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Happy 75th, WPA: Its Genius Holds Lessons for Today's Jobs Crisis

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This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Work Progress Administration, the New Deal centerpiece that helped end the Great Depression by directly creating 3.3 million jobs. As we have just experienced the steepest job losses since then, let's take a moment to remind ourselves the economic lessons we learned from that historic program.

First, we learned that after the private sector suffers a major shock to the system, it can't quickly recover on its own. Government must step in.

Second, direct government hiring not only replaces jobs that have been lost, it also primes the pump so the private sector can start hiring again.

Finally, effective government hiring targets the communities hardest hit by economic crisis.

Washington is having a hard time heeding these lessons. The Recovery Act, known as the stimulus, was government action that pulled us back from the brink of depression. But Congress has resisted a major push for strategic government hiring, so far. Using today's anniversary to look back at why the WPA and its brethren accomplished so much could be a way to change the political dynamic.

Indirectly creating private sector jobs: At one point in 1938, The Work Progress Administration was the largest employer in the nation -- having put 3.3 million people to work. But for each job created by the WPA, another two jobs were indirectly created in the private sector. The WPA was involved in huge variety of projects ranging from building transportation infrastructure to creating community art projects.

Wide-ranging, yet targeted, hiring: The WPA was so successful in the 1930s because it only hired currently unemployed workers and provided vocational training so workers could move into emerging industries. Today, more than 6.5 million workers have been unemployed for longer than six months. Workers who are jobless for long periods of time have a tougher time finding a new job because they lose skills while they are out of work.

Unskilled workers between the ages of 20-24 are also have trouble finding work; their unemployment rate has climbed to nearly 15%. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dealt with this problem through the WPA's National Youth Administration work-study program, in which 2.7 million young people were able to either stay in school while working, or receive job training. Similarly, the separate Civilian Conservation Corps -- which trained and employed nearly 3 million people over the course of its existence -- focused on hiring untrained, unskilled young people to help construct more than 800 parks and planted three billion trees.

Recognizing hard-hit communities of color: African-American males currently have twice the unemployment rate of white males. FDR mandated that 10% of the funds used in Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and National Youth Administration go to African Americans, who at the time represented 10 percent of the population. Although they represented 20 percent of the nation's poor at that time, that set-aside was nonetheless a significant step at the time.

Keeping an eye on the future: The Public Works Administration literally brought the United States into the 20th Century, creating 70% of the country's new educational buildings, as well as a significant number of courthouses, municipal buildings, sewage plants, hospitals, roads, bridges and subways.

Is there anything on Congress' horizon that applies the lessons from the success of the WPA and its sister agencies?

The newly introduced Local Jobs For America Act -- which Campaign for America's Future is championing -- could be a significant step in the right direction. It would provide $100 billion over two years for local governments, helping them create or save one million workers offering vital public services. In addition to creating or saving 250,000 jobs in education, it would give local governments freedom to create jobs in other areas depending upon the specific needs of their communities.

Furthermore, the bill mandates funding for 50,000 on-the-job private-sector training positions , helping ensure that unskilled workers, especially in communities of color, aren't shut out of the recovery.

The bill currently has 120 co-sponsors in the House, but it needs more than 200 to have enough support to pass. So far, some right-leaning Democrats remain scared of cries of "socialism" and are wary of using the government to directly create jobs.

What these Democrats miss is that once the jobs are created, the program will surely be popular. As my colleague Tony Lodico of the Mon Valley Unemployment Coalition pointed out to me, "If you create millions of jobs through New Deal-style programs, everybody will have a friend or family member who has a job. It will be hard for people to argue against something that directly helps their own family."

Direct government hiring will not only be politically popular, but the history of the WPA informs us it is absolutely necessary to quickly spark economic recovery after a devastating blow.

Now the fight is up to us. Click here to tell your House representative to co-sponsor the Local Jobs For America Act.