Public sector should get to work on jobs

From the Everett Herald:

For anyone who thought we could just elect a new president and magically fix all our problems, the bloom is probably off the rose. Not even one year in, the Obama administration is grappling with fixing Wall Street, completing the job in Afghanistan and Iraq, getting a universal health care solution in place — and a deep, ongoing recession.

Here in this Washington, the private sector is sloughing off jobs. As unemployment increases, consumption falls, generating further cutbacks in economic activity and employment. We’re facing an official unemployment rate of 9.3 percent (likely to go higher in the coming months) and an underemployment rate — which includes part-time workers who want full-time jobs and laid-off workers who have given up looking for work — in the neighborhood of 15 percent or more.

So what can we do?

Create jobs. Specifically, jobs that enhance public services and build public infrastructure. The federal government should enable states to immediately create such jobs. In Washington, an immediate program to create 12,000 jobs would make up 10 percent of the 121,000 jobs lost since the beginning of the recession.

We could employ workers as teacher aides, tutors and coaches in the public schools, libraries and community centers. We could repair trails and accelerate trail building and maintenance along the Sound to Mountains Greenway, across the state and within our urban parks. We could expand the energy retrofitting apprenticeship program. We could employ people in parks maintenance and re-open some of the parks that were recently closed.

The total cost per worker for one full year of employment, including health coverage, payroll taxes, and overhead and capital costs, would range from about $35,000 to $50,000. That’s between $450 million and $600 million for 12,000 jobs. The current stimulus act has created or preserved about 35,000 jobs, with about $5 billion in investments. The direct work approach is much more efficient and effective, if we are willing to have our government create the jobs.

It’s been done before. Precedents include the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, CETA, VISTA and Americorps. I researched the Works Progress Administration in the state archives. Here’s what I found: The WPA created thousands of jobs in our state. It also laid the infrastructure to enable our country to win World War II and enjoy a decades-long, post-war burst of economic growth and prosperity.

The WPA built new high schools in Darrington, Stanwood and Arlington, a junior high in Snohomish, and numerous other new schools, school additions and remodels in Silver Lake, Everett and Lake Stevens, among other cities and towns. In Monroe, the WPA built a hospital, park and community hall.

In Everett, the WPA constructed a boat harbor and mapped all the underground structures, sewers, catch basins and above-ground electrical circuits. In Gold Bar, Everett, Marysville and many other towns, the WPA paved the roads. In Granite Falls the WPA built the city hall. The WPA cleared the right-of-way across the mountains to bring cheap hydroelectric power to the coast. It built a new airfield right outside of Everett, now known as Paine Field, home to Boeing manufacturing.

One of its last projects, in June 1941, was a citizenship program to prepare foreign-born residents to learn about “citizenship duties and responsibilities” with classes, tutoring and English-language lessons. The war began six months later, and the WPA ceased operations as America launched head-first into defeating the Nazis and the Japanese.

We can’t — and we shouldn’t — recreate those same jobs and projects. But there is a tremendous backlog of unmet needs and infrastructure development here in Washington. We can go one step further and figure out new jobs with public/private entrepreneurial efforts in the energy field, aviation, transportation, green jobs and high-tech.

We have to put the people of our state back to work. To do this we need a catalyst. It is not coming from the private sector. The big banks are on a sort of capital strike, not loaning much money to business. Credit has dried up. And yet, we must replace the waste of time, morale and education that defines unemployment and joblessness.

So let’s stop making do and struggling through. Let’s get our government to create the public service jobs that will jumpstart this economy. Let’s add value, hope and opportunity back to our economy and our communities.

After all, we Americans are a can-do people, aren’t we?

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Posted in A Fair Deal at Work, An Inclusive Economy, Column

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