Sunday, March 02, 2008

Against Despair: Is it time for a 21st-century reinvention of the WPA?

If you've traveled extensively around Texas, you've noticed that many of the nicest spots in the state have been adorned with beautiful buildings, stone fences and walkways built in the 1930s by laborers employed by Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA). Perhaps my favorite is the gorgeous Botanical Garden in Fort Worth (pictured -a must visit whenever you're in Cow Town), but examples abound in every corner of the state, and I'm sure many other states.

Given the nation's economic woes and the difficulties for millions of felons to find employment, recently I've been thinking this program needs to be reinvented for the 21st Century, not just because it would boost the economy but because it would reduce crime.

I could be wrong, but if it was limited, targeted, and short-term, with a job placement component to send workers to the private sector, I doubt the idea would be nearly as controversial with the general public as it would have been during the Cold War era, when every debate on such matters inevitably centered around whether it smacked of "socialism." Sometimes a solution isn't an "ism," sometimes it's just a good idea.

There are strong public safety arguments for considering some version of a 21st century paid government work program.

The notion recurred to me upon reading a thoughtful article by the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page, Harold Jackson, who delves this morning into the 40-year old Kerner Commission report, which sought to explain the source of dozens of violent riots that devastated US inner cities in 1967. Jackson argues persuasively that many black folks today are still "rioting," just in "slow motion," and I think he's right. What else could explain that one in nine black men age 20-34 are in prison? Wrote Jackson:

The Kerner Commission report (named after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) was released as March began in 1968. Forty years later, America would do well to review its observations and consider whether current conditions could reproduce race riots....

"Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites," the commission said. "Negroes had fewer years of education . . . were twice as likely to be unemployed . . . (and) more than twice as likely to be living in poverty."

We've come a long way since then. The growth of the black middle class is unparalleled by any previous period in U.S. history. And yet. . . .

Today, the black unemployment rate is 9 percent, while it's 4 percent for whites; 24 percent of blacks live in poverty, compared with 8 percent of whites; the median income of black households is $30,858, compared with $50,784 for whites. Among blacks, 20 percent lack health insurance, compared with 11 percent of whites.

So why aren't blacks rioting now? Or Hispanics, whose statistics in many cases aren't much better?...

Perhaps, in a way, they are rioting - but it's in slow motion, so they are not getting the same attention.

"The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of moving the system," said the Kerner Commission.

The report even explained the "Don't Snitch" code that existed 40 years ago and persists today: "To some Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. . . . [Their] cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief . . . in the existence of . . . a double standard of protection - one for Negroes and one for whites."

It's been said (I can't recall by whom) that in America we have equal protection under the law: Both rich and poor are prosecuted equally for stealing bread and sleeping under bridges. Ain't it the truth? The Kerner Commission told the nation something it was not ready to hear forty years ago: The cause of the riots was despair, an angry, public denial of the verity of the American dream for black citizens, and not just in the South.

Four decades later that has changed to some extent, but not enough. The data from the Pew Trusts that one in nine young black men today is in prison speaks to a lack of hope and opportunity as much as it does the moral failings of those incarcerated - it's the same conundrum that faced the Kerner Commission forty years ago. That won't change with a campaign slogan.

Do you happen to watch the TV show The Wire? I consider it the most realistic crime drama ever produced, almost like a documentary novel of the modern drug trade. In the episode last week, a 15-year old black kid is walking door to door in the business district of West Baltimore looking for work. He's recognized by another kid from the streets, now working at a shoe store, who tells him the boss won't hire anyone under 17. "I guess you'll just have to keep bangin' a couple more years" then try again, he tells the disappointed youth.

Sure, it's just a TV show, but if you don't think that's exactly what's causing so many young black men to migrate to the lucrative drug trade - despair and a lack of other opportunities - you've got another think coming.

I've argued recently for allowing the labor and trade markets to function more freely, and so they should. But support for free markets does not absolve the state from responsibility to redress externalities they cause. At this point, it would be a lot cheaper just to hire and train unemployed young black men or NAFTA-displaced Ohioans en masse, WPA-style - particularly those with felony records who can't find other work - than to pay the price for policing, prosecuting and imprisoning one in nine young black men, and one in 99 out of ALL adults.

