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Pat Choate

Pat Choate

Posted: September 17, 2009 02:57 PM

Jobs for America's Unemployed Teenagers

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The unemployment rate for Americans between the ages of 16 and 19 reached a Depression era level of 25.5 percent in August -- the highest point since the Labor Department began keeping those records more than a half century ago. Most of these 1.5 million unemployed young people live in urban areas where few jobs exist and are unlikely to be created in the foreseeable future. If, as many economists predict, the national unemployment rate reaches double-digit levels and remains high for three or four years, the United States risks losing a major portion of this new generation to drift, sloth and crime.

Direct government employment is the fastest, surest and least expensive - if not the only - way to create enough new jobs for them. The problem is similar to the one that FDR faced in 1933 when half the nation's young men aged 15 to 25 had only part-time work or none at all. FDR's response was to quickly initiate a jobs program for them that ultimately became one of the most popular New Deal programs - the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

The CCC "boys," as they often called themselves, were mostly school dropouts who never had held a full-time job. In the CCC, they received room, board, clothing and one dollar a day. Of the $30 per month, they were required to send $25 home, which kept many families from starvation during the Great Depression. Later, the CCC boys wrote scores of books and articles describing how the experience had changed their lives, giving them a purpose and a way out of crime-ridden neighborhoods, enabling them to be productive, responsible men.

During the CCC's 9-years (1933-1942), the federal government created 4,000 work camps and employed a total of more than 3 million young men. A typical CCC project was work on Skyline Drive, in what was to become the 200,000-acre Shenandoah National Park, which stretches 105 miles through Virginia along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. More than 1,000 workers graded roadways, installed guardrails and walls, constructed overlooks and landscaped the park with hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs and acres of grass. They also built picnic areas and campgrounds, comfort stations and visitor and maintenance buildings and installed the signs that guided visitors.

The CCC did similar work in every state, including what became the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Overall, the CCC's reforestation program planted more than 3 billion trees -- more than half the reforestation, public and private, done in all of U.S. history. Its inventory of other completed projects include,

1. Bridges - 46,854

2. Lodges and museums - 204

3. Historic structures restored - 3,980

4. Drinking Fountains - 1,865

5. Fire lookout towers - 3,116

6. Well and pump houses - 8,065

7. Forest Roads - 2,500 miles

8. Roads and truck trails - 2,500 miles

9. Cabins - 1,477

10. Bathhouses - 165

11. Large dams - 197

12. Water supply lines - 5,000 miles

13. Fences - 27,191 miles

14. Fish-rearing ponds - 4,622

15. Beaches improved - 3,462

16. Fires Fought - 6.5 million days at a loss of 47 lives

Many of today's 1.5 million jobless teenagers, like their Depression-era predecessors, are also school dropouts, have no job experience and are already in or headed toward criminal activities or gang life.

Putting them to work rehabilitating America's federal, state and local parks and forests is a perfect match-up. These public facilities have more than one billion visitors annually and, after years of neglect, many are in terrible shape, creating a huge backlog of maintenance and conservation projects. The National Park system alone faces a $7 billion maintenance backlog. State and local parks, which handle three times the number of visitors as the federal parks, have even greater requirements.

A modern CCC, employing both men and women, can make our public parks and national forests sparkle again. More important, with full-time, paying jobs, exposure to the magnificence of our parks and forestlands and the realization that they are contributing to the nation, these young workers will have a chance to figure out what they want to do with their lives, test their abilities, and develop confidence in themselves. A modern CCC can do for America now what FDR's program did 75 years ago.