The Public Works Administration & the New Deal in 1933

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom

Jason has a PhD.

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced his New Deal for America, which was an economic recovery program that addressed the problems caused by The Great Depression. Explore the history and impact of the New Deal and how the Public Works Administration it created shaped modern America. Updated: 11/27/2021

The New Deal & the Great Depression

Politicians of all stripes love to brag about how many jobs they create. 'I'm the biggest job creator around,' they say, or maybe, 'I know how to create jobs, but my opponent has no idea.' Whether or not you think the federal government has a legitimate role in providing work, there's no denying that Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal created jobs and delivered employment for those without it.

By the time President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd president of the United States, came into office in 1933, the country had already suffered through three years of the Great Depression. The economy was destroyed, one in four Americans was out of work, and most everyone had lost hope. FDR's program of economic recovery was called the New Deal. The New Deal aimed to address the problems of the Great Depression by implementing several different programs. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was just one important program of the New Deal that we will focus on in this lesson.

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The Public Works Administration

In the first year of the New Deal, 1933, the Public Works Administration put thousands of Americans to work on various construction projects around the country, and they ended up building some of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States.

The PWA was a massive public-works construction project overseen by Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. The federal government earmarked about $3.3 billion in funding to hire out-of-work Americans to strengthen the nation's infrastructure. Workers for the PWA were paid with public moneys to build roads, schools, airports, post offices, government buildings, dams, sewage plants, hospitals, port facilities, and court houses all across the country. The Roosevelt administration garnered the money for the WPA from new taxes totaling around $220 million, an amount that was just enough to fund the interest payments on the sum the government had to borrow to pay for the program.

Roosevelt's goal for the PWA was two-fold:

  1. The works programs would reduce unemployment. Americans would no longer need government relief, but instead they would work on the various construction projects and earn a modest paycheck.

  2. With this paycheck, workers would spend money, thus helping other businesses and, as the theory went, stimulate the economy as a whole. New Deal officials called this strategy 'priming the pump,' which was an allusion to what a farmer had to do to get his well pump working.

The Effects of the PWA

Though the PWA undoubtedly helped on an individual basis, it simply didn't employ enough people to put a recognizable dent in the unemployment rate, which included tens of millions of Americans without work. And because the Great Depression was so massive, a relatively small public works program couldn't give a big boost to the overall economy.

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