Public Works Administration (PWA) (1933)

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The Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA), an act “To encourage national industrial recovery, to foster fair competition, and to provide for the construction of certain useful public works, and for other purposes” [1].  Per Title II, Section 202 of the NIRA, the agency was to “prepare a comprehensive program of public works.”  These public works were to include projects related to highways, buildings, natural resource conservation, energy, flood control, housing, and more.  The new agency “became known almost immediately as the Public Works Administration,” and on July 8, 1933 President Roosevelt chose Harold Ickes to lead it [2].

The PWA started with $3.3 billion, “the largest amount ever allotted to a public works scheme” at the time [3], and this was supplemented by subsequent appropriations acts.  Over its 10-year life, the PWA would radically transform the nation’s major infrastructure.  By 1939, it had contributed over $3.8 billion towards the construction of 34,000 projects [4].  Some prominent PWA-funded projects are New York’s Triborough Bridge, Grand Coulee Dam, the San Francisco Mint, Reagan National Airport (formerly “Washington National”), and Key West’s Overseas Highway.

Unlike the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, the PWA was not devoted to the direct hiring of the unemployed.  Instead, it administered loans and grants to state and local governments, which then hired private contractors to do the work (some PWA money also went to federal agencies).  This arrangement was intended to increase demand for labor and construction goods, and thus act as a catalyst for economic recovery (this type of policy action is usually called “stimulus,” or “priming the pump”).  The PWA, like the WPA, let state and local governments take the lead in choosing which projects they wanted built, what designs to use, and who to contract with.  Costs were shared roughly half-and-half, but this varied by time, place and project [5].

After the Reorganization Act of 1939 (signed April 3rd), the PWA was put under the newly-created Federal Works Agency and its functions shifted toward war preparations.  As a historian of the Battle of Midway puts it, “[T]he PWA funded construction of the aircraft carriers Yorktown and Enterprise whose aircraft were responsible for sinking the four Japanese aircraft carriers.  No stimulus money, no aircraft carriers and no victory at Midway.  In addition, the PWA funded the construction of four cruisers, four heavy destroyers, many light destroyers, submarines, planes, engines, and instruments” [6].  On June 30, 1943, President Roosevelt terminated the PWA with Executive Order No. 9357, which transferred the “functions, powers, and duties” of the PWA to the Federal Works Administrator, effective July 1, 1943 [7].

Sources: (1) “Transcript of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933),” accessed March 22, 2015 at  (2) Robert Leighninger, Jr., Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007, pp. 36, 41.  (3) Ibid. at p. 36.  (4) Public Works Administration, America Builds:The Record of PWA, Washington, D.C., 1939, Table 16, p. 284 and Table 20, p. 290.  (5) See note 2 at pp. 80-81.  (6) Daniel Goure, “The Battle Of Midway Was Won With Stimulus Money,”, accessed March 22, 2015.  (7) “Record of the Public Works Administration (PWA),” subsection 135.1, “Administrative History,” National Archives and Records Administration,, accessed March 22, 2015, and  “Executive Order 9357 Transferring the Functions of the Public Works Administration to the Federal Works Agency, June 30, 1943,” The American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara,, accessed March 22, 2015.

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