Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
In the midst of the Great Depression, president Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration, the most ambitious of the administration’s New Deal programs. The WPA provided gainful employment to millions of unemployed, impoverished and desperate Americans. The national employment program literally saved lives.
Nearly eight decades later, America remains mired in a Great Recession caused by a financial industry run amok. Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Three to four working Americans compete for every available job. The time is more than ripe to launch a WPA for the 21st Century.
What’s stopping us?
That’s not an idle question. Much stands between us and any genuinely progressive cultural, economic and social change for the better. But our biggest obstacle is probably our own inertia, lack of organization, poor understanding of the challenges we face, and confusion over how to proceed from here.
At the onset of the Great Recession the average duration of unemployment jumped to over forty weeks, more than double its pre-recession level. That 20-week pre-recession rate itself was double the average unemployment duration from 1950.
In response, a prominent American economist claimed that “a rational political system would long since have created a 21st-century version of the Works Progress Administration — we’d be putting the unemployed to work doing what needs to be done, repairing and improving our fraying infrastructure.”
There are plenty of calls for a new New Deal of one kind or another. Among the proposals put forward in recent years are the “21st Century WPA Act,” “Hire US, America: A 21-step emergency action plan for reversing the U.S. jobs crisis,” “A 21st-Century ‘New Deal’ for Public Transport,” and others.
Unfortunately, the missing link has been the “rational political system.” So far, rationality has failed to kick in. In fact, the only way a New Deal for the 21st century will kick in is if a motivated, focused and highly organized social justice movement does the kicking.
The high unemployment rate is a national emergency. Millions of people need jobs now. The lost income that unemployed folks are forced to endure steals hundreds of billions of dollars directly out of unemployed workers’ pockets each year. The longer the problem persists, the more permanent the damage becomes.
There’s no shortage of work to do. For instance, where “cutbacks” actually make sense is in making substantial reductions in fossil fuel use. Whether retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency, erecting windmills and solar panels to capture renewable energy from the wind and sun, replacing our current passenger and freight rail system with an efficient, high-speed rail infrastructure—urgent tasks beg for our attention.
Instead of responding to a multitude of opportunities to connect unemployed working people with gainful employment, our political, business and financial elites continue to push their austerity agenda through force and fraud.
For decades, incomes for ordinary working people have remained flat or declined. In contrast, wealth for top earners has grown dramatically. Corporations shipped jobs overseas while politicians told us “there is no alternative.”
Policy makers assured us our day would come. That a rising tide would lift all boats; that soaring gains for “job creators” would trickle down, like manna from heaven, onto the rest of us.
Instead, the rising tide for a tiny few swamped the rest of us. The “job creators” shed workers and closed up shop at home while setting up low wage sweatshops in “emerging markets” across the globe.
In his “Inequality Speech,” entrepreneur Nick Hanauer claimed “In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are middle-class consumers. And taxing the rich to make investments will make the middle-class grow and thrive. It’s the single shrewdest thing we can do for the middle-class, for the poor, and for the rich.”
Our con-job creators have also wriggled out of paying their fair share of taxes while shifting that burden onto the backs of middle class and working people. Ultimately, their criminal antics on Wall Street plunged the whole world into a “great recession.”