Tag Archives: jobs programs

A Lesson for Obama from FDR: What America Needs Is Jobs–and Leadership

I published this piece yesterday on a site called Reader Supported News. It might provide some food for (wishful) thought as we prepare to listen to Obama’s State of the Union speech.

With the unemployment rate still hovering above 10 percent, the bailed-out financial sector is rewarding itself with bonuses instead of making the kinds of solid investments that might produce jobs. The time clearly is at hand for the Obama administration to push the banks aside, and plunge in to shape the economic recovery on its own terms. That means using federal monies to employ out of work people in rebuilding infrastructure and launching new projects –public employment in the public interest.

The model is Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp. FDR’s idea – hardly a revolutionary one–was to replace relief with work, employing destitute young people in useful, low-skilled labor that would serve the public good. What makes the program seem even more relevant to the present day is its focus on environmental conservation: planting trees, preventing soil erosion, reducing flood and fire risk, and building infrastructure in National Parks. “I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite practical value,” Roosevelt said in announcing the plan in March of 1933, “not only through the prevention of great present financial loss but also a means of creation future national wealth.”

The CCC idea was accompanied by proposals for a Public Works Administration to employ older people in large-scale projects involving a lot of planning and skilled labor. These latter projects would take many months or years, while the Civilian Conservation Corp could be implemented right away. The story of the CCC, writes Jonathan Alter in “The Defining Moment,” an account of FDR’s first 100 days, is “a tale of mobilization so rapid and so competent it almost defies belief for later generations.”

This, despite the fact that the proposal for a Civilian Conservation Corps immediately met with considerable resistance from all sides. The labor unions said Roosevelt’s proposed low wages would turn the nation into a forced labor camp, and amounted to fascism, Hitlerism and Sovietism, all rolled into one. It was attacked from the left by Huey Long, who called it a “sapsucker’s bill,” and from the right by conservative members of Congress who said that the economy would sort itself out in the long run without so much government spending. To one such remark, FDR’s aide Harry Hopkins replied: “People don’t eat in the ‘long run’ Senator They eat every day.”

The Roosevelt administration got the bill creating the CCC through Congress less than a month after his inauguration on March 4, 1933. Members of his own cabinet protested the idea was impossibly ambitious, but the president accepted no excuses–he wanted a quarter of a million young men put to work by summer. He then proceeded to manage the plan himself, delving into bureaucracy that ran the public lands–which then, as now, made a third of the nation–pulling in members of Congress, debating wage levels, making charts, writing up plans. When the mobilization still seemed too slow, he ordered in the army to help. “By April 7,” Alter writes, “only 34 days into the administration, the first corps members were enlisted. By July 1, less than four months after Roosevelt made his outlandish demand, he exceeded the quarter million goal. Nearly 275,000 young men were enrolled in 1,300 camps across the country, supporting their families and undertaking much-needed projects.”

The benefits of the CCC went beyond their impact on the economy or the environment. A friend whose father served in the Corps told me he recalled it, to his dying day, as one of the happiest times of his life. A kid from an immigrant ghetto in upper Manhattan, his idea of wilderness was no doubt limited to Fort Tryon Park–but the CCC sent him to work in Washington state’s glorious Mount Ranier National Park. And instead of the hopelessness that came with unemployment and desperate poverty, he had a place to live, three meals a day, and the pride of sending money home to help his single mother and younger siblings.

In its time, Alter writes, the mobilization of the Civilian Conservation Corps exceeded all prior efforts in the nation’s history–“and it has not been matched since.” Over nine years, more than 3 million men were provided meaningful work. The CCC would inspire numerous other programs–the Job Corps, Peace Corps, Vista, and AmeriCorps. It succeeded in the same spirit of solidarity and national service that would soon help win Second World War.

Roosevelt’s bold experiment in federal job-creation demonstrated that government can work–and more than that. It showed that there are times when leadership must come not from the states or localities or the slow-moving Congress, but directly from the White House. It provides a stark lesson for the Obama government, which remains mired in a swampland of political bickering while it pursues the illusion of bipartisanship, triangulates corporate special interests, and naively supports big banks in some revamped version of trickle-down economics.

The current word on the political street is that the Obama administration is bent on “going populist” in the wake of recent political defeats. And since his opponents long ago branded him a socialist (if not the anti-Christ), it seems he has little to lose. A good beginning would be to tax the $45 billion in bank bonuses at the utmost possible level, using the return to jump-start a federal government sponsored, government-run program like the CCC to employ men–and this time, women as well. Through a federally funded jobs program, they can be put to work to rebuild the nation’s rotting infrastructure; to spark public enterprise in the new energy industries, from autos to solar and wind powered electric utilities; to lay railways that criss-cross the nation and build the engines, coaches, and freight cars that will travel over them; and to construct and the staff community health centers that might fill in for a failed health care reform effort.

Some version of this plan has been proposed many times during the current financial crisis, and always ignored or shoved aside because of opposition from powerful industries and their supporters, who argue that such dramatic federal action would disrupt the free market or override local initiative. Well, the market, such as it is–never really free, and usually greased to serve corporate interests–has not done the job for the millions of Americans who remain unemployed. It’s time for the president to step in and do his.

I encourage you to check out the rest of Reader Supported News, an up-and-coming progressive news site.

