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ARRA -- One Year Later: What Happened?

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This past fall, I was camping in a nearby state park, enjoying the fall colors and appreciating the time to reconnect with family. While hiking, my wife and I came across a series of trails, buildings and other amenities in the park, labeled as products of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Conservation Corps was established in the 1930's as a job program for a nation reeling from the depression.

The corps worked on projects ranging from infrastructure and public works, to erosion control and development of infrastructure in our nation's many park systems. Employing more than a half million at its peak, many of their contributions to our nation's infrastructure, especially in our parks, can still be seen today.

Given that much of my work in the past year has focused on advocating for more sustainable and equitable use of the recent stimulus funds, I had mixed feelings seeing this visible reminder of what a well designed job program could produce. It was empowering to see how a jobs program could produce infrastructure that was still standing (and still being utilized) nearly 80 years later.

The Conservation Corps also produced economic dividends for workers of color, employing more than 200,000 Black workers and eventually providing equal pay and housing (after 1935) during the era of Jim Crow. A separate Native American division employed tribal members, built infrastructure on reservations and trained more than 80,000 Native American workers.

Many had hoped the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (referred to as ARRA or stimulus) would produce similar results for our nation, which once again is suffering from unemployment, foreclosure and growing poverty. While the stimulus has helped tremendously in some domains (most notably in balancing state budgets), with respect to providing equitable economic empowerment or infrastructure development, the stimulus has produced very mixed results.

One year later, we find public support for the stimulus eroding quickly, with a recent CNN poll finding ¾'s of Americans agreeing that at least half or more of stimulus funds were wasted and nearly 2/3's suspected that stimulus investments were primarily motivated by politics. Only 36% felt the stimulus was helping our economy, down from the 57% polled a year earlier, who felt the stimulus would help the economy.

In an extremely uneven recession, where urban communities of color have been devastated by foreclosures and poverty rates for children of color are nearing 50% in some states, the stimulus has done little to stem an escalating crisis. No data is being collected on the number of jobs made available to hard hit workers of color, while minority business procurement figures are showing very disparate outcomes.

The most recent data on federal procurement in January found only 12% of contracts (and less than 8% of contract value) were procured to minority businesses. Collectively, Black and Latino owned businesses have received less than 4% of all federally procured stimulus contract dollars.

Since waves of job loss are still rising throughout our nation (and unemployment has yet to peak) we are once again speaking of an additional federal jobs bill. My hope is that any future job program will learn from the experience with the stimulus, avoiding its pitfalls and working to proactively target job production to communities of greatest need.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.