A Lesson in US Job Creation: The Civilian Conservation Corps

Frank Ackerman

How could the Obama Administration have spent two years in office and forgotten to create any visible new jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans? Nothing contributed as much to the Democrats’ midterm electoral losses as the high rate of unemployment; the party in power routinely gets clobbered when lots of people are out of work on Election Day.

Once upon a time, there was a much smarter response to unemployment. In fact, I recently spent a week enjoying the results of the wisdom of the past. In a vacation trip to Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks, I walked on trails, protected by retaining walls and guardrails, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s. The CCC, part of the Roosevelt Administration’s response to the Great Depression, created vast numbers of jobs – 600,000 at its peak – in repairing, protecting, and improving parks, forests, and other natural resources.

The CCC recruited unemployed young men (gender equality was not yet on the horizon) for six- month assignments. Living in camps run by the Army, the recruits received $30 a month ($480 in today’s dollars) – plus food, housing, and medical and dental care. They were required to send $25 home to their families, who were quite often destitute, keeping $5 a month for their own spending. At a time when the likely alternative was long-term unemployment, the CCC attracted more applicants than the agency could hire.

To address the loudest contemporary objection to government job creation: Yes, the CCC increased the federal deficit – but not by much. The total cost over its nine years of operation was $3 billion, equivalent to an average of less than $6 billion a year in today’s dollars. Priced at today’s minimum wage or a bit above, with corresponding increases in other costs, my guess is that the CCC could still be recreated for around $20 billion a year, a small fraction of the Obama stimulus package.

But the important question is not, did it cost money, but rather, did the nation get its money’s worth? The CCC planted 4 billion trees. It built 63,000 buildings, 125,000 miles of roads, 47,000 bridges, and 28,000 miles of park trails. It installed 89,000 miles of telephone lines and 5,000 miles of water lines. And it did many other projects as well. There is no other time, before or since, when the National Park Service had the resources to undertake so many park improvements and repairs. If you’ve visited the Grand Canyon or other national parks, you’ve walked on the results of the CCC’s labors. Would we be better off today with a fractionally smaller deficit, and inaccessible parks?

The much more expensive Obama stimulus package left no such tangible legacy. If you look carefully, you can see the occasional signs on highway projects advertising “your stimulus dollars at work.” But the funds are so diffuse, channeled through so many existing agencies and businesses, that there is no public sense of overall accomplishment. In the know-nothing climate of this year’s campaigns, it was easy for Republicans to make the absurd claim that the stimulus was a complete failure which didn’t create any jobs.

Why was so much spent, with so little to show for it? Perhaps, as Paul Krugman has suggested, Obama’s economic advisers were committed to the fantasy that the recession would be minor and short-lived, so that nothing new or long-lasting was needed to address unemployment. Or perhaps the Obama Administration couldn’t have gotten anything better adopted, due to intransigent Congressional opposition. But it would have been nice to see them try.

The CCC wasn’t a perfect model; in some ways, it was a prisoner of the prejudices of its times. Hiring women was never considered. Black and Native American men were often (not always) sent to segregated CCC camps, and faced hostility from nearby white communities. But it had important accomplishments for its recruits, as well as for the nation. Beyond the work day, CCC camps offered a rich cultural life, with sports teams, music and theater groups, and extensive educational opportunities. Most of the recruits had not finished high school; the CCC hired 30,000 teachers to provide academic, vocational, and business classes, which launched many young men into promising new careers.

I had a great time on vacation in the national parks, but I came back with selective amnesia: I can’t remember what’s wrong with repeating the CCC program that made all this possible.

Facts about the CCC are from “With Picks, Shovels, and Hope: The CCC and its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau,” by Wayne K. Hinton with Elizabeth A. Green (Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT, 2008).

