Created by the National Industrial Recovery Act on June 16, 1933, 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. Simply put, it was designed to spend "big bucks on big projects." More than any other New Deal program, the PWA epitomized the Rooseveltian 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. Its one big failure was in quality, affordable housing, building only 25,000 units in four and one half years.
The PWA spent over $6 billion, but did not succeed in returning the level of industrial activity to pre-depression levels. Neither did it significantly reduce the unemployment level or help jump-start a widespread creation of small businesses. FDR, personally opposed to deficit spending, refused the spend the sums necessary to accomplish these goals. Nonetheless, the historical legacy of the PWA is perhaps as important as its practical accomplishments at the time. It provided the federal government with its first systematic network for the distribution of funds to localities, ensured that conservation would remain an element in the national discussion, and provided federal administrators with a broad amount of badly needed experience in public policy planning.
When FDR moved industry toward war production and abandoned his opposition to deficit spending, the PWA became irrelevant and was abolished in June 1941