public works

public utility

Enterprise that provides certain classes of services to the public, including common-carrier transportation (buses, airlines, railroads); telephone and telegraph services; power, heat and light; and community facilities for water and sanitation. In most countries such enterprises are state-owned and state-operated; in the U.S. they are mainly privately owned, but they operate under close regulation. Given the technology of production and distribution, they are considered natural monopolies, since the capital costs for such enterprises are large and the existence of competing or parallel systems would be inordinately expensive and wasteful. Government regulation in the U.S., particularly at the state level, aims to ensure safe operation, reasonable rates, and service on equal terms to all customers. Some states have experimented with deregulation of electricity and natural-gas operations to stimulate price reductions and improved service through competition, but the results have not been universally promising.

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U.S. government agency (1933–39). It was established as part of the New Deal to reduce unemployment through the construction of highways and public buildings. Authorized by the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) and administered by Harold Ickes, it spent about $4 billion to build schools, courthouses, city halls, public-health facilities, and roads, bridges, dams, and subways. It was gradually dismantled as the country moved to a military-industrial economy during World War II.

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The Public Works Administration (P.W.A.), a New Deal government agency headed by Harold Ickes, was created by the National Industrial Recovery Act in June 1933 during the Great Depression. It allowed 3.3 billion dollars to be spent on the construction of public works to provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, improve public welfare, and contribute to a revival of American industry. When President Franklin Roosevelt moved industry toward war production and abandoned his opposition to deficit spending, the PWA became irrelevant and was abolished in June 1941.


  • Works Progress Administration, America Builds: The Record of WPA (1939)
  • Harold L. Ickes, Back to Work: The Story of WPA (1935)
  • Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism: The Political Economy of Public Works, 1933-1956 (2006)

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