Sunday, June 28, 2015

A new WPA and a new CCC would help reduce the rate of Native American suicide

(A Navajo Indian learns how to use heavy equipment on a CCC project. Photo from the Office of Indian Affairs publication, "Indians at Work," December 1941 edition.)

The suicide rate for Native American youth is much higher than the national average. The unemployment and poverty rates for Native Americans are also much higher than the national averages. Unemployment and poverty are risk factors for suicide (see, e.g., here and here).

With respect to Native American youth suicide, it was recently reported that "In an area where the poverty rate is more than 50 percent and unemployment is above 70 percent...'children carry the outlook that things may not get better for them.'" In response to the suicide epidemic, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said, "We will not turn away from this issue until it is resolved"... which, of course, is a clear sign that Congress will turn away from this issue before it is resolved. U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said, "We’ve got to find a solution, we've got to find best practices, and then we have to fund those best practices." ("Native leaders tell senators how to help stop youth suicide," Huffington Post, June 25, 2015)

But we already know what the solution and the best practices are, there's no need to search for them: We need several public job programs for Native Americans who cannot find work in the private sector. We need a new WPA and a new CCC. These and other New Deal policies helped reduce suicide rates in the 1930s and they can do the same today.

(In the 3-minute video above, we see Indians working in the CCC. This film clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

Legislation introduced in Congress this year shows just how little help Native Americans can expect: "The legislation would create an 11-member commission to study the programs, grants and services for Native children that are already provided by agencies and tribes. The commission would then produce a report and work to advance the longer-term goal of increasing coordination between service providers, making better use of resources and strengthening partnerships with the private sector to measurably improve outcomes for Native children...The proposed commission makes no promises regarding broken treaties and makes no legislative commitments" ("Native Children Are Facing A 'National Emergency.' Now Congress Is Pushing To Address It." Huffington Post, June 27, 2015, emphasis added).

Though perhaps created by well-intentioned people, this legislative approach is little more than gobbledygook. Studies? Reports? Longer-term goals? Increasing coordination? Strengthening partnerships with the private sector? Please. If people need jobs, then jobs should be created directly, and not wished for through the mysticism of the "market." 

During the New Deal over 85,000 Indians worked in the CCC--on 200 reservations in 23 states--and the employment improved their financial situation and their morale (Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981, pp. 31, 44-45). For example, in 1933 the following was reported: "The work furnished us for the eradication of Johnson grass, combined with that provided for road improvement, practically ends unemployment on the Yuma Reservation. The only Yuma Indians now to whom rations are issued are the old and the infirm" (U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, "Indians at Work," October 1933 edition, p. 26).

(In the two-minute video above, we see Native Americans working in WPA programs. At the one-minute mark, note the letters "WPA" in the beadwork art. This film clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

Many Native Americans were also employed or assisted by the WPA. For example, the following was highlighted in 1938: "Through cooperation with state, county and WPA road units, a number of Indians trained in Road Division work are taking their places with white men in outside jobs. There is generally a local market for experienced road workers, and it is becoming evident, through specific cases, our men can compete in their local labor markets with the best in their field" (U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Indian Affairs, "Indians at Work," June 1938 edition, p. 17).

So, why doesn't Congress create a new WPA and a new CCC? The answer is fairly simple: Because many of the wealthy Americans who are controlling Congress's puppet strings with bribes campaign contributions don't want them to. In a survey conducted by researchers from Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities, wealthy Americans were asked whether they agreed with the proposition that "The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment." Only 8% did. (Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright, "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans," Perspectives on Politics, March 2013, Vol. 11 No. 1, p. 57, Table 5).

There is no doubt that a new WPA and a new CCC would help reduce the suicide rate for Native Americans (as they would for any group of people struggling with unemployment and poverty). Unfortunately, there is also no doubt that American plutocrats, and the politicians who serve them, will make sure that a public job program never happens. Instead, the problems facing Native Americans will be buried under commissions, studies, reports, and longer-term goals.

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