Friday, July 11, 2014

How a New WPA Program Might Work

From 1935 to 1943, the Works Progress Administration provided many American jobs.  Its workers, who reached 3.3 million in 1938, mostly constructed buildings, many of which are still in use today, and roads, all over the country.  The program ended in 1943, when the war effort had greatly reduced unemployment. 

There are two excellent reasons why a WPA-style effort would be good today.   At the top of the list are persistent unemployment, still at 9.9 million officially despite years of improvement, and a massive need for infrastructure work, with a $3.6 trillion cost estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers through 2020.   Beyond that is the stimulus value of the money, as workers would receive paychecks which, unlike those received by people with very high incomes today, would overwhelmingly be spent on goods and services.   Yet times are different now than they were 80 years ago, so some aspects of the program and even its overall charter might best be changed.  So what features could this new infrastructure and jobs effort have?

First, in contrast to the original WPA the new one’s emphasis could be on needed projects first and jobs second.  In order to get conservative support in Washington, it should put better American infrastructure first.  It might start out relatively small, as the highest priority ventures are approved and the results assessed.  It would not be designed to guarantee work for everyone, rather to assure that the public works improvements necessary in any event are completed.

Second, there should be no eligibility restrictions for new WPA jobs.  Requiring, for example, that workers be unemployed would, at a time when 7.5 million Americans work part-time but want full-time positions, be inappropriate.  Those employed only seasonally, in fields they do not want to be in, or at levels well below their education and proven skill levels should also not be penalized for making adaptive choices. 

Third, pay for new WPA jobs would not match industry standards.  The great majority of these positions, even if skilled, could have salaries of $20,000 to $35,000 per year.  The idea of promising middle class prosperity for workers, long held by many on the left and continuing to shape discussions about the minimum wage, would not be able to come into play.

Fourth, the positions would include health care coverage and modest benefits such as holidays off and two weeks of annual paid vacation.  As with pay ranges, these extras would not match those in private industry or even those part of existing government jobs.

Fifth, the overall new WPA goal would be to restore America’s standing of first worldwide in infrastructure, which it had most recently in the 1990s but has fallen to 14th as of last year.  That would provide an objective for all to work towards.

Sixth, construction of new bridges, dams, levees, hazardous waste sites, ports, airports, schools, microwave towers, and railroads, as well as roads and buildings, should also be included.  With a new WPA, a lack of state government funding, which in New Jersey killed one more needed tunnel to Manhattan last year, would not be the object – the merits of new construction could be assessed nationally.            

Seventh, non-infrastructure needs could also be assessed and possibly included.  Teaching opportunities, housing for the homeless and in areas with shortages, putting out underground fires, various scientific endeavors, and a wide range of historical and research projects, all with ample merit but short on funding, are only a few areas worthy of debate.

In all, there is plenty of work needed in the United States, and plenty of people available to do it.  Creaky bridges, overcrowded highways, and insufficient airports will not fix themselves, nor will any kind of technological advance make them unneeded.  The choices are to correct these things expensively later, to complete projects now when workers and materials are relatively cheap, or to allow America to further deteriorate.  If conservatives value resisting even bipartisan proposals to the point where the latter happens, they will have only themselves to blame when businesses, and their country, fail.   

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