Public Works Administration (PWA)

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The Public Works Administration, popularly known as the PWA, was an organizational cornerstone of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. During its six years in existence, from June 1933 until 1939, public works projects of all shapes, purposes, and sizes were undertaken in virtually every part of the United States and its territories. From the construction of gigantic dams on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to the construction of post offices and school buildings in small southern towns, PWA administrators worked at pumping federal dollars, and hope, into the nation's economy. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the PWA, along with the other "alphabet soup" recovery agencies, such as the WPA, the TVA, and the CCC, built most of the nation's infrastructure during the decade of the 1930s. Seventy years later, many of these public works projects continue to function in much the same manner as they did when they were built.

The PWA originated in one of the most important statutes ever passed by Congress, the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) of June 16, 1933. Title I of the Act created a National Recovery Administration (NRA), often referred to as the Blue Eagle Program; Title II authorized the president to expend $3.3 billion on a nationwide program of public works. President Roosevelt appointed General Hugh S. Johnson to administer Title I, and he selected his secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, for the daunting task of putting together a new Public Works Administration. Because Ickes was interior secretary, the PWA functioned for six years out of offices in the Department of the Interior. Initially, personnel in the Department of the Interior were utilized to implement the emergency legislation.

In addition to the two organizations that President Roosevelt created to implement the NIRA, other emergency statutes passed during the First Hundred Days of the new administration produced still other agencies. Combating the Great Depression required a multifaceted approach on the part of government, so the president selected Harry Hopkins, an aide from his years as governor of New York, to administer the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), which Congress passed in May 1933. Robert Fechner was appointed director of the newCivilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Thus, from the very beginning of the New Deal there existed considerable overlapping and duplication of functions and responsibilities. Not only were members of the public often confused by the numerous New Deal agencies with similar-sounding titles, so were the administrators. Conflicts over who was doing what, and how appropriations were divided, became a routine and sometimes humorous feature of the New Deal. The competition between FERA administrator Harry Hopkins and PWA administrator Harold Ickes was the most acute, especially after 1935 when Hopkins became head of a newly created program that replaced the FERA, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), thereby creating more confusion between Ickes's PWA and Hopkins's WPA. In his memoirs, Ickes claimed that the choice of the similar name was intentional on Hopkins's part.


The purpose of the PWA was to spend an initial $3.3 billion appropriation not only with dispatch, but on necessary—that is, socially useful—public works projects. This required a staff with expertise in a number of fields, including accounting, engineering, urban planning, and the law. During the summer of 1933, Ickes, along with his deputy administrator, Colonel Henry M. Waite, concentrated on hiring staff at the same time that they began searching for projects on which to expend PWA funds. As the New Dealers often noted, it was a most unusual situation they found themselves in: They had to create organizations that were fully functioning practically overnight. In the space of just two years, from 1933 to 1935, the PWA went from being nonexistent to employing over 3,700 people. PWA offices were set up in all forty-eight states, and in ten regional offices created for the express purpose of reviewing projects on a regional basis. The project review process normally went through state, regional, and national level reviews. Much of the work of the PWA was decentralized, but Administrator Ickes insisted on centralizing most of the legal work involved in the PWA effort. His explanation in The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes (1953–1954) underscores his unrelenting effort at keeping graft and corruption to a minimum within the organization:

I decided that instead of selecting lawyers in the states, we would select lawyers for our staff here and let all the legal work come here.... There are always a lot incompetent or crooked lawyers with strong political backing, and we can handle that situation better by building up our staff here than by finding a lawyer in each state.

This was not so much the case with engineers and accountants, he noted.

Although Ickes claimed it was purely happenstance, a decision made at the outset turned out to be a key organizational characteristic of the PWA. That was to divide projects into two types: federal and nonfederal. Because of the urgency of getting money pumped into the economy, administrators recognized that working through existing federal agencies would accomplish that objective much more quickly than working through state and local governments. Thus, many of the initial projects funded through the PWA were ongoing federal projects, such as the construction of Hoover (Boulder) Dam on the Colorado River. The Bureau of Reclamation finished this mammoth project ahead of schedule, in 1934, thanks to generous funding through the PWA.

Indeed, the primary beneficiaries of PWA funds throughout the 1930s were the federal government's two principal water resources agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. In his book Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986), Marc Reisner called the 1930s "The Go-Go Years" of big dam construction. Federal engineers located sites on virtually every major river in the United States, and they proceeded to build dams in record time. Considered by most people at the time to be in the best interests of resource conservation, monumental structures such as the Grand Coulee Dam, the Bonneville Dam, and the Tennessee Valley Authority's several dams became the most visible, and permanent, features of the economic recovery program of the 1930s.

