Creating Jobs and Reviving Dreams: How a Government Jobs Program Can Save Obama's America

Original source: Portside

As the economy crumbles and the unemployment rate soars, government intervention in the economy has shifted from being an ideological position to a necessity. Bank failures and mass bailouts have led to calls for nationalization of the financial system. [i] In response to this looming crisis, the Obama administration has begun to investigate options for a federal government jobs program. There are critical issues to be addressed in what this government jobs program will look like. Will it be a bold response to a systemic crisis like the Works Projects Administration of the Great Depression? Or will it be a continuation of the current bail out plans that gives the private sectors massive amounts of government money to do what they wish?

One of the critical questions is will the central purpose of the jobs program be for infrastructural development or to sustain and develop a demoralized workforce? These are two fundamentally different goals that will affect the structure of the jobs program. If the government chooses to prioritize infrastructural development then the priority may be to provide jobs to already skilled workers who have been affected by the economic downturn – like the PWA program of the 1930s. However, if the main focus is to sustain and develop the workforce then the government needs to think carefully about how to involve the most economically disenfranchised groups within the society like the WPA program of the 1930s. The WPA proved to be much more effective at assisting the groups most affected by the Great Depression – Blacks and immigrants – the same groups that today are in desperate need.

Massive unemployment is not just a problem of the past. In February 2009 the official unemployment rates were 7.6 percent nationally. As during the Great Depression, the impact of the economic downturn has disproportionately affected African-Americans and Latinos. The overall unemployment rate is 11.6 percent for Blacks, 9.2 percent for Latinos and only 6.6 percent for whites. But these are only the official numbers [ii]. Actual unemployment rates are much higher when the numbers of 'marginally attached workers' who are not actively looking for work are included in the statistics. The current overall unemployment rate is 13.9 percent. Considering that in 2006 the almost four out of ten Blacks over the age of 16 were jobless, one can only imagine how disastrous the impact of the recent job losses has been on Black and immigrant communities. [iii]

The only way to respond to this growing crisis is by developing mass job training programs run by the government. The private sector has again and again shown their inability to engage in long term infrastructural development. In addition, the recent display of flagrant greed by the financial sector indicates that the task of rebuilding the nation cannot be done effectively by private contractors, but only by the government. One of the possibilities for the Obama administration is to allocate training to the craft unions and offer jobs through that structure. The majority of jobs developed for the PWA program were given to craft union workers because they were already skilled and the construction industry had been devastated by the Depression.

But this program did not work to stimulate the economy so the Roosevelt administration decided to refocus its energies on the broader population of unemployed with the WPA program. This approach had two major positive impacts. One was to provide newfound opportunities for Blacks and undocumented immigrants – or aliens as they were known at the time. The second was to offer jobs not just in infrastructural development, but for white collar professionals and artists, writers, actors and teachers. These programs captured the imagination of the country and uplifted the workforce, not just by providing a paycheck, but providing hope for a better future. We now have an opportunity to uplift the nation once again. This is an opportunity for visionary thinking – not just about the roads and houses of our country, but about the very soul of the nation.

Recent calls for a government jobs program have been focused on the devastated Gulf region that was pummeled by Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It seemed as though the need for infrastructural rebuilding and federal government support throughout the Gulf Region could revive public interest in a government jobs program. If the government could make an initial commitment to rebuilding the Gulf region, then possibly a campaign could be extended to address the crumbling urban areas. But now as unemployment escalates it becomes more apparent that the task before us is larger than initially conceived. The economy is hemorrhaging jobs and the private sector's free market solutions have clearly failed. At the same time, the short-term glutinous legacy of right-wing policies have devastated our inner cities and rural areas.

Over time many Americans have lost faith in our government because it has prioritized the wealthy elite and the corporations. Instead of appreciating new immigrant communities for their hardworking contributions to the nation, our government has raided communities and criminalized innocent people. Instead of confronting systemic racism, the government has destroyed African American communities by using the CIA to ship drugs directly into the inner city and locked up millions in the largest prison industrial complex in the world [iv]. Instead of offering opportunities for advancement, the government has been complicit in maintaining a system where Blacks and immigrants are mired in poverty [v]. But this does not have to be our future. There is a different model of the United States government as a progressive and representative force. We have an opportunity before us to develop a comprehensive government jobs program that can reverse the mistakes of the past and provide a path to economic equality for all.

[i] 'Nationalized Banks Are 'Only Answer,' Economist Stiglitz Says' (Deutsche Welle, February 6, 2009); Andrews, Edmund L., 'Rescue of Banks Hints at Nationalization.' (NYTimes, January 15, 2009); LaBotz Dan, 'The Financial Crisis: Will The U.S. Nationalize The Banks?' (ZNet, September 29, 2008).

[ii] Shierholz, Heidi. 'Job losses ballooned in final quarter of 2008.' Jobs Picture, January 9, 2009. Economic Policy Institute.

[iii] Pitts, Steven C., 'Unionization and Black Workers,' (American Prospect, September 22, 2008).

[iv] Cockburn, Alexander and Jeffrey St. Clair. Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press (Verso, 1998); Webb, Gary. Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press, 2003.

[v] Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Censes from August, 2008 indicate that poverty rates for Hispanics were 21.5 percent in 2007 and for Blacks 24.5 percent as compared to an 8.2 percent poverty rate for whites. In addition, the poverty rate for foreign-born was 16.5 percent and for U.S. noncitizens the poverty rate was 21.3 percent in 2007.