National Service

WPA poster, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Today, watching a back episode of Amanpour and Co., I heard Mark Cuban call for National Service. The idea gets kicked around. Pete Buttigieg, a Navy vet, rolled out a whole plan, along with Kirsten Gillibrand, and some more obscure Democratic candidates. Clinton called for an expansion of AmeriCorps in 2016, as did Obama in 2008. A quick scan of Biden’s website shows him proposing $10,000 in student debt relief for every year spent in national or community service.

Now, of course, as Cuban points out when he talks about unions in the above clip, things have changed. National service seems less like a squishy, feel good, liberal sort of program, and more like something that could save the country.

During the Great Depression, FDR launched the Civilian Conservation Corps. In its heyday in 1935, more than 500,000 young men were enrolled, doing things like building roads, airstrips, trails, and campsites; controlling erosion and flooding; fighting fire; planting trees and shrubs; improving streams; and providing disaster relief. In a Gallup poll in 1936, 82% of respondents were in favor of the CCC. That number included 92% of the Democrats and 67% of the Republicans. That’s pretty broad bipartisan support.

The CCC’s big brother, the Work Progress Administration, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. That’s about 6.6% of the population. Its aim was to provide breadwinners with jobs. WPA workers built streets and roads, the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the dams and waterworks of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Camp David, among other things.

WPA workers paving Moss Street in New Orleans. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It was World War II that finally led to economic recovery for the States, but it is worth asking how much the post-war boomtimes were fueled by the great infrastructure the country enjoyed.

We sure could use 8.5 million people working on our roads now. About 32% of urban roads and 14% of rural roads are in poor condition. Our battered and worn infrastructure is a real problem for our economy. It is a concern of companies deciding where to locate, not to mention a hindrance to commerce and a time vortex for individuals.

And we don’t just need to fix what we have. We need to add broadband capacity for everyone, more bike lanes and public transportation options, renewable power generation projects, charging stations for electric vehicles, and some potentially staggeringly large water projects if we want the West to remain habitable. We also badly need to build more levees, straight-up move some communities, and mitigate for wildfires throughout the West, and, apparently, Florida.

WPA bridge. Courtesy National Archives.

Experience keeps teaching us that infrastructure is an essential investment, not wasteful spending. In New Orleans, the levees failed, in Minnesota, the bridge collapsed, in the Northeast, the power went out, and it takes a freight train between 26 to 30 hours to get through Chicago. Maybe that’s why nobody could get toilet paper.

It is a lesson we seem hell bent on not learning. But it’s time we stopped pretending that you don’t have to spend money to make money.

In addition to beginning to fix our ongoing neglect-made infrastructure disaster and providing incomes for breadwinners, national service would put kids from my high-income, low-diversity town shoulder to shoulder with kids from a huge range of backgrounds. Gap years are becoming more popular in the US, but not everyone can afford to take a year to explore. Hell, a lot of people can’t afford college in the first place. National service creates a gap year opportunity for everyone, feeding colleges and workplaces a more experienced and worldly graduate.

CCC enrollees planting willow sprouts. Image courtesy National Archives.

And national service doesn’t have to just be about infrastructure. Childcare is a huge problem in the US, especially in low-income communities. Social workers, addiction counselors, school teachers, safety-net hospitals — they’re all desperate for help. We could bring back the candy-striper! And, of course, in the immediate term, there is all that contact tracing and testing to be done.

These things, too, are investments that benefit our economy, if, perhaps, less directly.

In April, the US lost 20.5 million jobs and the unemployment rate was 14.7%. To get to the 6.6% of the population employed by the WPA, we would need to hire 21.6 million Americans over the course of the next 8 years, if my math is right. Going the route of a mandatory or at least strongly encouraged program for young people would be a vast project. Getting to CCC numbers and limiting the program to youth would be a lot easier, especially with many service corps still existing in various states and regions. But it would still be a huge undertaking.

Sometimes huge undertakings have a huge payoff.

Red Rocks Amphitheater, a WPA/CCC project still in use. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We’re still using roads, dams, campgrounds, and other infrastructure built by the CCC and the WPA more than 75 years later. These programs got the nation to work, and allowed us to go into World War II ready to fight, despite the hard times. It is impossible to calculate the economic benefit of all those projects over all these years, but it must be substantial.

The post-war years saw booming growth and creation of what we think of as the middle class in this country. At a time when both our infrastructure and our middle class are collapsing, national service is an idea whose time has come ’round, again.

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