Brother, Can You Spare a Tax Cut? Latest Version of Recovery Bill Cuts Help for Poor and Jobless

“If there’s anyone out there who still doesn’t believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis,” Barack Obama said last night in his first prime-time news conference, “I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from.” Yet it is precisely those Americans who’ve lost out in the Senate’s compromise version of the economic stimulus package, which is scheduled for a vote today. For the sake of securing three Republican votes and a filibuster-proof majority, Senate Democrats have agreed to jettison some of the most vital and most progressive elements of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act–and with them, the lifeline it offered to millions of poor and unemployed Americans.

Obama last night was clearly exasperated, taking some oblique shots at Republican resistance to the plan. Yet the president appears resigned to the Senate compromise, saying over the weekend, “We can’t afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary.” Only in the next few days, as the Senate, the House, and the administration hammer out final legislation, will we learn to what extent expediency and lingering fantasies of bipartisanship trump any vision of the federal government as a place its most vulnerable citizens can once again turn to for help.

A bottom-line issue in this economic crisis is whether the government will help provide the unemployed with the most basic necessities of life: food, shelter, and health care. The ranks of jobless Americans have swelled by more than 50 percent in the last year, to 11.6 million. The official rate of 7.6 percent accounts only for the recently unemployed; by a broader measure that includes people who have stopped looking for work or can’t find full-time jobs, it jumps to a sobering 13.9 percent.  Job losses have plunged millions of families into economic insecurity–where they join the working poor and the elderly and disabled poor, whose incomes are already lower than the unemployment benefits of many middle-class people. Beyond these essential stop-gap measures, of course, what these people really need are jobs.

Obama’s original proposal dealt with many of these needs head-on, with a bigger food stamp program, voucher programs and direct government refinancing to prevent foreclosures, and federal funding for COBRA and an expanded Medicaid program, to keep the unemployed from slipping into the widening pool of the uninsured: food, shelter, and health care. Key to all this was increased funding to state governments, whose budgets are now on the verge of catastrophic collapse. More money to the states means social service programs can continue to function, even expand to meet the strains of the crisis. Two weeks ago, I was even inspired to write: “With this package, Obama begins the process of reversing cutbacks initiated by Reagan and carried forward by the two Bushes, with some help from Clinton’s welfare ‘reform.'” On January 28, the House passed the legislation with its most important components intact. But as the Senate has now shown, reports of the death of trickle-down economics seem to have been greatly exaggerated.

The Senate version of the stimulus plan reduces monies already approved in the House for the states, by a crushing $40 billion. Both plans extend unemployment benefits, but the expansion of Medicaid to the unemployed-which could have been a lifesaver for millions of families–is absent from the Senate bill. The subsidies for COBRA have been cut back, as have the increases in food stamps,  and funds for school construction, early education, and environmental cleanup. And according to the Center for American Progress, the compromise would create between 430,000 and 538,000 fewer jobs than the House-passed bill.”

The Senate bill preserves and elevates the revered conservative approach to economic stimulus: tax cuts and more tax cuts, which aren’t much use to the destitute. Obama had already offered up an excess of tax cuts in pursuit of the elusive bipartisanship, but the Senate added more cuts (the AMT “patch,” a homebuyer’s credit, and business write-offs) destined to benefit only those with higher incomes.

In addition to leaving the needy to fend for themselves, the Senate package is considerably less likely to be effective. Washington has long known that the swiftest way out of an economic stagnation like this one is to put money immediately into the hands of people who will spend it on goods and services. Tax cuts, by comparison, are slow to take effect, if they work at all–especially if they benefit the well-off, who are just as likely to keep the money in their pockets.

If Obama supports this compromised Senate version of the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, rather than rallying his progressive base and exposing the Republicans as obstructionists, he will lose moral and political authority. He could also begin to look not only like the cautious centrist Democrat that he is, but like just another triangulator in the fashion of the Democratic Leadership Council–a particular form of slime that I hoped was at long last being sluiced out of the Washington swamp.

Jim Jubak on How Wall Street Screwed Geezers: Part II

As I noted in my last post, there are millions of older Americans who don’t have time to “wait” for the market–and their own retirment funds–to recover from the current recession. Some of us have resigned ourselves to the fact that we’ll just have to keep working indefinitely. But as MSN’s Jim Jubak points out, it isn’t as simple as that.

Everyone I talk to glibly says, “Well, I’ll just have to work longer.” At what jobs? In an economy in which companies regularly find ways to replace higher-paid older workers with younger employees, most people won’t be able to stay at their current jobs. And in an economy that is exporting its meat-and-potatoes manufacturing jobs and their higher wages and generating mostly lower-paying jobs to replace them, post-retirement workers are going to be competing with a horde of anxious younger workers for even ill-paying, no-benefit, part-time work.

We need Washington to wake up and realize that, yes, we need to create jobs to pull us out of the current economic slowdown but we also need to create jobs to fix the holes blown in the retirement plans of tens of millions of Americans by this financial crisis. We need not just jobs now but a coordinated national effort—public and private—to create long-term job growth for decades to come.

Jubak’s argument about the absolute necessity of job creation to any recovery is a sound one. But even he admits that it’s already too late for some of us.

We also need to find a way to help those people who reach retirement age but who are in no condition to keep working. Working longer isn’t a solution for someone who isn’t physically or mentally able to work.

Don’t hold your breath while waiting for this “help” to arrive. With a shrinking economy and a growing geezer population, longtime opponents of “entitlements” like Social Security are already gearing up to oppose any further government support for old folks facing hard times.