Public Works Administration: Wikis


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PWA-funded construction site in Washington, D.C. in 1933.

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was a New Deal agency in the United States headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes. It was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933 in response to the Great Depression. It concentrated on the construction of large-scale public works such as dams and bridges, with the goal of providing employment, stabilize purchasing power, and contribute to a revival of American industry. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933-35, and again in 1938. The PWA was closed down in 1939.

The PWA spent over $6 billion, and helped to push industry back toward pre-Depression levels. It lowered unemployment and created an infrastructure that generated local pride in the 1930s and remains vital seven decades later. It was much less controversial than its rival agency the WPA, which focused on hiring the unemployed.[1]



Frances Perkins had first suggested a federally financed public works program, and the idea received considerable support from Harold L. Ickes, James Farley, and Henry Wallace. After having scaled back the initial cost of the PWA, Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to include the PWA as part of his New Deal proposals in the "Hundred Days" of spring 1933.[2]


The PWA headquarters in Washington planned projects, which were built by private construction companies hiring workers on the open market. Unlike the rival WPA, it did not hire the unemployed directly.

More than any other New Deal program, the PWA epitomized the liberal notion of "priming the pump" to encourage economic recovery. Between July 1933 and March 1939 the PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects including airports, large electricity-generating dams, major warships for the Navy, and bridges, as well as 70% of the new schools and one-third of the hospitals built between 1933-1939.

Streets and highways were the most common PWA projects, as 11,428 road projects, or 33% of all PWA projects, accounted for over 15% of its total budget. School buildings, 7,488 in all, came in second at 14% of spending. PWA functioned chiefly by making allotments to the various Federal agencies; making loans and grants to state and other public bodies; and making loans without grants (for a brief time) to the railroads. For example it provided funds for the Indian Division of the CCC to build roads, bridges and other public works on and near Indian reservations.

Fort Peck Dam in Montana; spillway construction. It is one of the largest dams in the world and continues to generate electricity; in July 1936 its construction employed 10,500 workers

The PWA became, with its "multiplier-effect" and first two-year budget of $3.3 billion (compared to the entire GDP of $60 billion), the driving force of America’s biggest construction effort up to that date. By June 1934 the agency had distributed its entire fund to 13,266 federal projects and 2,407 non-federal projects. For every worker on a PWA project, almost two additional workers were employed indirectly. The PWA accomplished the electrification of rural America, the building of canals, tunnels, bridges, highways, streets, sewage systems, and housing areas, as well as hospitals, schools, and universities; every year it used up roughly half of the concrete and one-third of the steel of the entire nation. [3]

Lincoln Tunnel.

Some of the most famous PWA projects are the Triborough Bridge and the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world along 6 1/2 miles of Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa, FL, and the Overseas Highway connecting Key West, Florida, to the mainland. The PWA also electrified the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, DC. At the local level it built courthouses, schools, hospitals and other public facilities that remain in use in the 21st century.[4]


The PWA was the centerpiece of the New Deal program for building public housing for the poor people in cities. However it did not create as much affordable housing as supporters would have hoped, building only 25,000 units of in 4½ years.[5]


Reeves (1973) argues that the competitive theory of administration used by Roosevelt produced inefficiency and delays. The competition over the size of expenditure, the selection of the administrator, and the appointment of staff at the state level, led to delays and to the ultimate failure of PWA as a recovery instrument. As director of the budget, Lewis Douglas overrode the views of leading senators in reducing appropriations to $3.5 billion and in transferring much of that money to other agencies in lieu of their own specific appropriations. The cautious and penurious Ickes won out over the more imaginative Hugh S. Johnson as chief of public works administration. Political competition between rival Democratic state organizations and between Democrats and Progressive Republicans led to delays in implementing PWA efforts on the local level. Ickes instituted quotas for hiring skilled and unskilled blacks in construction financed through the Public Works Administration (PWA). Resistance from employers and unions was partially overcome by negotiations and implied sanctions. Although results were ambiguous, the plan helped provide blacks with employment, especially among unskilled workers.[6]


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved industry toward war production, the PWA was abolished and its functions were transferred to the Federal Works Agency in June 1943.[7]

Contrast with WPA

The PWA should not be confused with its great rival the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, though both are part of the New Deal. The WPA, was headed by Harry Hopkins, and was ensnarled in debates about political patronage. In general the PWA projects were much larger in scope. The WPA hired only people on relief who were paid directly by the government. The PWA gave contracts to private forms who did all the hiring. The WPA also had youth programs (the NYA), projects for women, and arts projects that the PWA did not have.[8]

Further reading

  • Cam, Gilbert A. "United States Government Activity in Low-Cost Housing, 1932-38," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Jun., 1939), pp. 357-378; in JSTOR
  • Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. 1996. 414 pp.
  • Hunt, D. Bradford. "America: Lost Opportunities," Reviews in American History, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 637-642 in JSTOR on public housing
  • Kruman, Marie W. "Quotas for Blacks: the Public Works Administration and the Black Construction Worker." Labor History 1975 16(1): 37-51. Issn: 0023-656x Fulltext: in Ebsco
  • Lowry, Charles B. "The PWA in Tampa: A Case Study," Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 363-380 in JSTOR
  • Reeves, William D. "PWA and Competitive Administration in the New Deal." Journal of American History 1973 60(2): 357-372. in JSTOR
  • Smith, Jason Scott. Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2006), the major scholarly study
  • Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952. (1990). 1010 pp. biography

Primary sources

  • Ickes, Harold L. Back to Work: The Story of PWA (1935)
  • Ickes, Harold L. "The Place of Housing in National Rehabilitation," Journal of Land & Public Utility Economics, Vol. 11, No. 2 (May, 1935), pp. 109-116 in JSTOR
  • PWA, America Builds. The Record of PWA. 1939 online edition


  1. ^ Smith (2006)
  2. ^ Watkins (1990)
  3. ^ PWA (1939) p 221; George McJimsey, The Presidency of Franklin Delano Rooselvelt (2000)
  4. ^ Lowry (1974)
  5. ^ Hunt (1997); Cam (1939)
  6. ^ Kruman
  7. ^ "Executive Order 9357 - Transferring the Functions of the Public Works Administration to the Federal Works Agency." June 30, 1943. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters,The American Presidency Project. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database); Olson, James Stuart. Historical Dictionary of the Great Depression, 1929-1940. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. ISBN 0313306184
  8. ^ Smith (2006)

External links

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