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The PWA or Public Works Administration of 1933 was a part of the first New Deal, and operated 1933-1939. It was designed as a stimuls program for building large scale public works, such as major dame. It stood in contrast with the rival agency with similar initials the WPA, which built smaller projects and was more politicized. The PWA did not directly hire workers; it made contracts with private construction firms that did the actual work. The PWA was headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes, a leading liberal Democrat. It was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933 in the midst of the Great Depression. It allotted $3.3 billion 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. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933-35, and again in 1938. It was closed down in 1939.

collapse of private construction and dominant role of public works during the Great Depression

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 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 percent of all PWA projects, accounted for over 15 percent of 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. To alleviate unemployment the PWA set up the Civil Works Administration (CWA) for six moinths in 1933-34 that funded local government relief projects. Those projects were poorly planned, and often involved putting the unemployed to work on trivial "leaf-raking" projects so they could earn a paycheck, and obtain about the same cash and farm more dignity than a cash handout by the welfare office.

The PWA, not the rival WPA, is the model for the Obama stimulus proposals of 2009.

the "multiplier effect" as $1000 of new federal money is spent over and over

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.[1]

The PWA had its own administrative staff but all construction work was done by private contractors, who were urged—but not required—to hire the unemployed. 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 Harold 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.[2]

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. The PWA did not create as much affordable housing as supporters would have hoped, building only 25,000 units of in 4½ years. At the local level it built courthouses, schools, hospitals and other public facilities. In general its projects were larger in scope than its rival agency the WPA. 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 PWA organization chart, 1939; Ickes was the Administrator

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. For a more detailed treatment, see New Deal.

See also


  • Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. (1996). 414 pp.
  • 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
  • Reeves, William D. "PWA and Competitive Administration in the New Deal." Journal of American History 1973 60(2): 357-372. Issn: 0021-8723 in JSTOR
  • Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2006)
  • Lowry, Charles B. "The PWA in Tampa: A Case Study," Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Apr., 1974), pp. 363–380 in JSTOR
  • Watkins, T. H. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952. (1990). 1010 pp.

Primary sources

  • Harold L. Ickes, Back to Work: The Story of PWA (1935)
  • PWA, America Builds. The Record of PWA. 1939 online edition


  1. PWA (1939) p 221; George McJimsey, The Presidency of Franklin Delano Rooselvelt 2000;
  2. Kruman