New Jersey Rebuild

Public Works

Public Works Programs

The Public Works Programs are government-sponsored capital projects that help boost economic development by creating employment, increasing aggregate demand, and reducing poverty. They are one of the most popular development interventions, but they are costly and demanding from an administrative perspective. It is thus important to assess whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

The PWA was established in 1933 as part of the New Deal in an effort to stimulate the economy and alleviate unemployment. The government hired contractors to build projects, similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), although it largely targeted private construction firms because of concerns about job losses to organized labor. The PWA built airports, large electricity-generating dams, major warships for the Navy, bridges, and 70 percent of all the new schools and a third of the hospitals constructed between July 1933 and March 1939.

Aside from its obvious direct employment impacts, the PWA also helped to stimulate the economy indirectly by boosting private investment and production. The enormous spending on public projects, such as roads and bridges, pushed companies to increase production in order to sell their goods and services. As a result, private investment in factories and plants was boosted. This was the “priming the pump” approach to economic recovery, a concept first proposed by Frances Perkins and supported by Franklin Roosevelt.

In the 21st century, public works projects are a key component of the City’s plan to tackle climate change and improve the quality of life in New Yorkers’ neighborhoods. For example, streets in low-lying communities such as Arverne and Edgemere need to be raised, as the stormwater they carry cannot be contained any longer. New Yorkers should also be investing in community compost programs that collect food waste and transform it into a rich resource to nourish local soils, as this helps to sequester carbon and reduce atmospheric pollution.

Finally, New York City should invest in expanding tree canopy across the city, particularly in neighborhoods that have less. Not only does this improve air quality, but it also promotes physical and mental health, which is especially relevant in the COVID-19 era. The city should also explore repurposing parts of Rikers Island for solar and battery storage, which would eliminate a significant portion of the island’s peaker power plants—high-polluting energy sources that supply electricity during periods of high demand. This would demonstrate the benefits of clean, renewable energy and make NYC more resilient to climate change.