Statistics tell part of the story. The present recession/depression, take your pick, has left 8.2 percent of the population unemployed. Put that way it may not sound like much but it means that over 12 million people in this country are looking for work. Only estimates of those who have given up the job hunt have been put on the table.
Another disaster, courtesy of Wall Street's driving the country into a ditch, is this: "Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year," according to a New York Times article (September 13, 2011). "The Census Bureau," the article goes on, "reported that the number of Americans living below the official poverty line -- 46.2 million people -- was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it."
Since the official poverty line is set at the low figure of $22,314 for a family of four, there are actually more people who are struggling to survive, trying to fend off homelessness, which is on the increase, to feed their families by going to food pantries in hopes they can scrape together enough cash to pay for other necessities.
The country needs a jobs program but not one like the proposed Economic Development Revitalization Act of 2011 where money was to be given to state and city governments so they could entice businesses to move to their areas. Money needs to go directly to workers.
This is what President Franklin D. Roosevelt's agencies did in the thirties. His Works Progress Administration (WPA) over the course of an eight-year period from 1935 to 1943 employed eight and a half million people. It wasn't only the 8.5 million who were helped. Unlike tax cuts to the wealthy, who just sit on their money, the pay to these workers was spent locally, creating a ripple affect throughout their communities.
In addition, the government bailed out the banks instead of circulating the money by helping homeowners pay their mortgages.
Entry into WW II temporarily solved the unemployment situation. Men got paid while in the service and many women, who were not considered breadwinners under government programs, went to work in factories and shipyards to help the war effort.
The WPA was not the only government program that put people to work. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), initiated in 1933, housed 250,000 young men in rural camps where they engaged in reforestation and conservation tasks like clearing hiking trails and improving park facilities. The Civil Works Administration (CWA) hired four million people for public works jobs after its enactment in 1933. Other agencies like the National Youth Administration and the Public Works Administration provided employment for young people as well as older workers.
Where did FDR get the money for these projects? He taxed the wealthy. As Richard Wolff explains in "Occupy the Economy," "when he went to the corporations and the rich, he said to them, I'm going to put people back to work, and they're going to have an income and then they're going to buy your products. You're not hiring them, I'll take care of it. But you are going to pay for it, because you are going to benefit from it. And here's the trump card. If you don't do this with me, behind me are coming the unions, the socialists, the communists, and you're not going to get anywhere so good a deal if they take over."this gave Roosevelt a card which he played and which allowed him to get the rich and the corporations to pay big time compared to what they pay now."
Now the world is experiencing not one but two crises brought on by the capitalist system. As has been noted above, one is the collapse of the financial institutions that manage economies across the globe. In the past, the inevitable downturns have been handled by requiring the people who depend on the system for their livelihoods but who have no democratic control over it to bear the cost of these failures so that the system can be reinvigorated.
With the exception of us here in the US, populations around the world are rebelling against the austerity measures that the elites are imposing. Occupy has yet to turn out the massive numbers that are in the streets in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, for instance.
The second crisis that we face is the over-consumption of the planet's resources in order to meet the unrelenting demands of the for-profit system. That consumption has now reached the point where some experts are questioning whether the human species can survive into the next century.
The global corporatization of agriculture has left millions who are starving to death. Dead zones in our oceans are expanding, over-fishing by big fleets is depriving indigenous populations of a main food source, and pollution of the water is threatening sea life. Global warming is causing the oceans to rise and combined with warmer air cause severe storms, floods, droughts, and deadly cold.
As was true in the thirties, "unemployed" does not necessarily equate with "unskilled." Many are architects, urban planners, builders, draftspersons, childcare experts, healthcare workers, computer whizzes, firefighters, artists, writers, administrators and nurses. Returning vets and recent college graduates add to the numbers as do older workers laid off because in the eyes of their bosses they cost too much to keep on.
What could these unemployed workers be paid to do today?
They could lay the groundwork for a new economy, one that is green, meaning that it is rooted in good stewardship of Mother Earth. This requires taking decision-making out of the hands of the 1%, who demonstrated their ongoing irresponsibility at the recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.