Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Corrington Gill: Make the PWA and WPA permanent, for the health of the nation

(Assistant WPA Administrator Corrington Gill (left), at Capitol Hill, 1939. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

In his 1939 book, Wasted Manpower: The Challenge of Unemployment, Corrington Gill (1898-1946) highlighted the many obstacles to full and steady employment in America, e.g., droughts, machines replacing men, a smaller number of new investment opportunities, and the fact that changes in business investment frequently occur much faster than the labor market can adjust (new job training, new educational requirements, moving to new job-rich locations, etc.). Gill pointed out that these things occurred before the Great Depression, during the Great Depression, and would continue well into the future. Essentially, he was describing a nation with millions of people in a perpetual state of job insecurity, under constant threat of receiving a pink slip. History has shown that Gill was right. The recent economic recession is a high-profile example of this, but there has always been a significant percentage of the population struggling to find stable work.

Gill also pointed out that unemployment insurance is not enough to handle the problem of unemployment because benefits often don't cover the entire period of a person's joblessness ("Calls Loss Of Jobs 'Price' Of Machines," New York Times, April 27, 1940). Further, he noted that "unemployment not only affects the economic system adversely: it is a threat to the well-being and stability of society as a whole. Illness and disability frequently go hand in hand with joblessness. Worry, undernourishment, and poor housing all take their toll of the unemployed..." (Wasted Manpower, p. 16). 

Because of all these factors, as well as the benefit that private business derives from public investment (e.g., better roads, bridges, and airports for receiving and shipping goods), Gill said that New Deal work programs, specifically the PWA and WPA, should be made permanent: "I believe that a program of large public works ought to become a permanent part of our public investment program, complemented by an employment program of the WPA type" (Wasted Manpower, p. 272).

Gill's observations and recommendations make perfect sense of course (dare I say, "common sense"?). But, in a culture where super-wealthy investors call the shots and control our political process, and where they also benefit from unemployment, stagnant wages, and misery (lower labor cost = greater profit, and unemployment keeps people desperate, scared, and willing to work for extremely low wages), we are not likely to see a permanent public works program. Job insecurity--not public works for the unemployed--has been made permanent. And that is why you see high rates of joblessness for particular groups of Americans (e.g., younger veterans, American Indians, and African American youth), and why you also see children being poisoned by lead from old & filthy water systems that should have been replaced years ago.

We should have listened to Corrington Gill. Instead, we listened to people who value money over the well-being of their fellow citizens. And now we are paying the price for it, as we tally up the increasing numbers of homeless children, broken water mains, and suicides. 

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