Public Works Administration

Public Works Administration (PWA), part of the New Deal of 1933, was a large-scale public works construction 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 built large-scale public works such as dams, bridges, hospitals, and schools. Its goals were to spend $3.3 billion (about $10 per person in the U.S.) in the first year, and $6 billion (about $18 dollars per person in the U.S.) in all, to supply employment, stabilize buying power, and help revive the economy. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933–35, and again in 1938. Originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, it was renamed the Public Works Administration in 1935 and shut down in 1944.[1]

Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works project plaque in the Pine City, Minnesota City Hall
Public Works Administration Project and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructing Bonneville Power and Navigation Dam in Oregon.

The PWA spent over $7 billion (about $22 dollars per person in the U.S.) on contracts with private construction firms that did the actual work. It created an infrastructure that generated national and local pride in the 1930s and is still vital eight decades later. The PWA was much less controversial than its rival agency with a confusingly similar name, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), headed by Harry Hopkins, which focused on smaller projects and hired unemployed unskilled workers.[2]


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.[3]


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

The PWA headquarters in Washington planned projects, which were built by private construction companies hiring workers on the open market. Unlike the WPA, it did not hire the unemployed directly. More than any other New Deal program, the PWA epitomized the progressive 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 and 70% of the new schools and one-third of the hospitals built-in 1933–1939.

Streets and highways were the most common PWA projects, as 11,428 road projects, or 33% of all PWA projects, accounting 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. One of the largest dams in the world, it continues to generate electricity; in July 1936 its construction employed 10,500 workers.

The PWA became, with its "multiplier-effect" and a 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 consumed roughly half of the concrete and a third of the steel of the entire nation.[4] The PWA also electrified the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, DC.[5] At the local level it built courthouses, schools, hospitals and other public facilities that remain in use in the 21st century.[6]

List of most notable PWA projectsEdit

PWA Project and Army Corps of Engineers Lock & Dam #10 construction.
PWA Project and Army Corps of Engineers Lock & Dam #16 construction.


  • Detroit Sewage Disposal Project





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 29,000 units in 4+12 years.[12]

The PWA constructed the Williamsburg Houses in Brooklyn, NY, one of the first public housing projects in New York City.[13]


The PWA spent over $6 billion but did not succeed in returning the level of industrial activity to pre-depression levels.[14][15] Though successful in many aspects, it has been acknowledged that the PWA's objective of constructing a substantial number of quality, affordable housing units was a major failure.[14][15] Some have argued that because Roosevelt was opposed to deficit spending, there was not enough money spent to help the PWA achieve its housing goals.[14][15]

Reeves (1973) argues that Roosevelt's competitive theory of administration proved to be inefficient and produced 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 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 instead 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 black people 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 African Americans with employment, especially among unskilled workers.[16]


When President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved industry toward World War II production, the PWA was abolished and its functions were transferred to the Federal Works Agency in June 1943.[17]

Contrast with WPAEdit

The PWA should not be confused with its great rival the Works Progress Administration (WPA), though both were part of the New Deal. The WPA, headed by Harry Hopkins, engaged in smaller projects in close cooperation with local governments—such as building a city hall or sewers or sidewalks. The PWA projects were much larger in scope, such as giant dams. The WPA hired only people on relief who were paid directly by the federal government. The PWA gave contracts to private firms that did all the hiring on the private sector job market. The WPA also had youth programs (the NYA), projects for women, and art projects that the PWA did not have.[18][page needed]


  1. ^ National Archive. "Records of the Public Works Administration". 135.1.
  2. ^ Smith (2006)
  3. ^ Watkins (1990)
  4. ^ George McJimsey, The Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (2000) "PWA (1939)", p 221;
  5. ^ "P.R.R. WILL SPEND $77,000,000 AT ONCE; Atterbury Outlines Projects Under PWA Loan Giving Year's Work to 25,000. TO EXTEND ELECTRIC LINE Sees Buying Power Restored and Industry Stimulated by Wide Building Program", The New York Times, January 31, 1934, retrieved 2012-08-08
  6. ^ Lowry (1974)
  7. ^ "Pensacola Dam - Grand Lake OK - Living New Deal". 26 March 2015. Archived from the original on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 26 September 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  8. ^ ""New Deal Work Programs in Central Texas"". 26 March 2015. Retrieved 13 December 2018.
  9. ^ "Tom Miller Dam - Austin TX - Living New Deal". 26 March 2015. Archived from the original on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 26 September 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  10. ^ "Upper Mississippi River Dam - Winona MN - Living New Deal". 26 March 2015. Archived from the original on 26 March 2015. Retrieved 26 September 2017.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  11. ^ "Rivers of Life: History of Transportation, part 3". Retrieved 2016-12-09.
  12. ^ Hunt (1997); Cam (1939)
  13. ^ "Williamsburg Housing Development - Brooklyn NY". Living New Deal. Retrieved 2019-10-21.
  14. ^ a b c Graham
  15. ^ a b c Leuchtenburg
  16. ^ Kruman
  17. ^ "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: the 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 0-313-30618-4
  18. ^ Nick Taylor, American-made: The enduring legacy of the WPA (2008).


  • 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

Further readingEdit

  • 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
  • Graham, Otis L., Jr., and Meghan Robinson Wander, eds. Franklin D. Roosevelt, His Life and Times. New York: Da Capo Press, 1985, pp. 336–337.
  • Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin D Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper & Row, 1963, pp. 133–34.

External linksEdit