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Job Creation Idea No. 8: Time For A New WPA

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(No. 8 in Huffington Post's America Needs Jobs series.)

There is, of course, a precedent for the country facing a massive, sustained unemployment crisis.

There is also a precedent for solving it.

So why won't President Obama at least try to do what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did during the great Depression?

Back then, of course, the federal government directly employed millions of Americans, most notably through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Government paychecks went to men and women who planted trees, constructed state parks, created great works of art and built bridges, dams and other structures that remain to this day among the nation's finest and most inspiring public works

Today's WPA could do some of that -- as well as turn abandoned neighborhoods into urban parks, clean up the Gulf region, care for senior citizens and young children, bury utility lines, kill kudzu and tutor students.

Anecdotally, at least, there seem to be plenty of people who would relish the opportunity to get back to work doing something -- maybe even anything -- for a government paycheck.

Given today's deadly political dynamics, of course, such a plan would face dim prospects in Congress. But Obama hasn't even tried. He hasn't proposed anything remotely that ambitious. Nor has he put much effort into changing those political dynamics.

By contrast, the scale of the problem is simply immense.

In a previous installment of my America Needs Jobs series, I wrote about ideas for putting young people to work. There are 4 million people ages 16 to 24 who are considered officially unemployed -- plus another 1.5 million or so who have given up the job hunt entirely. That's a total of 5.5 million. Americorps, the closest thing we have to the CCC right now, only has room for 75,000.

When you include older workers, the total number of unemployed rises to nearly 15 million, plus another nearly 11 million too discouraged to even look for work.

That's a lot of jobs that need creating.

So, as Yale economist Robert J. Shiller writes in the New York Times:

Why not use government policy to directly create jobs -- labor-intensive service jobs in fields like education, public health and safety, urban infrastructure maintenance, youth programs, elder care, conservation, arts and letters, and scientific research?

Would this be an effective use of resources? From the standpoint of economic theory, government expenditures in such areas often provide benefits that are not being produced by the market economy.

"If the private sector can't put people back to work, then the public sector must," reasons the Economic Policy Institute. As part of its five-point plan to stem the unemployment crisis, the progressive group calls for spending $40 billion per year for three years on a public service jobs that would put one million people back to work. Among the details:

During the first six to nine months, the program would fund fast-track jobs. Projects would be limited to a discrete list of activities in order to allow for quick implementation and large-scale employment. This fast-track authority should be carefully defined to prevent abuses. It should be limited to four areas that reflect national priorities and demonstrate a high potential impact for aggregate job creation: neighborhood/community improvement, child health and development, access to public services, and public safety.

Fast-track jobs might include, for example:

• cleaning up of abandoned and vacant properties to alleviate blight in distressed and foreclosure-affected neighborhoods;
• staffing emergency food programs to reduce hunger and promote family stability;
• working in Head Start, child care, and other early childhood education programs to promote school readiness and early literacy;
• renovating and maintaining parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces.

University of Texas economist James Galbraith favors "a Neighborhood Corps to protect, maintain and revitalize (or as necessary demolish) distressed housing, and a Home Care corps to provide services to the elderly in their own homes." Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, likes the Neighborhood Corps idea because "you get young people to work, you give them some skills, and your raise housing values in neighborhoods that are getting hammered" by the financial crisis.

Former CEO Leo Hindery argues on behalf of "community-based job creation programs for restoring the environment, providing child care and tutoring, cleaning up abandoned buildings, and maintaining parks and public spaces." He also wants to create a "Teacher's Aid Corps."

A New Policy Institute working paper calls for a "series of big, aspirational regional projects." The massive, still-nascent Gulf recovery plan "offers a working laboratory to think and work at this scale," the report suggests.

And speaking of scale, architecture critic Justin Davidson calls for "a Calatrava over the Hudson" -- by which he means some sort of stunning structure designed by Santiago Calatrava. Davidson argues:

In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office, much of the country was making do with Victorian bridges, horse-and-buggy roads, and improvised sanitation. FDR began binding the country together with sinews of concrete and cable. We need to do for the 21st century what FDR did for the twentieth--invest in worn-out highways, our frail electrical grid, our public transit, brittle bridges, and water supplies. A new New Deal, equipped with an Obama-era version of the Works Progress Administration, could put millions back to work, modernize the country, nudge the economy towards recovery, and produce a barrage of working monuments.