If that approach smacks of "socialism" to some readers (it's really "Keynesianism," but many conservatives don't recognize a difference), then how about sentencing low-level offenders to such job programs instead of to prison, transitioning at least part of the current reliance on incarceration to community-based work programs?

In Tyler, for example, Judge Cynthia Kent told the jail symposium in San Antonio recently that when defendants came to Smith County's newly established "day reporting center" (offenders who would have otherwise been sentenced to jail), about 85% were unemployed, but under supervision of the court, about 85% found jobs.

That's terrific news. But what if the county or state ran a paid work program that was an alternative for that 15%, for those first sentenced or who couldn't find work because of their record or some other reason? What if it facilitated day care and transportation so defendants had no excuses not to participate, and training in skills (unlike, say, making license plates) that transfer to the outside world?

As we approach $40 billion per year spent on drug enforcement alone (let alone considering the awesome size of the foreign war debt), the relative size of such employment programs all of a sudden begins to look like small potatoes. In a campaign season filled with talk of "Hope," perhaps it's a good time to remember that we face our greatest enemy not in Baghdad but in the streets of our own cities: It's name is "Despair," which flourishes in jail but can vanish overnight given an opportunity and a J-O-B.


Anonymous said...


You and I probably grew up in an era when you couldn't go to a park or take a bike ride through town without coming in contact with a WPA and CCC project. I do think there is some merit to your proposal but I'd rather see it administered locally in a public-private partnership.

It's hard to predict how a WPA-like program would work today. The WPA labor pool in the 30's did not consist primarily of a criminal element; it actually included out-of-work white collar types (I don't have any stats on this but maybe another reader knows more about it). Pulling property offenders out of the crowded jailhouse and putting them to work is an idea I'd hope most folks would embrace.

We have come a long way from our shared values of the early 20th century and we now contend with a fractured tribal culture with far too many who don't value family, education and honest work. These are moral failings that will require a robust response from the local community-NGO's and faith based groups are best equipped to tackle these challenges. I just don't see them as involved with inmate populations as they should be.

Well, keep thinking outside the box. That's why I like dropping by :-)

Anonymous said...

Yet another million dollar idea you are giving away for free. Just happens this idea is a good 'un.


Anonymous said...

Actually if job creation is what you are after, then the answer is sending the illegals aliens back where they belong. This will open up those jobs they took at cheap wages, provide addition jobs for the border fence and deportation, and make the country more secure against terrorists and drug dealers.

wolf said...

Your idea definitely has possibilities, and something has to be done about people released from prison with so many strikes against them. My take on this is that prisons need to reconfigured so that those "serving time" are actually doing something with their time. Texas law requires that all inmates , if able, have work to do. Actually about 50% have employment of some kind while doing time. Too many prison jobs do not prepare inmates for work in the "world". In addition, the paltry money inmates earn is a disgrace.
I suggest it is time to follow Texas law and create real life jobs for those in prison. Not only would they practice the habit of working like the rest of us, they should also earn at least minimum wage ( tax breaks for companies that participate in developing prison industries), with opportunity for advancement. Under such a system prison life would more closely reflect life on the outside. Ideally there could be a public-private partnership to create real jobs in prison and theoretically prisons could be financially self supporting with inmates paying for their own room and board, just like they'll have to do once paroled. The money saved by such an arrangement could be put into the front end of crime prevention and thereby impact the entire system. This way, parolees, upon release will be accustomed to the demands of real life and will be much better prepared to meet the challenges we all face.

Anonymous said...

It happpens that yesterday I walking into an NAACP sponsored forum for the candidates for our elected Police Chief (a perversion I could fill several columns with) and I noticed on the corner curbing a brand on the cement declaring it to be a WPA product.

I am old enough to have been told by Depression-era relatives their personal experiences with WPA/CCC. With that background, I pay attention when it shows up. You are spot on, 60, 70 years later there are still working benefits of these projects. Park trails, sidewalks, libraries, they sponsored authors to write on books, usually of local interest, works of art that still hang in museums.

proximo, one can quibble over administrative details, but from this disciple of Freidman, if this be socialism, we could use a bit of it.

Anonymous said...

