Public Works Administration: 1933-1941


Introduction:  Established on June 16, 1933  by Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), the Public Works Administration (PWA) was an expansive, Great Depression-era Federal government spending program that aimed to create jobs while improving the nation’s infrastructure. The Public Works Administration (PWA) 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. More than any other New Deal program, the PWA epitomized the President’s 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, and aircraft carriers; and seventy percent of the new schools and one third of the hospitals built during that time. It also electrified the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, D.C.  PWA workers built the state capitol building in Oregon, the highway linking the Florida Keys to the mainland United States, the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C., the city hall in Kansas City, Outer Drive Bridge in Chicago, the Ellis Island Ferry Building, Washington National Airport and the Grand Coulee Dam in the state of  Washington.


The PWA built thousands of miles of roads, hundreds of sewage disposal plants, and thousands of schools. They built or improved hundreds of airports. Many people believe the Triborough Bridge in New York was built by the WPA, the Works

Progress Administration. But it wasn’t. It was built by the PWA, the Public Works Administration.

These PWA projects were meant to create a useful and sometimes beautiful infrastructure for Americans to use, but the PWA’s main purpose was to help the country climb out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt and his advisers hoped that by building public works, the PWA would stimulate the construction industry and put people back to work. As a government report said in 1939: Here was a country with a great and growing need for more schools, more highways, more bridges, more waterworks, more services of all kinds. Here was an army of men willing and able to build them. Here was industry hungry for orders for the needed materials. The idea was to bring all of them together. The job would have to be done some time, why not now?

The PWA was not a work-relief program, like the WPA, which was created two years later. People working on PWA projects didn’t have to be on relief, but the program was meant to help reduce the relief rolls. Roosevelt said repeatedly that getting people to work was better than giving them handouts. “The dignity of work sounds trite, but if you read newspapers in the 1930s, everyone talked about that,” says Lorraine McConaghy of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. “They missed a paycheck, but they [also] missed feeling useful.”

The PWA solicited proposals for projects from around the country, and it received some doozies. “One was a rocket to the moon,” says sociologist Robert Leighninger, author of Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. “There was the Kansas preacher who thought that this PWA was a program where he could apply for bibles for his community. He didn’t want to build anything, just wanted to spread out bibles. There was a mayor who thought maybe his office could be redecorated with PWA money.” And one applicant suggested building a moving sidewalk across the country. But Leighninger says most proposals weren’t silly. “Most of them were solid projects like water works and schools, parks and police offices and city halls,” he says.

Some of the projects would be built by the federal government alone, and others were done in partnership with local governments. The PWA was criticized for being too slow to get started. Part of the problem was that large public works projects require planning before shovels can go into the dirt. And part of the problem was that the program’s director, Harold Ickes, was so scrupulous about vetting the proposals. Leighninger tells the story of Ickes inserting passages of Alice in Wonderland into a proposal, to see whether his staff would read it thoroughly enough to notice. They didn’t, and he let them have it.

PWA projects did not immediately turn the economy around, so Roosevelt turned to other programs, such as the Civil Works Administration, followed by the Works Progress Administration; these programs could do smaller projects that were quicker to set up.

Workers carry brick to the PWA construction site of Teaneck High School in New Jersey. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Workers carry brick to the PWA construction site of Teaneck High School in New Jersey. Courtesy of Library of Congress

The PWA issued a report in 1939, titled “America Builds,” arguing that the PWA had in fact stimulated the economy. By then it had built thousands of projects, spending billions of dollars on materials and wages. The report estimates that PWA projects used more than one billion man-hours – 1,714,797,910, to be exact. The report said that wages paid on those projects were plowed back into the economy many times over:

A worker gets a PWA job. He receives his first pay envelope. He needs a suit of clothes, so he spends a part of his pay at the clothier. The clothing dealer takes part of the money and pays the jobber. The jobber takes part of the money and pays his manufacturer. The manufacturer pays his workers and buys more cloth from the mill. The mill owner, in turn, takes part of the money and buys wool and cotton, and perhaps more machinery, and so on.

In fact, the report argued that the PWA’s success provided evidence that governments should undertake public works during economic bad times to stabilize the economy. Historians and economists differ on how much effect the New Deal building programs actually had on the economy. The building programs “didn’t bring the Depression to an end, but they reduced the magnitude of it and enabled people to survive who would have had an impossible or difficult time surviving without them,” says Richard Kirkendall, emeritus history professor at the University of Washington. Kirkendall and many other historians also argue that the infrastructure built by agencies like the PWA was essential to the Allied victory in World War II. PWA dams provided electricity to power war plants; its roads and airports enabled troops and goods to move efficiently. The PWA contributed directly to the military, too. It built aircraft carriers, submarines, and military planes.

Many historians argue that the New Deal jobs programs helped preserve capitalism at a volatile time in history. “It often seemed to me the possibility of some kind of a revolution was there, and these programs were politically significant as well as helpful to individuals and families,” says Kirkendall. “Fascist ideas were circulating in America at the time, as well as socialist. We could have moved in a quite different direction, and I think those programs were helpful in preventing us from moving in a totalitarian direction of some sort.”

After the war, the infrastructure left by the building programs contributed to post-war prosperity, says Jason Scott Smith, history professor at the University of New Mexico and author of New Deal Liberalism. “This investment in America’s infrastructure is what helps make possible a national marketplace after the end of World War II, connecting regions, building hundreds of airports, building thousands of miles of roads, bridges, sewer systems, you name it,” Smith says. Smith points out that Americans are still using that infrastructure today, both the huge things, such as bridges and dams, and the smaller things, such as schools and sidewalks, usually with no idea that they were built by the PWA.

Sources: PBS:Blue Print America 

North Carolina History Project

New Deal Network: Works of Franklin D. Roosevelt —



4 Responses to Public Works Administration

  1. James says:

    There are a lot of good songs about the depression at

  2. Paul Oberg says:

    My students are researching the significance of ornamental symbols decorating the cornice of their PWA-built school from 1934. Where might I find records of the original architectural project proposal?

    • jhansan says:

      Paul Oberg: The best sources I know of for the information you are seeking are: the National Archives, WPA Papers or the Library of Congress. Best wishes, Jack Hansan

  3. Dudley Pearce says:

    I am 86 years old and live in a retirement center. My dad was teaching at Copiah-Lincoln Junior College (Co-Lin) at Wesson, Mississippi during the Great Depression.
    At the risk of being off a year, one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs built the Faculty House (apartments) and the New Administration Building on campus in about 1937 or 1938. They were excellent structures, still in use. We moved into one of the faculty apartments when completed.

    I think the WPA built them, but now I am unsure if the PWA did instead. I hope to learn which.

    This information may be of no interest to you, but, as a boy, I saw the Depression and will confirm the success of the New Deal. In many ways, it built this nation’s infrastructure.

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