Should we create a new WPA?
Many analysts, academics, politicians, political pundits, and journalists have suggested the possibility of a new WPA and/or CCC to address America’s current unemployment problems. What do you think?
I believe a new WPA is entirely possible and achievable, from a functional point of view. Unfortunately, the current political atmosphere will probably not allow it. The current national discussion is directed more toward cutting government spending than creating a new government employment program.
Still, it’s interesting (and useful, should the political atmosphere change) to consider the various aspects of a new WPA.
5. Would a new WPA hurt or strengthen private business?
6. Would WPA workers become overly reliant on their government provided jobs?
7. Wouldn't it be easier, and more efficient, to just extend unemployment benefits?
8. Would there be waste, fraud, and abuse in a WPA program?
As of September 2011 there are--according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics--14 million unemployed Americans. Of these, about 6 million are classified as long-term unemployed (unemployed for 27 weeks or more). The official unemployment rate is 9.1%. For some groups, the unemployment rate is much higher (e.g., 16.7% for African-Americans). There are about 3.2 million job openings, which means there are a little over 4 job seekers for every job opening (http://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.nr0.htm).
The unemployment rate has been 8.8% or higher since April of 2009, or about 2 ½ years (http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000).
If you include other types of people, e.g., people who have given up looking for work and people who want full-time jobs but can only find part-time employment, the numbers are much larger. For example, according to the National Jobs For All Coalition, there are 29.3 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed—18.3% of the country’s labor force (http://www.njfac.org/). And, according to a June 2011 CBS news report, “About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed persons in this country, have been jobless for more than six months – at its highest since the Great Depression (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/05/eveningnews/main20069136.shtml).
In addition to these cold, hard statistics, the unemployed often face multiple social barriers to employment. There have been reports of people being excluded from job consideration because of their unemployed status (the implication being that there must be something wrong with them) or their bad credit score (which likely occurred because they were laid off in the first place, and thus they were unable to pay their bills).
Job seekers might also be excluded because they don’t have a college degree (or, alternatively, because they do have a college degree, a.k.a. being “overqualified”), because they lack years of experience, or because they lack one or more skills and the firm/agency/organization has no interest in training them. Additionally, job seekers always face the possibility that they will be excluded because of race, age, or gender. Some studies even indicate that tall men have advantages over short men, and attractive women have advantages over unattractive women, when it comes to obtaining job offers (see here, for example). And, it goes without saying that a criminal record can be a major roadblock to employment.
When one considers the staggering unemployment numbers, and the various barriers to getting a job, it seems reasonable to consider a new WPA. Thus, I believe the rationale is present even if the political will is not.
back to top menu
Multiple funding sources would be preferable, e.g., congressional appropriation, private contribution, and the sale of WPA-created items.
Another idea is an optional insurance system. Employed workers could opt into a system that deducts a certain percentage of their pay, and then places it into a WPA Unemployment Insurance Fund. Participants in the system who subsequently become unemployed would have priority for WPA jobs over unemployed people who chose not to participate in the insurance program.
back to top menu
One way of figuring this out would be to look at the unemployment statistics from the 1930s. Two of the most commonly cited unemployment figures are the “Lebergott” and “Darby” numbers. Professor of Economics Robert A. Margo explained that “The difference between Lebergott’s and Darby’s series reflects the treatment of persons with so-called ‘work-relief’ jobs. For Lebergott, persons on work relief are unemployed, while Darby counts them as employed.”
So, WPA workers are considered unemployed in Lebergott’s analysis. His unemployment rates are as follows:
1933 24.9% (FDR takes office on March 4, 1933; CCC, CWA, and PWA begin)
1935 20.1% (WPA begins)
1938 19.0% (Probably rose as a result of the government spending cuts of 1937)
1939 17.2% (After the so-called “Roosevelt Recession," gov’t spending is increased)
Now let’s look at Darby’s numbers which counts Americans on work-relief as “employed.”
(Source: Robert A. Margo, "Employment and Unemployment in the 1930s." Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 7, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 41-59)
As can be seen, unemployment rates went down for Americans generally (except for 1938) and, when you count work-relief jobs, went down significantly. Would the same happen today?
