In the wake of the highest unemployment rate in 25 years, the Roosevelt Institute asked historians, economists and other public thinkers to reflect on the lessons of the New Deal and explore new, big ideas for how to get America back to work. David Woolner urges President Obama and Congress to adopt the fearlessness of FDR in directly creating jobs.
The recent news that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expanded at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009 while at the same time the national unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 10.2 percent in October, has many economists talking about a “jobless recovery.” What this means, say the experts, is continued economic growth–and hence a technical end to the recession–but no improvement in the employment figures for the immediate future. In fact, most economists predict that under current conditions, the unemployment rate will rise even further – perhaps reaching as high as 11 percent by the summer of 2010.
It appears that the Obama administration is prepared to accept this scenario and will not push for bolder solutions so as to ensure that the so-called “recovery” includes not just an expansion of the GDP, but also a reduction in the alarmingly high unemployment rate. As a consequence, millions of American workers will continue to languish among the ranks of the unemployed, burdened by an anxious present and an uncertain future.
When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, about 18 million Americans were in immediate need of food, clothing, medical care-and most of all, jobs. For his administration, the notion of a “jobless recovery” would have been an anathema. Indeed, for FDR, the health of the nation was tied directly to the dignity of work. People needed jobs not merely to put food on the table, but also to maintain their physical, psychological and economic well-being. Moreover, FDR firmly believed that it was government’s responsibility to provide for the “general welfare.” So in the midst of an economic crisis that had produced the highest unemployment figures in our nation’s history, he did not hesitate to use the power of the state to provide the jobs the private sector had failed to generate. The Civilian Conservation Corps, which put hundreds of thousands of young men to work regenerating our nation’s depleted forests, preventing soil erosion, and enhancing our national parks; the Civil Works Administration, which provided work for more than 4 million Americans building schools, roads, and bridges, or as teachers in rural districts; the Works Progress Administration, which between 1935 and 1938 employed 5 million people to help build the economic infrastructure we still enjoy today.
These programs were not government hand-outs. Far from it. They provided real jobs to real people doing real work. They improved our natural resources and quality of life and brought America’s economic infrastructure into the modern world. No one–least of all FDR–expected these programs to continue indefinitely.
But they dramatically reduced unemployment in a moment of crisis and prevented what FDR called the “atrophy” of the work force. They also brought hope and dignity to millions through the one thing most able-bodied Americans want more than anything else-a job. Isn’t it time we adopted the same approach to our own recovery from the Great Recession?
David Woolner is is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.