A Lesson in US Job Creation: The Civilian Conservation Corps

How could the Obama Administration have spent two years in office and forgotten to create any visible new jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans? Nothing contributed as much to the Democrats’ midterm electoral losses as the high rate of unemployment; the party in power routinely gets clobbered when lots of people are out of work on Election Day.

Once upon a time, there was a much smarter response to unemployment. In fact, I recently spent a week enjoying the results of the wisdom of the past. In a vacation trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks, I walked on trails, protected by retaining walls and guardrails, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The CCC, part of the Roosevelt Administration’s response to the Great Depression, created vast numbers of jobs – 600,000 at its peak – in repairing, protecting, and improving parks, forests, and other natural resources.

The CCC recruited unemployed young men (gender equality was not yet on the horizon) for six- month assignments. Living in camps run by the Army, the recruits received $30 a month ($480 in today’s dollars) – plus food, housing, and medical and dental care. They were required to send $25 home to their families, who were quite often destitute, keeping $5 a month for their own spending. At a time when the likely alternative was long-term unemployment, the CCC attracted more applicants than the agency could hire.

To address the loudest contemporary objection to government job creation: Yes, the CCC increased the federal deficit – but not by much. The total cost over its nine years of operation was $3 billion, equivalent to an average of less than $6 billion a year in today’s dollars. Priced at today’s minimum wage or a bit above, with corresponding increases in other costs, my guess is that the CCC could still be recreated for around $20 billion a year, a small fraction of the Obama stimulus package.

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But the important question is not, did it cost money, but rather, did the nation get its money’s worth? The CCC planted 4 billion trees. It built 63,000 buildings, 125,000 miles of roads, 47,000 bridges, and 28,000 miles of park trails. It installed 89,000 miles of telephone lines and 5,000 miles of water lines. And it did many other projects as well. There is no other time, before or since, when the National Park Service had the resources to undertake so many park improvements and repairs. If you’ve visited the Grand Canyon or other national parks, you’ve walked on the results of the CCC’s labors. Would we be better off today with a fractionally smaller deficit, and inaccessible parks?

The much more expensive Obama stimulus package left no such tangible legacy. If you look carefully, you can see the occasional signs on highway projects advertising “your stimulus dollars at work.” But the funds are so diffuse, channeled through so many existing agencies and businesses, that there is no public sense of overall accomplishment. In the know-nothing climate of this year’s campaigns, it was easy for Republicans to make the absurd claim that the stimulus was a complete failure which didn’t create any jobs.

Why was so much spent, with so little to show for it? Perhaps, as Paul Krugman has suggested, Obama’s economic advisers were committed to the fantasy that the recession would be minor and short-lived, so that nothing new or long-lasting was needed to address unemployment. Or perhaps the Obama Administration couldn’t have gotten anything better adopted, due to intransigent Congressional opposition. But it would have been nice to see them try.

The CCC wasn’t a perfect model; in some ways, it was a prisoner of the prejudices of its times. Hiring women was never considered. Black and Native American men were often (not always) sent to segregated CCC camps, and faced hostility from nearby white communities. But it had important accomplishments for its recruits, as well as for the nation. Beyond the work day, CCC camps offered a rich cultural life, with sports teams, music and theater groups, and extensive educational opportunities. Most of the recruits had not finished high school; the CCC hired 30,000 teachers to provide academic, vocational, and business classes, which launched many young men into promising new careers.

I had a great time on vacation in the national parks, but I came back with selective amnesia: I can’t remember what’s wrong with repeating the CCC program that made all this possible.

Facts about the CCC are from “With Picks, Shovels, and Hope: The CCC and its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau,” by Wayne K. Hinton with Elizabeth A. Green (Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT, 2008).