6 Responses to “A Lesson in US Job Creation: The Civilian Conservation Corps”

  1. Jeff says:

    What’s wrong with a new CCC? First of all, conservatives hate conservation. Conservationists are evil liberals who are trying to destroy our precious all-American values of suburbia, exploitation of natural resources, and killing wild game and vermin, forcing us to live in the confinement of “planned urban communities.” Second, government programs are evil, and people who work for the government are parasitic slackers. Third, taking my tax money and using it to pay anyone is income redistribution, that is, theft. I hope this answers your question.

    p.s. The license plate on my car begins with “CCC”

  2. Jeff´s reply goes a long way, and is good for a sardonic laugh, I think, but is not the end of the story.
    Not only is conservative and neoliberal ideology of the Republican conservatives, it is of anyone overly relying on corporations. The value of “privatization” occurs when it supports the democratic economic enterprise of employee-owned and managed entitites, with community and co-operative orientations. Without this basis of society, the ongoing trends of corporate ideology is gutting many forms of enterprise that create employment. See Louis Uchitelle´s book on job relocation trends.
    The Solidarity Economics Network is one of the movements that have been inspired by the World Social Forum process. While Wal-Mart left Germany because of their policies, they have driven many smaller retailers in the US out of business because of their predatory supply chain management, including especially the use of Chinese slave labor and the absent tariffs.
    The New Deal didn´t just provide benefits through government projects. They also provided loans to rural areas to form electrical co-ops to make up for utility´s treatment of those areas as uneconomic. The US Federation of Worker Co-ops was founded in 2004 for related reasons as the World Social Forum and the New Deal´s rural electrification program.
    Consider the efforts surrounding the modern wind industry. Denmark´s artesanal citizens created the technology and organized to implement it through residential and co-operative ownership. Their efforts then spurred germany´s own citizen co-op partnerships, and a select British group also got involved. Paul Gipe has collected a number of articles on line regarding these enterprising efforts.
    Consider various efforts to incentivize co-op and community enterprise: William Greider´s masterpiece, The Soul of Capitalism, discusses a number of important efforts, including the work by Senator Russell Long to create the ERISA legislation which incentivized employee ownership in the 1970s. Germany created a powerful version of the feed-in payment for renewable energy. The US legislation was followed by the creation of the US NGO the National Center for Employee Ownership. ´The Mondragon Co-op Corp. of Basque Spain is matched by legislation there favorable to co-ops. Chavez´s Venezuela has taken long strides to advance this kind of effort, though hardly covered by the mainstream media.
    America´s culture has large swaths which have submitted to the glamor of corporate behemoths like Coca Cola and Microsoft. I got my master´s studying Denmark, Germany, and English community and co-op enterprise effots in renewable energy. If we are recalling the New Deal, as Gerhard Schick at this site also does, we need to keep in mind the entrepreneurial and democratic enterprise of their rural electrification administration. Free market ideology is corporate dominated and incomplete. European social capitalism is more conducive to envisioning a healthy role for government regulation, pseudo-Keynesianism, but entrepreneurial enterprise and democratic governance practices are the way to preserve a dynamic social democracy and economy. Michael Conroy´s book on socially responsible certifications provides a great discussion of the range of efforts going on.

  3. Fern Henley says:

    NAWAPA is the project planned by the highly respected Parsons engineering firm of San Diego in the ’60’s which due to the Vietnamese problem, the assassination, the drug scene was shelved. Now is the time for the North American Water and Power Alliance project to be implemented to end the economic, cultural crisis we’re in and to provide a beacon of hope for other nations who also need to end the mass strike brought on by hunger, joblessness and injustice. Please support this project in what ever way you will; it’s either NAWAPA with it’s 6 billion productive jobs or BUST.

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  5. […] Ackerman, Frank. “A Lesson in US Job Creation: The Civilian Conservation Corps.” Triple Crisis 18 November 2010, n. pag. Web. 22 Apr. 2013. <http://triplecrisis.com/a-lesson-in-job-creation-the-civilian-conservation-corps/&gt;. […]

  6. cesium62 says:

    A difference between the 1930s and the 2010s… These days perhaps most of our 18 to 22 year olds are in college (or should be). $20,000 a year for room, board, and tuition to study, vs $20,000 a year to work in the outdoors. Arguably, the college option is a better choice for the 21st century.