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The case for giving everyone a job

We need a federal jobs program to build

We need a federal jobs program to build sweeping public infrastructure, save workers and fight the climate crisis. Credit: Getty Images/Pramote Polyamate

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We are in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In less than a year, COVID-19 — and the Trump administration's lack of leadership — has killed more than 217,000 Americans and left more than 7 million infected. Today, one in 10 Americans is unemployed, and many more are underemployed or at risk of being furloughed or fired.

Federal weekly unemployment benefits have expired and people cannot pay their bills. With the expiration of the federal eviction moratorium, 23 million people risk losing their homes. On top of all this, the West Coast is still on fire and the worst effects of climate change are looming on the horizon.

This is not the first time the United States has been confronted with overwhelming odds, nor will it be the last. We have to be bold: We need a federal jobs program to build sweeping public infrastructure, save workers and fight the climate crisis.

Our country survived the first Great Depression through the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt. Back then, FDR's New Deal created employment programs that provided wages and the dignity of a job.

From 1933 to 1934, FDR's federal relief administrator, Harry Hopkins — the grandfather of an author of this op-ed — ran the Civil Works Administration, which employed 4 million people in jobs earning decent wages. The U.S. unemployment rate fell from 25% in 1933 to 14% four years later, driving a boost in consumer spending.

CWA jobs were not "workfare," or cash payments with a work requirement. They were real jobs that paid real wages. CWA workers completed useful public works — roads, water and sewage lines, parks and other infrastructure — that endure today.

A modern CWA could provide jobs at livable wages to millions of laid-off Americans, distributed across the country with priority given to the communities hurt most during the pandemic.

Less than a year ago, such a program may have seemed too bold, but our circumstances have shifted seismically. In March, Congress gave $1,200 to every American, which would have previously been unthinkable. A bill now in the Senate, the Jobs for Economic Recovery Act, would provide six months of wages for federally subsidized jobs.

While a jobs program is expensive on paper, the costs of inaction are much higher. COVID-19 is projected to shrink the economy by $8 trillion over the next decade. Since March, half of Americans have lost income, while billionaires gained $845 billion. Without taking drastic action, we are letting an economic disaster rip apart millions of lives.

And although roughly 220,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, that's one estimate for how many people could die every year around the world due to climate change.

We have many climate infrastructure and job creation opportunities, from building high-speed rail across the country to decentralizing and solar-powering the electric grid. Comprehensive federal action to decarbonize by 2035 could directly create 25 million jobs over the next 15 years and help rescue our planet.

While a modern CWA does not need to focus solely on climate change, the parallels between our present circumstances and those of our country nearly a century ago could not be clearer. The Green New Deal — with its title borrowed from the federal policies, including the CWA, that rescued our nation — provides a bold vision for how to address climate change and save the economy.

Failing to act would not only prolong our post-pandemic recovery, but also condemn future generations to a warming planet and ever more catastrophic climate disasters.

We've already been through the Great Depression. It would be ludicrous not to learn from it.

Jennifer Zhang is the National Economic Policy Coordinator for the Roosevelt Network and a student at Columbia University studying political science. Dr. June Hopkins is a history professor emerita from Georgia Southern University and the granddaughter of Harry Hopkins. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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