Put 1 million Americans back to work with community public service jobs
More than a decade ago, with the nation’s unemployment rate nearing 10 percent, President Barack Obama convened dozens of business, labor, and community leaders at a White House summit to help him devise strategies for generating jobs. President Obama and Congress funded job-creating infrastructure projects, aid to state and local governments and education, environmentally sustaining “green jobs,” medical research, and tax cuts for businesses. These initiatives paid off, with millions of jobs saved or created. However, a proven strategy got little or no attention during the Great Recession — direct public service employment.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress created approximately 9 million government-funded public service jobs for the unemployed. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps were widely acknowledged as critical to the nation’s economic revival.
Less well known are the jobs programs launched by Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. As the U.S. economy fell into a deep recession — though not as dire as the 2020 crisis — Congress funded emergency jobs programs that employed some 750,000 people as part of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Thousands of short-term community projects were quickly mounted in cities and towns throughout the United States — cleaning up parks, repairing parks and public housing projects, weatherizing homes and apartments, and helping teachers in schools and day care centers. Workers employed by nonprofit agencies helped the homeless, poor, and people with disabilities at shelters and emergency food pantries.
During the 2020 pandemic-driven economic disaster, the next rounds of stimulus spending from Washington should fund one million community service jobs. Direct job creation programs must be added to the already authorized — and essential — business assistance and unemployment insurance enhancements. Creating one million, time-limited, community service employment jobs could be capped at an annual compensation of $40,000. The return on investment is worth the $40 billion price tag. Not only will it offer meaningful work for idle Americans who will otherwise face long odds for returning to the private sector, but it will also provide vital services in the nation’s towns and cities.
Unlike the also worthwhile big infrastructure projects, community service projects can be deployed rapidly and generate immediate benefits for unemployed workers, the communities where they live, and the nation’s economy. Community service jobs programs require minimal expenses for management, equipment, and supplies and will employ those hit hardest by the recession —- workers with limited education and skills who have been unemployed for the longest periods of time.
Independent researchers who evaluated the 1970s-era programs determined that these public service jobs delivered valuable benefits to individuals and communities facing economic hardship. In the 1970s, there were concerns that federally-funded public service jobs would just create jobs that would have been funded by state and local governments. Given the rapidly rising unemployment rate and drastic drop in state and local revenues, that is no longer a concern. Federal funding is necessary, on a temporary basis, to keep people working so they can pay their rent, buy food, and stay in the labor force. Federally-funded jobs in nonprofit organizations will not be substituting for money that would have been provided by states and cities who are struggling to balance their budgets.
Community service employment in city, town and community-based projects is a strong, but thus far neglected remedy for the current economic catastrophe. President Donald Trump and Congress should include a large-scale direct job creation program in the next round of stimulus spending. It is one of the most direct and cost-effective strategies for getting Americans back to work.
Carl E. Van Horn is Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.