The nonfederal component of the PWA took somewhat longer to organize, yet it too was functioning within months after Congress passed the NIRA. Proposals for needed public works projects from state and local governments arrived in Washington, D.C., where they went through an elaborate screening process. Projects were reviewed by three functional offices: an engineering, a financial, and a legal division. After passing through those reviews, projects were reviewed by a Public Works Board, chaired by Ickes, and finally by President Roosevelt. In his memoirs Ickes noted how impressed he was by the president's careful review of the proposed projects and of his knowledge about them. At least initially, until he had confidence in the new agency and its staff, Roosevelt spent considerable time making sure that public works projects conformed to high standards of the national interest.


What was being undertaken by the PWA and other emergency relief agencies during the 1930s was nothing less than a redefinition of federal-state relations. The expenditure of what were at the time huge sums of money not only on federal projects but on public works proposed by state governments, municipalities, other public authorities, and even some private corporations, such as the railroads, was unprecedented in America's history. It amounted to a redefinition of federalism. Although the administrators themselves may not always have appreciated how groundbreaking their work was, others did. The governor of Massachusetts, Joseph Ely, for example, called attention to this fact in communications with the PWA staff as early as August of 1933. As he wrote in a letter to Ickes:

It has been a very laborious undertaking for Massachusetts to rehabilitate the credit of our municipalities.... If you are interested at all in the fundamental theory upon which the federal government was created, and by which the municipalities are created, . . . it would be plain that direct contact between the federal government and the municipalities is an affront to the sovereignty of this Commonwealth.

Governor Ely, who interestingly was a Democrat, had insisted for some time that local projects in Massachusetts be screened by the appropriate state authorities, but to no avail. Both Ickes and the president decided that any number of public and private authorities, including local governments, were eligible for PWA funds.

Of course, a more serious constitutional challenge to the recovery program arose with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1935 invalidation of sections of the National Industrial Recovery Act. A number of emergency programs had to be reformulated after this controversial decision, but the PWA survived the Court's careful scrutiny. A new definition of federalism, often referred to by political scientists and historians as cooperative federalism, became firmly established in the nation's political history. Since the New Deal, federal appropriations, in the form of low interest loans or direct grants, have gone to all manner of private entities and public institutions operating at all levels of government.


James MacGregor Burns, a Roosevelt biographer, described the president as a "creative thinker in a 'gadget' sense." The president was idealistic yet pragmatic; the projects he cared most about were those that improved the lives of Americans in observable, day-to-day ways: better housing and schools, improved roads and public transit, airports for the new mode of transportation, more parks and forests for recreation, rural electrification, and sanitation systems for the nation's cities. It was a public philosophy shared by most of those who worked in the Public Works Administration, including Harold Ickes. He too loved building things of permanence that would benefit the greatest number of people in the long run, a quintessentially utilitarian philosophy. While others in Roosevelt's administration concentrated on combating the Great Depression in the most immediate ways—Harry Hopkins, for instance, whose famous statement, "People don't eat in the long run," summed up his role in the New Deal—the PWA functioned with both the short- and the long-term in mind.

The PWA's dual objectives resulted in considerable criticism in the press for the relative slowness with which it operated. An editorial in a 1933 issue of Business Week, for example, complained that "Mr. Ickes is running a fire department on the principles of a good, sound bond house." Although such criticism smarted, and Administrator Ickes was not shy about firing back, it was a trade-off he was willing to make. But in addition to insisting that public works projects be of high quality and designed to last, Ickes insisted on keeping corruption out of his organization. This objective, too, resulted in a certain amount of delay in the project review process, but it also produced a federal agency that was remarkably free of corruption. As Roosevelt told his cabinet in December 1934,

When Harold took hold of public works, he had to start cold. He had no program and he had no organization. It was necessary to develop both. A lot of people thought that all he would have to do would be to shovel money out of the window. There have been a good many complaints about the slowness of the works program and Harold's caution. There hasn't been even a minor scandal in public works and that is some record.

In 1935 Ickes published a book titled Back to Work: The Story of PWA. Its purpose was to tell the American public what the agency had accomplished in its first two years in operation. (It also may have been written in anticipation of the 1936 presidential election.) More than 19,000 projects were either completed or underway, he wrote. They were located in all forty-eight states and spread across 3,040 of the nation's 3,073 counties. The U.S. territories, including Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and the Panama Canal Zone all had ongoing projects. A fundamental goal of the PWA was to distribute projects among the states and territories as equitably as possible, so a formula based on the state's population and its percentage of unemployed served as the primary method of determining how many projects each state would be granted per year. Despite these efforts at achieving fairness, critics often complained about inequities in where PWA money was going. One of the agency's most vociferous critics was the publisher and editor of Ickes' hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribune; Colonel Robert McCormick's charges of favoritism produced a long-running and very public row between himself and Administrator Ickes, an individual who never avoided a good political fight.

In addition to the construction of dams previously mentioned, the first 19,000 PWA-funded projects included 522 public schools, 87 hospitals, nearly 600 municipal water systems, 433 sewer lines and sewage disposal plants, and 360 street and highway improvements. But it was in the area of public housing that the agency broke completely new ground: For the first time in America's history, the federal government embarked upon a policy of providing decent, affordable housing for all of its citizens, regardless of race. Ickes was especially enthusiastic about this aspect of his agency, for he had a life-long commitment to racial equality. In the slum clearance and public housing component of the PWA, Ickes, and indeed the president and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, found a means to improve dramatically the lives of the nation's most desperately poor. These Americans, as often as not, were minorities.

