Public Jobs Option: Put It on the Table
By Peter B. Klejna
Going into the December 3 Jobs Summit, President Obama declared that he was ready to consider all available options. But his administration has not placed an emergency public jobs program on the table. This imperils the millions of able American workers facing years of unemployment. Economists say that the nation is looking at a jobless recovery.
It’s not as if the country has had no background in successful public jobs programs. Let’s review the two major eras for public jobs programs- the 1930s and the 1970s.
In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Congress created the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. More than 8.5 million Americans were employed by the WPA. The program lasted until 1943, when wartime labor demands had erased unemployment. An allied Depression-era jobs program was the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The goals of both programs were: to provide employment at a living wage, inculcate new jobs skills and to complete a vast array of public infrastructure and conservation projects. A great proportion of the projects undertaken by these two programs were located in rural areas.
These programs allowed millions of working Americans to leave the relief rolls by gaining well-paid work when no private sector jobs were available. The wages they received were immediately used to support their families, and thereby to increase consumer demand at the community level. The whole chain of finance, manufacturing, distribution and retailing was invigorated by more consumers with working incomes and renewed confidence.
During the period of “stagflation” and persistently high unemployment in the 1970s, the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) was utilized to employ millions in new temporary positions in state, county, town and city governments and non-profit organizations. This writer, then 27 in 1978, was given the opportunity to be a town planner in a suburban community. My younger brother, also unemployed, was given computer training under CETA, which paved the way for his successful career as a software designer.
The proposed tweaking of the tax system for small businesses, enlarged energy-saving weatherization programs, and continuation of the enhanced public infrastructure subsidies are just not up to the whole job of quickly assisting millions of Americans facing several years of unemployment and under-employment. The recovering economy needs to be supported from the bottom-up, not just by capital infusions to large corporations and new tax incentives. Temporary public employment programs are whole lot better for the unemployed than just rolling over unemployment benefits. Many of the unemployed are not eligible for unemployment benefits. They are employable.
The national economy will get momentum from millions being employed in public sector jobs that last for 1-2 years. These newly employed persons would be able to support themselves and their families, learn new technological skills and participate in innovative new projects and programs. There is no shortage of needs that our nation could address with the help of a federal public jobs program, starting with renewable energy initiatives.
Subscribing to the trickle-down economic visions of Wall Street and the Republicans is a slippery slope, Mister President. That goes for members of Congress, too. We urgently need to create an emergency public jobs program worthy of the legacy of FDR’s Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. If we can underwrite a Wall Street bailout, we certainly can afford to create a public jobs program. Let’s narrow down the famous Clinton mantra to: It’s about jobs, stupid.
Mr. President, I think you get it. Americans need new jobs right now. The hurting small-business sector can’t hire without rising demand for their goods and services. Creating millions of new emergency jobs for stranded working people will increase consumer spending. You proudly wore FDR’s robes during your 2008 election campaign. The time has come to take a page from the New Deal’s economic playbook and make the public jobs option a priority now.
Peter Klejna lives in a “hilltown” in western Massachusetts. He works as an emergency preparedness consultant.