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Thursday, July 5, 2012 10:29 am

We need a new WPA

The Labor Department’s estimate of jobs added to the U.S. economy in May was 69,000, a number too low to keep up with population growth. But in an election year, we no longer expect a real response to unemployment from Congress. Most of us expect a governmental train wreck at year’s end, no matter who wins the election.

In T.H. Watkins’ The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America, the statistics about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) leap off the page. In most years, the WPA employed more than two million people in many different jobs. The WPA’s impact on the short- and long-term well-being of the country was immense.

Watkins observes that “the WPA built or repaired 1.2 million miles of culverts and nearly 600,000 miles of highways, streets and roads, and laid 24,000 miles of sidewalks. It constructed or restored more than 110,000 public libraries, schools, auditoriums, stadiums and other public buildings. It constructed 5,898 playgrounds and athletic fields and 1,667 parks, fairgrounds and rodeo grounds.” And so on.

Establishing a new WPA is what our federal government should have done to help the millions of unemployed Americans. Unfortunately, we live in a time when borrowing money for munitions is politically more feasible than borrowing to provide jobs that allow parents to feed their children.

In his June 4 column, David Brooks, a conservative commentator who writes interesting arguments, examined the possible meanings of the Wisconsin recall vote. These sentences were presented as if their truth was self-evident: “A vote to keep Walker won’t be an anti-union vote. It will be a vote against any special interest that seeks to preserve exorbitant middle-class benefits at the expense of the public good.”

Can we please think about those two sentences?

A middle class is somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of the population, so anything that is good for the middle class has a strong claim to being for the “public” good. Many workers in the U.S. currently are experiencing rapid downward mobility because of job loss, wage stagnation or benefit cuts. The top 1 percent is doing well and earns about one quarter of the nation’s annual income, while the top 20 percent controls about 80 percent of the country’s total wealth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership is down to about 11.8 percent of our workers – about 14.8 million people, with slightly more than half in public-sector unions. Does anybody believe that if we break the backs of the public-sector unions, their lost earnings will flow downhill to the poor? Aren’t we more likely to hear a giant sucking sound as the venture capitalists and Wall Street financiers absorb these new profits?

We would be better off as a nation if more of our elected leaders had focused on creating a modern-day WPA. For starters, we could hire unemployed construction workers to bury every power line in the country to protect them from tornadoes and falling trees; clerks and secretaries to augment the staff of every school, company and government agency and give them the task of getting rid of all the paper (Go digital!); and workers to haul junk from people’s garages, sheds and barns and salvage anything useful, or to grow food that could feed hungry children.

The WPA worked before, and its descendant could work again if more elected leaders still thought of themselves as public servants.

This government and this economy exist to serve citizens, not the other way around. The WPA, while not a permanent solution to our unemployment problems during the Great Depression, enabled millions of citizens to survive their misfortune with dignity. It demonstrated that government and the economy serve a higher purpose than channeling immense wealth to a few oligarchs.

Those were the days.

Nick Capo, associate dean and associate professor of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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