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. Chapter 17, "The Depression." Norman: University of Oklahoma, c. 1993.

Public Works Committee Records (Record Series 9560-01), Seattle Municipal Archives.

Photographs relating to WPA projects can be found in the Seattle Municipal Archives Photograph Index by using the search term "WPA."