President Franklin D. Roosevelt inherited a nation in crisis. Upon his arrival in Washington in 1933, the unemployment rate was a staggering 24.9 percent — the highest rate ever recorded. But Roosevelt had a vision, announcing, “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work.”
In October, Roosevelt would ask his trusted adviser Harry Hopkins, a longtime social worker, to develop a plan. Winter was coming, and Roosevelt was convinced that the solution to avoid large masses of people freezing and starving to death was to create the most robust public works program the nation had ever seen. The idea was straightforward: the federal government would provide millions of jobs on public works projects at prevailing wages for those without work. No means testing, just fair work at fair wages.
On November 9, 1933, President Roosevelt would sign Executive Order 6420B to create the experimental Civil Works Administration (CWA). Within a week, Hopkins had a plan to present to the nation. Within a month, the program was launched. Within two months, the CWA was fully operational, directly employing 4 million Americans — nearly one in ten workers — across the nation. It was an astonishing accomplishment.
Over the course of the program’s short four-month life span, CWA workers would leave a lasting mark. People employed through the CWA would build or improve 40,000 schools, nearly 1,000 airports, 255,000 miles of road, 12 million feet of sewer pipe, and 3,700 playgrounds.
But it wasn’t all traditional construction work. Hopkins, who administered the CWA and would later run the Works Progress Administration (WPA), knew that everyone had to eat, for “people don’t eat in the long run, they eat every day.” Since most people earn a living through their labor, Hopkins was committed to delivering jobs for all people. Hopkins made sure to reach different populations, including artists and writers, of which thousands were employed to produce more than 15,000 pieces of public art displayed in public schools and libraries, orphanages, town squares, post offices, and many other places for the masses to enjoy.
The CWA wasn’t the only game in town. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a voluntary public employment program for young adults, operating from 1933 to 1942. Within just two months, the program put 250,000 hungry youth to work planting trees, building trails, occupying fire towers, and engaging in numerous other vital conservation tasks. At its peak, the CCC would employ over 500,000 people.
I myself have benefited from the program many times, hiking on the trails and sleeping in the cabins that ax-swinging CCC workers built nearly a century ago. Without question, they improved the country’s landscape through conservation measures, protecting not only the environment but helping people better reach, connect to, and enjoy nature during the working classes’ relatively newly won leisure time. The youth in this program saw immense benefits, receiving education, training, and work experience along with consistent pay, food, shelter, and medical care. On average, young people in the CCC gained eleven pounds during their stint in the program.
To be sure, the CCC has had a complicated and at times troubling legacy. The program largely excluded women and segregated work camps. Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, frustrated by the CCC’s exclusion of women, created “She-She-She” camps for unemployed girls, but only 8,500 young women were able to participate. Policymakers today must learn from such terrible mistakes. Nevertheless, these programs proved that the government had the ability to employ large swaths of people in meaningful and remunerative work — and fast.
The Civilian Climate Corps
On January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden came to Washington amid multiple interconnected crises. The pandemic was raging. The economy was down 10 million jobs compared to pre-pandemic employment levels, and tens of millions more were in danger of eviction. The hottest year on record had just been logged, as the climate crisis continued unabated.
The first order of business was to get money out the door and into people’s hands, which the administration did along a party-line vote. The second order of business was to create jobs through Biden’s American Jobs Plan.
Within his first one hundred days as president, Biden decided to take a page out of FDR’s book. On January 27, just a week into his term, he proposed a modern-day CCC, but this time, it’d be dubbed the Civilian Climate Corps, aimed at mobilizing “the next generation of conservation and resilience workers,” who would be pivotal in our battle against the climate crisis. Direct employment by the government to address the nation’s most pressing needs was back on the table.
But unlike Roosevelt, the scale of Biden’s plan was nowhere near in line with the crisis. Biden called for a measly $10 billion in funding over eight years. That’s enough to pay just 25,000 workers a year — a drop in the bucket. The original CCC employed ten times that many people within just two months. If today’s CCC were simply scaled for changes in the population, it would employ roughly 750,000 in the first year and work up to providing quality jobs for nearly 1.5 million workers at a time.
Now is not the time to go small. Unemployment is still in the double digits. Nearly half of all unemployed workers have been without work for at least half a year. Even for those with a job, they often aren’t paid enough to make ends meet. A full 53 million people are forced into low-wage work, receiving a median hourly wage of just $10.22 an hour. And we’re rapidly moving toward a planet on track to warm well beyond the 1.5–2°C agreed upon at the Paris Climate Accords.
This week, Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a more ambitious CCC. It would employ 1.5 million workers over five years — not as big as the original program, but orders of magnitude larger than Biden’s proposal. It would pay workers at least $15 an hour and provide full health care coverage and aid around services such as transportation, housing, and childcare. It would hire at least half of corpsmembers from communities disproportionately burdened by adverse environmental effects. And it would provide an educational grant of $25,000 per year of service. These would be good jobs.
There’s no shortage of work to be done. There’s no shortage of people able and willing to do the work. In fact, a recent poll from Data for Progress found that half of voters under forty-five would consider working for the CCC. There’s no shortage of support, with polls finding that 65 to 75 percent of likely voters support a twenty-first-century CCC. And there’s certainly no shortage of fiscal space to finance such a program.
There’s simply a shortage of political will from the Biden administration. In the first hundred days, Biden has built out an impressive climate team. But we’re still waiting on the “rapid and far-reaching” actions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said were necessary to avoid extreme warming and to put people back to work. The planet won’t wait. And we shouldn’t either.