In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office amid the worst economic crisis in American history. Unemployment soared. People went hungry. And it would be years before our country was back on her feet. Facing a similar crisis today, we should learn from FDR and enact bold programs to get young people working.
During the Depression, FDR led the fastest peacetime mobilization ever. Facing record unemployment, he established the Civilian Conservation Corps. Nicknamed "Roosevelt's Tree Army,” the CCC employed 3 million people over its lifespan. But it didn’t just pay young people to twiddle their thumbs.
Civilian Conservation Corps workers built Great Smoky Mountain National Park. They laid hundreds of miles of road, dozens more bridges, and irrigation canals. Many of their projects are still standing — over 80 years later.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment. Right now there is every reason to believe that those numbers will continue to go up.
And historical evidence suggests that young people, those with little job experience and or working part-time, are in a uniquely vulnerable position. Recently, I spoke with graduating college students. They told me they felt lost — their country is hurting and many of them have had their post-graduate plans put on hold.
I graduated just before the Great Recession in 2008, and many of my friends still haven’t fully recovered. Studies have shown that Americans who came of age during the last recession have one-third less wealth than would have been predicted based on the wealth accumulation of previous generations, even a decade later. This could be a generational crisis that follows young people throughout their entire lives.
At the same time, we have a desperate need for new positions associated with safely reopening the economy. Some experts suggest we’ll need up to 300,000 new contact tracers to safely return to usual activity. In addition, many communities — especially those in rural areas — have historically suffered from the lack of access to health care personnel. That’s being felt even more acutely right now.
All the more reason to think big.
Now that we’re facing sagging employment numbers trending towards levels we haven’t seen since the Depression, we should revive one of FDR’s programs and tailor it to fit our current needs.
My proposal is both groundbreaking and straightforward. Let's put young people to work filling jobs we need as the result of the coronavirus. It’s called the Coronavirus Service Corps and it’s modeled after FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
Who better to learn new skills quickly than a generation that learns new apps in a night? Who better to dedicate themselves to a year of service than a generation that deeply cares about social impact?
This organization would provide employment opportunities for up to a year for Americans at least 18 years old. Participants would be split up into groups based on areas of interest and experience, and work toward specific goals related to safely returning to normal life.
And let me be clear, we’re not talking about creating jobs just for the sake of creating jobs. We have serious, novel needs resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. And we can fill them with people who need the work.
My plan would train young people to do contact tracing and help administer key health care services. We need more phlebotomists to give tests. We need workers to take the temperature of shoppers. With people stranded at home and without their normal support networks, we need more peer counselors to provide support. And with many seniors wary of venturing out into the world, we need more workers available to help deliver food.
These tracks would provide participants with the opportunity to serve nearly immediately while also gaining on-the-job training and experience that may be relevant to future careers.
At first blush, this proposal might seem unpalatable to conservatives, but these aren’t normal circumstances. Given ballooning federal spending on unemployment, this may be an appetizing alternative.
The federal government is already spending hundreds of billions of dollars subsidizing state unemployment programs. Instead of simply paying out unemployment benefits, America has an opportunity to protect young people’s financial futures, while also putting them to work on projects consistent with our urgent needs.
Now is not the time to be stodgy.
Facing some of our darkest economic days since the Great Depression, we should create a program to help young people weather the storm — and help us get back to normal at the same time.
Rep. Josh Harder is a Democrat representing California's 10th Congressional District.