The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” has prompted a bout of national soul-searching about how much progress we’ve really made. If we’re actually interested in helping the poor, we should look even farther back in history, and resurrect the WPA.
The Works Progress Administration started in 1935 and ran all the way until the WWII jobs boom rendered it unnecessary. It was essentially a huge national jobs program. It covered the entire nation. It focused on public works projects, but also put tons of needy artists and writers on the public payroll. It was meant primarily to relieve unemployment (and it did), but the legacy of the artwork and writing and countless construction projects that were completed under its auspices lives on today.
A great time to resurrect such a national jobs program would have been in 2009, in the very depths of The Great Recession. Instead, the government chose to pour most of its money directly into the banking system. Five years later, Wall Street is booming, but the “real economy” has not completely kept pace with the rising stock market. Long term unemployment, particularly among minorities and young people, persists. The Obama administration, and the Fed, have provided many forms of economic stimulus—but they have not tried a large-scale, nationwide employment program that comes close to the WPA.
The initial funding for the WPA was 6.7% of the U.S. GDP. Today, that would be just over $1 trillion. Sounds steep, until you consider the amount that we spent on bank bailouts. Had the government just nationalized the failing banks and made a new WPA the main government response to the financial crisis, that price tag would not be so outrageous. (It’s also less than we’ve spent on the Bush era’s unnecessary foreign wars.)
Of course, what’s done is done, and what’s spent is spent. What sort of jobs program might we reasonably enact today? Well, the American Society of Civil Engineers says that the U.S. needs $3.6 trillion in infrastructure spending in the next six years. Even leaving some wiggle room for the source, that is a huge amount of need. It is widely accepted that our nation’s roads and bridges and other infrastructure is overdue for massive amounts of upgrades. We could have gotten started fixing that in 2009, and put huge numbers of unemployed people to work at the same time. Instead, we directed our resources to the banks. The need for both infrastructure spending and employment remains.
A new report says that “Persistent high unemployment among young people is adding up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes.” The total long term cost of all of the young people who cannot get started on their careers due to economic recession is almost incalculable. An investment in employment now pays dividends for generations to come. We will need to repair our infrastructure sooner or later. Might as well do it when we have a ton of willing laborers desperate to find work. Two birds, one stone, and all that.
The new WPA would not necessarily have to be a trillion-dollar program. It just needs to be a true reflection of the philosophy that our government should stimulate the economy from the bottom up, not from the top down.