HuffPost readers, who have been emailing me in droves, seem particularly enamored of the idea of New Deal-style direct government employment.

Reader John Rings writes: "A very quick way to get Americans back to work is to clean up America. Throughout this country there are structures that are vacant and will never be used again but they are abandoned. There are old factories and storefronts and city block after block of uninhabitable houses.... We could put people to work right away doing demolition of these structures."

Greg Tompkins of Portland, Oregon, writes: "Put young and old alike on projects like eradicating invasive species, replanting native species in their place and making trails! Maybe even put the masses to work laying out the smart grid and placing solar panels atop every large building in America? Put the older folks to manage projects so they don't have to do something too physical. Can you imagine how great it would be to make a huge dent in the invasive species problem alone? I'm unemployed myself and am 35. I wouldn't mind at all to help in such an endeavor."

Reader Patrick Kubin writes: "The depression did not end until the government made jobs; think CCC. Do the same thing now: how about Noxious Weed Eradication programs? Every state has a weed problem: kudzu in the south, blackberries and scotch broom in the NW, saltcedar in the SW. This is unskilled labor.

"The fed gov pays $10 per hour, 40 hours per week to employ people to chop, dig and spray weeds. The REAL incentive is that the whole family of the worker gets Medicare health coverage. They will line up for miles for these jobs. And lots of new college grads will be employed mapping weed eradication locations. Only US made tools may be used."

J. William Thomas of Hartford, NY, writes: "The government can also start a huge program of placing all utilities underground. This will create jobs and reduce the exposure of our utilities to the elements during storms. That will also reduce cost to corporations ultimately and we should realize those savings over the years."

Nick Taylor, the author of American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work, writes in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that Obama truly does face an FDR moment.

"Obama's experience so far resembles FDR's first uneven stabs at job creation," Taylor writes. Soon after Roosevelt took office, with the unemployment rate at 24.9%, he created the Civilian Conservation Corps, his first jobs program -- but it wasn't nearly enough.

His critics accused him of socialism and fretted publicly that large deficits would ruin the country. They insisted that workers would grow so accustomed to public jobs that they could never be weaned off the government's largesse.

But despite his vocal opponents, in January 1935, FDR announced his intention to launch the massive jobs program that became the Works Progress Administration.

The president's promise that the country would "see the dirt fly" was realized that fall, more than two years after he took office. The WPA addressed a range of long-standing infrastructure needs, including roads and bridges, hospitals and water treatment plants, and airports. Its workers fought floods and forest fires and cleaned up after hurricanes. Its sewing rooms made clothing and blankets that went out to disaster victims. The WPA also employed nurses, doctors, teachers, librarians and artists. By the fall of 1936, 3.3 million people were on the WPA payroll. The stimulus provided by those jobs buoyed the economy. By the spring of 1937, after Roosevelt's landslide reelection, the country's unemployment rate had dropped to 14%.....

The WPA helped create a modern country and produced physical and cultural legacies that are still appreciated. Obama could use his considerable eloquence to re-create that vision. An America prepared today to meet the future will be applauded long after this recession is consigned to the history books. It's a vision he hasn't given us so far.

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COMING NEXT IN THE AMERICA NEEDS JOBS SERIES: Make The Banks Lend More Or Else

Have you missed any of the previous installments of HuffPost's America Needs Jobs series? Read the introduction, Idea No. 1: A Payroll Tax Holiday, No. 2: Rescue The States, No. 3: The Joys Of Retrofitting, No. 4: Put Young People To Work, No. 5: Gearing Up For Climate Change, No. 6: Sharing The Pain Of Layoffs, and No. 7: Drawing A Line With China.

Got an idea you think we may be overlooking? Email froomkin@huffingtonpost.com.

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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.

Around the Web

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