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Turning Jobs Into Public Work

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An old story has new relevance.

Two bricklayers are asked what they are doing. One says, "Building a wall." The other says, "Building a cathedral."

Mitt Romney has been attacking the Obama's campaign defense of Sesame Street's Big Bird as "small thinking" in the face of the nation's "big problems."

In fact the former governor is like the first bricklayer -- thinking small, when we need to think big.

The Romney campaign's smallness of thought is illustrated by his attacks on the Obama administration's "Green Jobs." Critics focus on Romney's inaccuracies. In the debate on October 4, Romney charged that half of the companies funded by the stimulus program have gone bankrupt. The real figure, as Brad Plumer reported in the Washington Post, "is less than 1 percent."

But there is a bigger problem in Romney's attack, evident in the campaigns on both sides to date. What kind of jobs -- their larger impact -- has remained unmentioned.

In the specific case of energy, Romney's "big thoughts" would cut back on renewable energy and increase reliance on oil and coal, reversing the greening of America which has been the work of generations.

Romney forgets the nation's first "Green Jobs" program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and its role in America's flourishing.

In her forthcoming study, The Politics and Civics of National Service (Brookings, 2012), Melissa Bass explores the civic impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s and 1940s.

The CCC was part of an array of New Deal public works programs also including the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration, which left a remarkable legacy of infrastructure - from 78,000 bridges and more than 125,000 buildings to the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nearly three million young men were employed in the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933 to 1942, living in work camps. They planted more than two billion trees, erected 3,470 fire towers, built 97,000 miles of truck roads, logged 4,135,500 man days in fighting fires, and stopped soil erosion on more than 20 million acres of land. They created parks and recreational facilities still in wide use today.

Less visibly but no less important, the CCC helped to school the"civic generation," which faced down the Great Depression and the fascists in World War II. After the war, they became the best educated workforce in the world thanks to the GI Bill. They also helped to birth the modern civil rights movement.

Participants in the CCC acted out of practical self-interests, not high ideals. They wanted jobs. But their work also developed larger civic and public meaning. As Al Hammer put it, "The CCC got people like me out into the public. It gave me a chance to meet and work with people different than me from all over the country -- farm boys, city boys, mountain boys, all worked together."

Scott Leavitt of the Forest Service explained that "there has come to the boys of the Corps a dawning understanding of the inspiring and satisfying fact that they are taking an integral and indispensable part in a great program vitally essential to the welfare, possibly even to the ultimate existence, of this country."

The CCC also helped the nation to regain a view of government as an empowering partner -- not simply "for" the people, delivering services, but "of" the people and "by" the people," in Lincoln's terms.

Bass observes that the CCC deepened "the sense that together participants and the government could address the nation's severe challenges." As CCC worker Allen Cook put it, the CCC "was not only a chance to help support my family but to do something bigger - to help on to success the President's daring new plan to down Old Man Depression." When Nan Kari and I interviewed CCC veterans for Building America, our own study of the history of public work, we heard repeatedly from former participants, across all partisan lines that they saw "government as working for the people."

As people made a commonwealth of public goods, they became a commonwealth of citizens.

There is widespread hunger for similar public experiences in work, not only in environmental jobs. When Joe Klein did a road trip across the nation this year for Time magazine, he found the desire for something like the CCC common across partisan divides.

"Too many people just live our lives in contact with a narrow sliver of people," said I.C. Smith, a retired FBI investigator in Virginia. "We can't bring back the draft. But some form of mandatory national service that throws people from different parts of the country together might help."

The public work qualities of the CCC -- bringing diverse people together, infusing work with larger public purposes, teaching civic skills, habits, and values, reconnecting citizens and government -- can be developed in many settings, not only national service. Thus the Rust to Green movement which I recently described gains its power from the collaboration of people on a common task -- regional revitalization - across many differences, in which government is a partner, neither the solution nor the problem.

A recent study by MTV found the desire among Millennials, those born after 1980, for meaningful work to be especially strong. Senior vice president of research at Nick Shore says "the quest for meaningful work that makes a difference" is at the center of Millennial aspirations.

A silver lining in this acrid campaign year could be the birth of a new movement to turn jobs of all kinds into public work -- to build cathedrals for our future, not remain content with walls which limit our imaginations.

Government can help to catalyze such a movement through support of efforts like green jobs. But there are many settings where it is beginning to take root. For instance, as I will describe in later blog posts, community colleges -- widely touted these days as the key to 21st century "workforce preparation" -- turn out to be fertile ground for education about the potential public impact of jobs.

Turning jobs into public work is the task of the nation.

Harry C. Boyte, Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is co-author of Building America -- The Democratic Promise of Public Work, with Nan Kari.