|“Works Progress Administration Project 1937” sign on the City Hall in Stewartville, Minnesota.|
By Jeremy Mele
The Great Depression was a horrible time during US history that saw poverty skyrocket and employment levels reach new lows. It was an unprecedented moment in American history that shook the country and created economic devastation that made the millions of unemployed struggle desperately to support their families.
Today, we are not living in an economic downturn of the magnitude of the Great Depression. But we nevertheless continue to struggle with poverty and joblessness: twin scourges that do much to contribute to and exacerbate other issues in our society, such as, as I shall argue, political disengagement. The current unemployment rate stands at 4.7%: a number which, though far from an all-time high, still signifies that millions of people lack the chance to earn a living. Worse, that number fails to account for persons who are under-employed (that is, individuals whose only source of income are part-time jobs and, therefore do not have the chance to earn a full living).
What is the solution to this problem, and what kinds of reforms should we, as democratic socialists, fight for? Of course, there is no one simple answer. But history can offer us clues, and I think that examining the response of President Franklin Roosevelt—though he was himself no leftist—to the Great Depression can help to guide us in dealing with the problem of unemployment.
For example, to combat joblessness, President Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed almost 3.5 million Americans as public servants in public works projects, which included both artistic efforts to beautify communities as well as projects to facilitate infrastructure repair. Through the WPA, towns and cities were improved and modernized. Communities flourished as roads and bridges were fixed, libraries and museums were built, and public parks and neighborhoods were kept spotless. All of this was accomplished while seriously putting a dent in the national level of unemployment.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that Trump or the current Republican Congress would ever approve the creation of such a program today. Trump, as he has shown, would rather spend millions of taxpayer dollars golfing than to keep Meals on Wheels and other life-saving programs funded. The current national government is not now open even to the idea of moderate reforms that would help the working class
But the federal government’s resistance to suggestions of reform from below does not mean we should temporarily give up on government sponsored guaranteed jobs programs. It just means that we need to focus our efforts on local and state governments—some of which have already begun to move in the right direction. Portland, Maine, for example, recently approved a program to hire the homeless to clean various areas in the community. The program was slated to start in April, and, if successful, it should be used as a motivator to encourage other cities and towns to adopt similar measures.
As a Maine resident, I have noticed that people will often lament that our state is not attractive to young people due to a lack of steady employment opportunities. Proposed solutions to this problem often involve making Maine more “business friendly,” an ethos that was employed against the recent referendum—which thankfully passed—to increase the minimum wage. Higher wages, it is argued, mean businesses will not want to stay/come to an area due to lower profit margins.
But the beauty of a municipal/state guaranteed jobs program is that it need not be run like a business. Instead of running the program for profit, the state or municipality can instead focus on improving the lives of citizens. And after all, shouldn’t the government be more focused on the wellbeing of its citizenry than maximizing capital’s profits?
The job opportunities and infrastructure repairs/improvements of such a program have the potential to be vast, and the best part of is that the positive effects would be cumulative. A city with job opportunities, living wages, and great infrastructure is one that is attractive to both newcomers and new businesses. People will want to live where good, steady, and well-compensated work is available, and businesses will be happy to swoop in and provide spending opportunities for workers with increased disposable incomes. For activists working on the local and state level, it may thus even be possible to win over moderates and conservatives who claim to want to attract new businesses.
Of course, as with all governmental programs, the question of cost will ultimately arise. While some will inevitably view a government jobs program as theft, such programs actually have the potential to lower individual tax burdens. After all, a higher number of employed persons means a higher number of taxpayers and a smaller number of persons relying on direct government assistance. A guaranteed municipal/state jobs program akin to the New Deal may come at a cost in the short term. But in the long term it will be much cheaper to provide everyday citizens the chance to earn a living—and make their communities better places to live—than it will be to pay for traditional governmental services for the homeless and the unemployed. As social science researcher Amir Fleischmann writes;
…academic research has shown that homelessness is actually very expensive, because homeless people tend to cost the government a great deal of money in healthcare and criminal justice system services. In fact, people experiencing homelessness tend to cost $3,810 per person per year greater than the average citizen in terms of justice services and $10,217 per person greater than the average citizen in terms of healthcare services. The cost of homelessness support programs range from a couple thousand dollars to just over $14,000 per person annually.
Set aside any moral obligation we might have to help the homeless — failing to meaningfully address homelessness is the more costly policy.
Fleischmann’s analysis is spot-on, and it helps lend credence to the idea that anything that helps the unemployed/homeless and the working class is, ultimately, good for society (which hardly seems remarkable, but fear mongering by politicians and others have led to the demonization of anyone in this country who receives government assistance).
Beyond providing for widespread well being and lowering tax burdens, guaranteed jobs programs also hold out the prospect of increased political participation. Historically, the lower a person’s income, the less likely they are to vote.This is not a particularly difficult phenomenon to understand: people who earn less need to spend more time working than others and, subsequently are less likely and able to take time off work to vote or otherwise participate in politics. This, in turn, creates a situation where working class interests go unrepresented in government because the working class lacks the ability to make themselves known to the government.
Municipal/state guaranteed jobs programs have the potential to change that.
When the working class has the governmentally guaranteed opportunity to work, and when they are made materially comfortable by the financial compensation from that work, their lives are massively improved and they are freed to participate in the government in ways they never had the time, or energy, to do previously. A municipal/state guaranteed jobs program can help the un-/under-employed, improve material conditions for the working class, and lead to the beautification of communities. By pushing for such programs on the local and state levels, democratic socialists can better working-class lives while building political power.
Jeremy Mele is Vice Chair of Southern Maine DSA.
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