The Public Works Administration (PWA) was a New Deal 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 concentrated on the construction of large-scale public works such as dams and bridges, with the goal of providing employment, stabilizing purchasing power, and contributing to a revival of American industry. Most of the spending came in two waves in 1933-35, and again in 1938. The PWA was closed down in 1939.
The PWA spent over $6 billion, and, its defenders claim, 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. It was much less controversial than its rival agency the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which focused on hiring the unemployed.
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.
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, 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% of all PWA projects, accounted 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.
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