Sunday, March 29, 2009

Re-Post Number 1: " The WPA and Sen. Edwards' Million Jobs - Historical Legacies of the New Deal" (Tue Aug 07, 2007)

As part of a collection effort, I present the first in a series of posts formerly written as diaries on DailyKos, all focused on the theme of public employment policy. Each post will be preceded by a short comment explaining the context of the original piece.

In this first case, "The WPA and Sen. Edwards' Million Jobs," dates back to mid-May 2007, when I was first getting interested in the candidates for the 2008 presidential election. I had been feeling much more positive about politics since the 2006 midterms, when Democrats had taken over the Congress, and was starting to look around at who I would support.

Keep in mind that this was back during the days in which Barack Obama was a little-known politician, who I mostly knew for giving a good speech at the 2004 National Convention and beating the tar out of Alan Keyes in a race for the U.S Senate. Hillary Clinton was the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, and I knew I didn't want her as the party's nominee. As a New Yorker who had seen her 2000 campaign and her subsequent political shift to the right, I didn't think that Hillary could be the kind of unapologetically progressive candidate I was looking for. Obama, at that time, was still in the proecess of molding his platform, his argument, and his strategy, and was still in the more extreme phase of his "post-partisan" stance. This didn't really appeal to me.

Instead, I was interested in Senator John Edwards. I hadn't really liked him in 2004 - I supported Howard Dean - because of his then pro-war stance, but I had liked his "two Americas" rhetoric, and had preferred him against Kerry. However, it was his public policy positions in 2007-8 that got me to support him.

So here's the first post to be brought back into the light, warts and all:


This is based on a blog entry I made on Edwards' blog in May, that I thought I'd repost here to add to the discussion of the WPA [ed - Works Progress Administration] going on in other blog/diaries. Just to introduce myself, I'm a graduate student in the history of public policy writing a dissertation on the history of public employment in the United States, with a central focus on the WPA.

Anyway, back in March, I had been an Edwards supporter for a while, but I was motivated to post about this on his blog when, challenged by some friends of mine on an email-listserv (I know, very quaint), I was asked to detail Sen. Edwards' poverty plan. Somewhat chagrined that I didn't know the details off the top of my head, I went back to his site and checked it out. (This was back when the plan was relatively new, before the tour and so forth).

Imagine my total surprise when I found that one of the first items on the page was the creation of 1 million temporary jobs for the unemployed. You see, my research subject, the topic I'm writing my dissertation on, is the history of public employment in the United States, beginning with the creation of the Civil Works Administration in 1933 through to the demise of CETA in the late 70's-early 80's.

As both a scholar and an activist, I have in my day-to-day life been making in the case that public employment - the direct hiring of the unemployed by the government to reduce unemployment and produce useful public goods and services - was the heart and soul of the New Deal in its day (Social Security being the most lasting and most important part since then), that it was the distinctively American approach to the welfare state, and that it was a truly successful program that should be the cornerstone of the Democratic Party's politics and policy, but was buried due to racial prejudice, fears of Communism, and business' desire for a monopoly on labor.

Indeed, I had just finished my first major piece of research on this topic, a study of the Committee on Economic Security (the committee that drafted the Social Security Act of 1935) arguing that public employment was the major competitor to the limited system social-insurance that was proposed, that it was a much more sweeping, inclusive, and original intellectual development, and that it was seen by the Committee as the critical policy that would extend the New Deal to all Americans (including women and blacks), fill in the gaps in the safety net, and ensure the fiscal wellbeing of the system, while preventing dependency and promoting work.

What I found in my study of the CES' archives was that many of the members of the committee had been officials from Harry Hopkins' Federal Emergency Relief Administration, veterans of the Civil Works Administration (a precursor to the WPA that employed 4.2 million people from the winter of 1933 through the spring of 1934), and were all advocates of public employment. These officials pushed for a vision of a social welfare state in which jobs, not welfare or unemployment insurance, would be the lynch-pin of protection against poverty. Essentially, any American who was without work or who had lost their job would have the right to apply for a public employment job.

Not only would this job stave off poverty by providing wages to the worker and their family, but it would also help to reinforce the Social Security system by keeping the drain on Unemployment Insurance low or preventing the need for it altogether, by ensuring that the newly-employed worker would continue contributing to Social Security (thus maximizing the in-flow to the Social Security coffers), and by ensuring that Americans "not normally eligible" for social insurance would build up participation in the system (namely domestic workers and agricultural workers, the majority of women and African-Americans in the work-force). Finally, the idea was that public employment would provide political cover for the rest of the Social Security program by emphasizing that FDR's new system would emphasize work over "the dole."

Moreover, the FERA advocates argued that the public employment program alone would act as both social welfare and economic policy. Public employment would directly reduce unemployment, boost the purchasing power of the average American and therefore consumption of goods, and set off a positive-multiplier effect throughout the economy at large. Thus, whereas social insurance would act to deflate the economy, public employment would re-inflate the economy and promote economic recovery. Moreover, public employment would serve to re-distribute wealth from the richest tax-payers to ordinary workers. But most importantly, public employment would do so in a way that returned value to the tax-payer - public employment workers would provide labor in exchange for wages, producing goods and services that would offset the cost of the program and increase economic growth, while improving the national infrastructure.

Little known today, the final Social Security report recommended public employment as the "first objective of reform." A public employment bill appropriating $4 billion dollars for the program was introduced nearly simultaneously to the Social Security bill, and was passed at about the same time. Yet today, few associate public employment with the achievements of the New Deal, let alone with Social Security.

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