I would propose that any person who (a) cannot find employment in the private sector or regular government job openings, (b) can show a verifiable, good-faith job search lasting for 6 months, and (c) has exhausted all unemployment benefits, should be allowed into a WPA program.
By “verifiable good-faith job search” I mean that an applicant to the WPA program should show that they have applied to a certain number of jobs, and that they were eligible for those jobs. The job search would have to be recorded and a WPA administrative office would verify that the applicant’s job search was legitimate. This would ensure that unemployed people were not applying to jobs that they knew were out of their reach, just to secure a WPA job.
back to top menu
A WPA would strengthen private business in several ways. Consider these:
(a) Employers sometimes complain that job applicants lack the skills the employer needs. Well then, people can learn new skills in a WPA-type program. Consider this statement from a CCC camp officer: “…we learn from reports from the field that the boys leaving us have demonstrated qualities of neatness, precision, and willingness, plus a degree of skill that encourages industrial plants to give them an opportunity to learn a skilled trade” (CCC Training Puts Many In Industry: 2,687 Boys of 126 camps in area this year leave to accept private jobs, Baltimore Sun, July 26, 1940).
(b) WPA projects can facilitate private sector growth. The WPA built roads and airports, which helped goods and services move across the country. The CCC’s development of state parks in the western Maryland area has helped business thrive there for decades. See this article.
(c) Employment in a WPA program will increase consumer demand. If a person has exhausted their unemployment benefits, and still cannot find a job, they have zero income and cannot buy goods and services. Consider this from Nick Taylor’s book American-Made, speaking of a WPA project in Florida: “Their first paychecks, distributed on September 17, were a bonanza for Ocala merchants. The J.C. Penney store downtown cashed 700 checks in ninety minutes. Work clothes and boots flew out the door. The butchers at the A&P and Piggly Wiggly couldn’t cut steaks and pork chops fast enough…” (p. 205, 2009 paperback edition).
back to top menu
It’s possible. In fact, there’s evidence that some WPA workers in the 1930s and 40s were reluctant to leave for private sector work. It wasn’t because the WPA jobs were easier or better paid; it was the fear they had of getting a job in the private sector and then losing it because of the chaotic nature of the private sector labor market.
This wasn’t a good outcome, but it’s understandable. Lower income Americans had been through years of hardship and financial insecurity. They had a job and a steady paycheck in the WPA and they wanted to keep it. However, this problem is easily correctible by making a WPA program a permanent fixture in America. In other words, make the WPA a permanent employer of last resort. This way, people would not fret leaving the security of the WPA for a new job. They would have some peace of mind, i.e., “Hey, if I’m laid off from this job, at least I’ll have something to come back to.”
There would be other ways to prevent over-reliance on WPA jobs. For example, you could pay below-market wages. If carpenters make an average of $25 per hour in a certain geographic region, then pay a WPA carpenter $12.50 per hour. You could also set enrollment limits. For example, no person would work in the WPA for more than 3 consecutive years, or 12 cumulative years. If someone had worked in the program for three consecutive years, they would have to go through a 6-month disenrollment period and then provide a job search record for that 6-month period before reenrollment.
Yet another way to curtail reliance on a WPA job would be to limit benefits, e.g., no paid vacations (you could take days off, you just wouldn’t get paid). Furthermore, you could limit reliance by having WPA workers spend 4 days on the job, and then have them spend the 5th day looking for work (and the day’s job search would be submitted to a WPA administrative office for verification).
One point I’d like to make here, is that a WPA job—though restrictive in the above ways—would not have to be a joyless experience either. Stigmatizing people does nothing for their self-esteem and confidence. Instead, they could be given certificates upon the completion of a project; for example, stating “a job well done on the new ‘Highway 87’ project.” They could also be awarded certificates for showing competency in new skills, e.g., statistics or historic preservation techniques or plumbing.
