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Defining Moments

The WPA—Putting America to Work

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In the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the boldest initiatives ever undertaken to address mass unemployment and relieve the hardship and hopelessness that accompany job loss. That initiative, combined with other reforms and programs of the New Deal, stirred a heated debate that revolved around a central question: what role, if any, should the government play in helping those in need? This question has remained at the heart of many political deliberations in America, especially during periods of high unemployment and economic recession. The history and legacy of the WPA continue to be examined by those seeking to address economic difficulties and social problems in the 21st century.

Defining Moments: The WPA—Putting America to Work provides users with a detailed and authoritative overview of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the centerpiece of the New Deal programs put in place by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The volume details the impact of the Great Depression on the American people and the early relief programs of the New Deal era; it explain the origins, mission, and operations of the WPA, as well as its emergence as a flashpoint in the nation’s political battles of the late 1930s and early 1940s; and it examines the legacy of the WPA on American politics and culture.

The volume is organized into three distinct sections—Narrative Overview, Biographies, and Primary Sources—which offer a one-stop resource for student research.

  • The Narrative Overview section provides a detailed, factual account of what led up to the creation of the WPA, the events and issues during the era, and its legacy in American society
  • The Biographies section presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the WPA
  • The Primary Sources section collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era, including official documents, speeches, first-hand accounts, memoirs, editorials, and other important works

Other notable features include a glossary of important people, places, and terms; a detailed chronology featuring page references to relevant sections of the narrative; an annotated listing of selected sources for further study; an extensive general bibliography; and a subject index.

Standard Features

  • Library binding, 7 1/4 x 9 1/4
  • 240 pages
  • 30-40 photographs and other illustrations
  • Narrative Overview section: Provides a detailed, factual account of the “defining moment”
  • Biographies section: Presents valuable biographical background on leading figures associated with the event
  • Primary Sources section: Collects a wide variety of pertinent primary source materials from the era
  • Research Topics: Proposes a list of topics suitable for conducting historical research and writing reports, a valuable starting point for student research
  • Source Attribution: Contains references for primary sources and other quoted material that guide users to other historical research resources
  • Glossary of Important People, Places, and Terms: Gives brief definitions for the many terms used in the book
  • Chronology: Highlights the related events in chronological order, along with “see” references that direct the reader to pages in the narrative with additional information
  • Sources for Further Study: Provides annotated citations for selected sources that are most useful to students
  • Bibliography: Lists books, periodicals, web sites, and videos consulted in preparing the volume
  • Subject Index: Includes people, places, organizations, events, and other topics

Research Topics

Each volume in the Defining Moments series covers a wide range of topics that students can use as starting points for further research. Potential research topics for Defining Moments: The WPA—Putting America to Work are below:

  • Discuss the dramatically different approaches to combating the Great Depression taken by Hoover and Roosevelt and explore how these policies reflected their respective political philosophies
  • Explain the difference between direct relief and work relief, and propose reasons why Roosevelt shifted his emphasis from the former to the latter over time
  • Given the wide range of new agencies created by the Roosevelt administration to get Americans back to work and to revive the economy, select the agency that you would most liked to have worked for and explain why
  • Defend or oppose the viewpoint of WPA Director Harry Hopkins, who said that the agency’s first priority was to get Americans back to work and that employing them on “the best possible projects” was a “secondary objective”
  • Identify a public works project that was created in your area by the WPA during the Depression and tell the story of its history, including when and where was it built; how much it cost; how it changed the community; if it is still being used; and its general reputation today
  • Study the wide range of employment programs specifically designed for musicians, artists, writers, and actors and argue whether people engaged in artistic careers deserve the same level of assistance as people engaged in more mainstream lines of work
  • Propose five main lines of inquiry about WPA operations and policies for the House Un-American Activities Committee’s cross-examination of Harry Hopkins—five questions for a committee member to ask Hopkins, and five points for Hopkins to emphasize in testimony before the committee
  • Research and debate whether the government has the right to censor taxpayer-funded art for controversial political content (as it did with The Cradle Will Rock), or whether such restrictions unduly interfere with artistic and constitutional freedoms
  • Identify more recent examples of taxpayer-funded art that generated similar controversies and investigate the reason for the controversy and the effects of any censorship


“A solid survey of the Works Progress Administration and the Great Depression in general. The book places the WPA in historical context, giving readers background on the hardships and realities of the period and the difficult political decisions that had to be made following the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929. … This volume is a well-sourced and great reference for historical research.”

—School Library Journal, Feb ’14

“A seminal work that is very strongly recommended for both academic and community library 20th Century American History collections.”

—Midwest Book Review, Aug ‘14

“A well-organized, balanced, and approachable reference source for its intended audience.”

—American Reference Books Annual, 2014