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Public Works Administration

The Public Works Administration of 1933 was a New Deal agency that made contracts with private firms to construct of public works. It was headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act on June 16, 1933. It was budgeted several billion dollars to be spent on the construction of public works as a means of providing employment, stabilizing purchasing power, improving public welfare, and contributing to a revival of American industry. Simply put, it was designed to spend "big bucks on big projects."

Frances Perkins had first suggested a federally financed public works program, and the idea received considerable support from Harold Ickes, James Farley, and Henry Wallace. After having scaled back the initial cost of the PWA, Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to include the PWA as part of his New Deal reforms.

More than any other New Deal program, the PWA epitomized the Rooseveltian notion of "priming the pump" to encourage economic growth. Between July 1933 and March 1939 the PWA funded the construction of more than 34,000 projects including airports, electricity-generating dams, aircraft carriers; and 70% of the new schools and 1/3 of the hospitals built between 1933-1939. It also electrified the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, DC. The PWA did not create as much affordable housing as supporters would have hoped, building only 25,000 units of in 4 years.

The PWA spent over $6 billion, but did not succeed in returning the level of industrial activity to pre-Depression levels. Nor did it significantly reduce the unemployment level or help jumpstart a widespread creation of small businesses. Roosevelt, personally opposed to deficit spending, refused the spend the sums necessary to accomplish these goals. Nonetheless, the historical legacy of the PWA is perhaps as important as its practical accomplishments at the time. It provided the federal government with its first systematic network for the distribution of funds to localities, ensured that conservation would remain an element in the national discussion, and provided federal administrators with a broad amount of badly needed experience in public policy planning.

When Roosevelt moved industry toward war production and abandoned his opposition to deficit spending, the PWA became irrelevant and was abolished in June 1941.


As of this writing (January 20, 2003), most of the text of this article was copied from the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site operated by the National Parks Service and placed into the public domain. The original authors cite the following sources:

Graham, Otis L., and Meghan Robinson Wander eds. Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, 336-337.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York, Harper and Row, 133-34.