History was made in October 1934, when the PWA embarked on its first slum clearance project. The sites chosen were in Atlanta, Georgia, and Administrator Ickes was present for the historic occasion. In his Secret Diary he described how a small entourage of politicians and administrators proceeded to the two sites scheduled for demolition: One near Atlanta University, a "black college," and the other adjacent to a "white college," Georgia Tech. "There I made another extemporaneous speech from a temporary platform," Ickes recalled, "spoke for a couple of minutes before the newsreel machine, and then blew up another house."

It was an impressive beginning for a program that would continue for four more years. The emergency relief program proved to be so popular with the public, and so needed, that Congress appropriated nearly $5 billion for its continuance in 1935. The bulk of that money went to the new WPA, but PWA also received increased funding. More money was appropriated in 1936, a presidential election year. Roosevelt's landslide victory in the November election was due in no small part to the activities of the PWA and the other emergency relief programs. The 1936 election, often referred to as a realigning election, marked the appearance of a new political coalition in American politics. Due to the administration's efforts at including minorities in all phases of the New Deal recovery programs, support for Roosevelt and the Democratic Party in the 1936 election by minority groups that traditionally voted Republican (if they voted at all) was unprecedented.


Just as the Roosevelt administration contemplated phasing out many of the emergency recovery programs, a severe economic downturn beginning in the fall of 1937 put that idea on hold. The press dubbed it the "Roosevelt Recession," with social conditions approaching those of 1933. In his 1963 book Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940, historian William Leuchtenburg described how 1938 began: "Many Americans once more neared starvation. In Chicago, children salvaged food from garbage cans; in Cleveland, families scrambled for spoiled produce dumped in the streets when the markets closed." Unemployment reached nearly 11 percent, and serious labor unrest appeared in many parts of the country. After months of debating whether to ask Congress for an emergency appropriation, President Roosevelt decided he had no choice but to go ahead once more with "pump-priming."

On June 21, 1938, Congress passed the PWA Extension Act, allotting some $1.5 billion to be spent on public works projects. But the statute also contained stringent deadlines: Applications for projects had to be in Washington by September 30; construction had to commence by January 1, 1939; and all PWA projects were to be completed by July 1, 1940. Legislators thus recognized the necessity of responding to the dire economic conditions of 1938 with additional federal spending, but they also insisted upon a definite conclusion to the program. It was a view shared by Roosevelt, who never considered that the emergency relief effort would become a permanent feature of the federal government. Contrary to popular belief, Roosevelt abhorred deficit spending and resorted to it only because circumstances demanded it.

The PWA met the deadlines imposed by Congress. All totaled, the agency processed some 7,853 projects under the 1938 Extension Act, with the full economic effects felt in 1939 and 1940. With this accomplished, in 1939 Congress passed an important piece of legislation giving the president authority to reorganize the executive branch. Roosevelt had repeatedly asked legislators for such authority, and finally they gave him the opportunity to effect a wide-ranging administrative reorganization. Acting with dispatch, the president merged the PWA and the WPA into a single entity and renamed it the Federal Works Agency (FWA). A new administrator, John Carmody, was appointed to head the agency. In no way reflecting upon his high opinion of Ickes's talents as an administrator, the president chose someone else to run the FWA in order to relieve the 65-year-old Ickes of having to be in charge of both the Department of the Interior and the public works program. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly clear that war was about to erupt in Europe, and this would mean an entirely changed agenda in Washington. The president had other jobs in mind for his secretary of the interior.

With the 1939 reorganization the PWA formally ceased to exist. Its legacy, however, is that of a model government agency, one that not only operated efficiently and effectively, but virtually free of corruption. Two thorough congressional investigations uncovered only one minor case of fraud, for which Administrator Ickes took full responsibility. As President Roosevelt himself said, "That is some record." Seventy years later, it remains "some record" of what government can accomplish for the public good.



Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber. Roosevelt's Warrior: Harold L. Ickes and the New Deal. 1996.

Freidel, Frank. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Launching the New Deal. 1973.

Ickes, Harold L. The Secret Diary of Harold L. Ickes, 3 vols. 1953–1954.

Lear, Linda J. "Boulder Dam: A Crossroads in Natural Resource Policy." Journal of the West (October 1985): 82–94.

Leuchtenburg, William. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, 1932–1940. 1963.

Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal and the West. 1984.

Patterson, James T. "The New Deal in the West." Pacific Historical Review 38 (1969): 317–327.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. 1946.

Public Building: Architecture under the P.W.A., 1933–39. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1939.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. 1986. Rev. edition, 1993.

Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue, Vol 1: The Depression Decade. 1978.

Warne, William E. The Bureau of Reclamation. 1973. Reprint, 1985.

Jeanne Nienaber Clarke

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