By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
President Barack Obama saved Wall Street from the brink and won the Nobel Peace Prize, but hold the champagne. How he addresses Main Street's glum joblessness will swing how an anxious America judges his performance. Not even winning at war or peace matters as much; work is where people live.
Interesting times call for bold measures—and I for one am ready to re-invent the Works Progress Administration for our era. The WPA, established as a government agency under the watchful eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was just the thing then in 1935—providing a tremendous lift to 8.5 million who sought work, along with a lasting legacy in the arts and civic infrastructure.
Obama and Congress might find that classic Depression model useful in crafting a strong programmatic remedy for the 15 million (and counting) unemployed Americans. Green technology and city school tutoring are good starting points on a new drawing board.
This task became more urgent this fall. The September unemployment figure came in at 9.8 percent, a grim number that suggests "recession" is too good a word for the nation's economic woes. This is no ordinary recession, many feel in their bones, as job losses mount for the 21st month in a row. In the beleaguered auto and newspaper industries, another buy-out or lay-off often looms around the workplace corner.
The president and publisher of USA Today, David Hunke, noted this trend remains widespread across various sectors of the economy: "When is the country going to stop laying people off?" he asked at a forum led by Marvin Kalb last week at the National Press Club.
Nobody had a good answer to that.
Those who are discouraged and have quit looking for a job are not counted in the statistics. But the American people know the home truths of the counted and the uncounted, because they represent family, friends, neighbors, and former co-workers. Young people are especially hard hit by joblessness which takes a psychological toll on their identity and independence. When countless college graduates can't get their foot in the door for their first handshake and job offer, that's a dismal way to start adulthood.
Meanwhile, a significant number of adults in their 70s and even 80s, children of the Depression, are still working full-time in universities, hospitals, and the media. Perhaps they are wary of retirement in this economy. This trend is visibly exemplified by the gray eminences in the "60 Minutes" cast of characters. I like 90-year-old Andy Rooney as well as anyone, but at some point things get old and you have to pass the torch in the spirit of fair play. A frozen white-collar workforce at the upper echelons makes it harder for people in their 20s and 30s to get established.
When a crisis rises like a river, there's no shame in re-inventing one of the best ideas in American government. A fresh edition of social projects to bring people to work in the morning would do wonders for morale. There is a social price to be paid for too much talent sitting at home, feeling isolated.
Bring back the WPA, Mr. President. The results remain to this day: 116,000 buildings, 78,000 bridges and 650,000 miles of road were built by the WPA. Post offices were adorned with murals and scores of airports were improved. They thought big.
Artists, writers, actors, sculptors, and historians got a start down their life path with the WPA, with no stigma attached to helping society. The regional guidebooks produced, in which writers recorded local folklore and customs, are a precious part of our heritage.
A youth program was part of the WPA, a component that seems sensible in the situation we're facing today. Optimism, a core American character trait, is worth preserving for the future if we can.
In 1943, with the Depression over, it was lights out for the WPA. All told, the price tag for public works was less than $1 billion: a real bargain at the bazaar where we spend money on wars and Wall Street.