The WPA produced a bunch of minimum wage jobs. We can do that without the WPA by expelling the illegals just as 10:05 stated. Most WPA jobs were those "Americans won't do" - digging ditches, chopping weeds, building roads by hand, etc.

Anonymous said...

10:22, if you go back and read Friedman you would know that he said the WPA did not do anything to end the depression, only World War II did that. You would also know that unlike the deflationary Depression of the 30's, we are facing an inflationary depression. More feficit spending doesn't solve an inflationary depression, it only makes it worse.

Anonymous said...

"expelling the illegals"

Yeah, that's never been tried before. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

Given this state's attitude towards rehabilitation, I foresee your well-intentioned suggestion morphing into a post-sentence chain gang.


Anonymous said...

We have come a long way from our shared values

This is a red herring, and a fallacy at that. You think immorality didn't exist 100 years ago? Laziness?

I've been saying for years (to anyone who will listen) that a modern WPA would be a great idea. And I imagine that it would fill to capacity immediately despite what people view as "different values."

The WPA made sure that America didn't go completely socialist like other countries during the depression and earlier. Another thing during that era that made America what it is today was the GI Bill, which educated Americans to an extent that would never have been possible without government support.

Of course, both of those ideas share a common, and fundamental principle that would make it unworkable today because of modern Republicans--the notion that helping people is a good thing.

Anonymous said...

if you go back and read Friedman you would know that he said the WPA did not do anything to end the depression,

That's not what he said. But whereas we gave people picks and shovels during the depression and fed them in exchange for work, other countries gave them rifles and sponsored shifts toward socialism and communism when their countries were hit by similar hard times. Sometimes just helping a little is enough to get things on the right track.

Anonymous said...


Milton was a friend of mine and that is what he said. You need to re-read his books.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks everybody for the good discussion.

I'd add that whether Friedman thought the WPA ended the Depression is irrelevant - my point is that this should be done for the public safety benefit, starting in the criminal justice context.

Wolf - your idea is a good one, especially if it's possible to get jobs in the prisons that have transferrable skills.

Bill's thought that this could devolve into a "chain gang" phenomenon is an important caution to ONLY doing it through the justice system, though - good point.

Proximo, Judge Kent's day reporting center results (and other data) makes me think some of the cultural barriers you describe are overblown. With training and oppportunity, I think it's not an insurmountable barrier.

Finally to those who say "just expel the illegals," even if it were practically possible (it's not), it won't solve problems with barriers to employment for felons - both legal barriers and lack of skills, training, transportation, etc. Just because that's your personal bailiwick doesn't mean it's an universal answer to every economic problem.

Best to all,

Anonymous said...

wolf said...

"the paltry money inmates earn is a disgrace".

I can tell he ain't from texas. They don't pay inmates.

Anonymous said...

What we really need to do is get the "illegals" on the tax rolls so we can fund Grits program.

Anonymous said...

Work programs are never a bad idea. Unfortunately Texas is the only state in the union that has legalized institutional slavery. I have touted the idea that giving offenders jobs, on the job training etc would be a partial answer to recidivism. However the sad truth is that although inmates are coerced into working in prison "industries", on the hope it will look good for parole(we know how bad the BPP is, there is no monetary or "good time" recompense for 10-12 hour day labor in unskilled jobs. Granted most inmates leap at the opportunity to work to escape the crushing boredom of life in a cell, this system does not provide any real life skills for reintegration into society. Add to that the fact that in
Tx it is legal to dicriminate against a felon and you are branded with that label for the rest of your life,finding work and staying out of jail is difficult for the disinfranchised. Work programs are grat, but this system needs an overhaul before they can be implemented.

Anonymous said...

Milton was a friend of mine and that is what he said. You need to re-read his books.

The poster to whom you were responding did not say it, however. That was my point. You're rebutting an argument made by a poster here, with a counter-point to an argument that the poster here didn't make.

Anonymous said...

WPA was not a solution to the Depression. Public works (menial jobs) is not the answer to economic woes or solving criminal behavior. It is a waste of money better spent on treatment. Any criminal can get a menial job. They can go out to the fields or dig ditches and compete with those illegal aliens that are so indespensible that they can't be deported. The point is public works are not needed for economic or for hiring criminals. There are jobs out there; they just are currently being filled with illegal aliens.