In any event, limitations in pay, benefits, and enrollment periods, coupled with a mandatory work search days and knowledge that they could re-enroll in the WPA if they were laid off from their newly-acquired jobs, would prevent over-reliance on WPA jobs.
back to top menu
Extending unemployment benefits is a compassionate thing to do, and it is easier to cut a check than to set up a new government agency. At some point however, being on the “dole,” so to speak, does damage to one’s resume. An employer is likely to wonder why an applicant has spent two years being unemployed, and also how much their work ethic and skills have deteriorated in that time. Much better for an applicant to say, for example, “I’ve spent the last two years in the WPA, helping the Army Corps of Engineers plan various projects.”
back to top menu
8. Wouldn't there be waste, fraud, and abuse in a WPA program?
Yes, there would. Like any human venture--public or private--a public works program would be vulnerable to human error and mischief. Scandals occur in private business, in the investment market, in charities, in the military, in Congress, and anywhere else people are organized. However, the answer is not to "throw the baby out with the bath water," but to practice diligent oversight. A public works program would have to be carefully monitored to guard against embezzlement, fraud, political manipulation, and so forth.
back to top menu
Some commentators have made this point, and it is a good one (see here, for example). However, I refuse to believe that we can have military bases and military actions around the globe, but we can’t have a domestic work program like the WPA because it’s “too complex” or there’s too much “red tape.”
Granted, there would have to be more administrative maneuvering and creativity than in the 1930s, but it could be done. For example, an expansion of federal, state, and local government internship programs could provide a large sector of WPA jobs without intruding on the private sector (for example, interning at the National Park Service or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
back to top menu
As stated in number 6 above, I believe a permanent WPA is in our nation’s best interest. There will always be some segment of the population that the private sector is uninterested in hiring. Do we say to these people, “tough luck,” or do we give them a helping hand?
The labor market is very chaotic. You may think you are pursuing a growing job market when you finally decide on a college major, or a skilled trade to learn, but at the end of the day—unless you have a crystal ball—you’re forced to speculate. What if you’re wrong?
Consider the case of teachers. In the early-to-mid 2000s, there was widespread talk of how America was going to have a teacher shortage very soon, largely due to population increase and retiring baby boomers. Many people, quite rationally I think, chose to pursue education degrees. Now look at the situation. Teachers are being assaulted from all angles—their pay, their benefits, their ability to organize into unions, and their very employment.
So, to some degree, a permanent WPA would serve as a fire fighting safety net for people who get bumped out of the jobs “building” by the chaos and unpredictability of the labor market.
This is an important question, but I am not well-versed enough in public administration to go very deep here. One thing I will say is that the CCC was more popular than the WPA. Even many conservatives liked the CCC. I think part of the reason was because the CCC was run somewhat like a military agency. There is probably a perception in America that something run by, for example, the Marines is more efficient than a non-military agency like the Social Security Administration. These types of perceptions are not necessarily true—the Social Security Administration happens to be one of the most efficient organizations in America (public or private)—but the perception is there nevertheless.
So, should a new WPA be run by a military agency? Perhaps not solely, but some military involvement could win favor with the public. And it must be remembered that the discipline in CCC camps was not as rigid and harsh as in the military branches and, of course, the CCC men were free to leave at any time.
So, perhaps a modern WPA could be run by the U.S. Department of Labor, with the U.S. Army as an active consultant and/or partner, particularly with labor site organization, mobilization, and transportation. There would be no boot camp of course (!), but good oversight of work places and WPA workers (in a caring, not cruel way).
Of course, we would also want to examine the administration of the original WPA in crafting a modern WPA—careful to replicate the successes, but not the mistakes.
(k) Law Enforcement Assistance: Some unemployed Americans--the ones who are willing and fit--could be employed to assist in monitoring the nation's airports, harbors, and borders. Some could ride along with police officers--who normally drive alone--and offer back-up protection during routine patrol stops. This could help prevent the occasional and unfortunate roadside shootings that occur. Obviously, these types of jobs would require a certain type of person, and very speciliazed training (which could, however, lead to permanent employment elsewhere).
(l) Building Houses For Homeless Veterans: CNN ran an interesting and sad article about homeless vets here. According to the article there are about 107,000 homeless vets, as of October 2011. Apparently, some land in California--that was intended to help homeless vets--is now being used for things such as a golf course and a private school. Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran whose story was made famous by the 1989 movie "Born on the Fourth of July," states: "If that land was given to veterans and if we were able to put at least a small percentage of what we're spending on these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan towards building a facility for homeless and disabled veterans, I think it would be one of the most honorable things we could do as citizens..." A modern WPA could build such facilities.