Tuesday, September 20, 2016

NYA hope and training vs. today's insults and shaming

Above: The description for this photograph (ca. 1935-1942) reads, "Henry Suzuki, James Taiamon, and Sanaye Kitazone, shown sawing and nailing sheathing, are National Youth Administration workers on a construction of a $57,000 student union building for Compton Junior College, Los Angeles County, California." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Recently, an economist from George Mason University gave his opinion on why America has a lingering labor force participation problem: "There are a few reasons, but the internet may be the biggest. It is easier to have fun while unemployed. That's a social problem for some people... Maybe employers just aren't that keen to hire those males who prefer to live at home, watch porn and not get married" ("Debating Government's Role In Boosting Growth: Cowen and Smith," Bloomberg, September 12, 2016). Presumably, when the economist says "live at home," he means something along the lines of "live in their parent's basement," a common cultural shaming of people who can't find decent-paying jobs.

Of course, this is just the latest in a litany of insults cast upon low-income Americans and the jobless - insults that have included "takers," "parasites," "lazy," "lazy pigs," "wild animals," and "white trash."

There are many problems with the viewpoint that the unemployed enjoy being unemployed, including:

1. For most people, unemployment is not "fun." If someone asks, "Where do you work?" and you respond, "I don't have a job," it's incredibly embarrassing. The Internet, or video games, or whatever, are merely diversions from the pain of not being able to afford a car, or vacations, or a nice home, or nice clothes, etc. 

2. Most young adults do not want to live in their parent's home and not get married. Speaking from a male point of view, I believe that most men want a decent-paying job so that they can live on their own, support a relationship, and get married and have kids. But when a man's income is low or non-existent, and there doesn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, the man's hope may slowly fade away, especially when his fellow Americans hate him and label him a wild animal. So, again, realizing that the better things in life might not be attainable, a man might settle for whatever source of enjoyment or escape he can obtain (drugs, alcohol, video games, Internet porn, food, whatever).

3. Insulting the unemployed, especially in a public forum like Internet news stories (where the opinion is broadcast out to millions of people), only makes the problem worse for low-income workers and the long-term unemployed. If employers are constantly told that these folks are, essentially, sub-human (i.e., parasites, lazy pigs, wild animals), they are probably less likely to hire them or give them a significant raise.

Above: The description for this photograph (ca. 1935-1942) reads, "NYA girl preparing to become an air mechanic in a work shop in South Charleston, West Virginia." Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

During the 1930s, New Deal policymakers tried something new. They decided to create opportunities instead of insults. They initiated nationwide work programs for the unemployed, for example, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). For youth specifically, they created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the National Youth Administration (NYA). The result? Well, many young Americans learned skills and discipline. For example, many young women in the NYA learned aircraft trades and went on to work in the defense industries during World War II - the so-called Rosie the Riveters and Wendy the Welders. Many young men in the CCC served in the Armed Forces and, because of their CCC experience, they rose quickly through the ranks into leadership positions. General Mark Clark, the commander of the Allied Fifth Army during World War II recalled: "To my way of thinking the CCC... became a potent factor in enabling us to win WW-II... though we did not realize it at the time, we were training Non-Commissioned Officers" (see my blog post here). 

There are other legacies from the New Deal work programs for youth, for example, infrastructure and state & national parks that we still use today, but most Americans are not very aware of American history, and so they're very susceptible to the right-wing claims that the unemployed are simply lazy people, or perhaps even wild animals. And right-wing politicians are clever. They want nothing to do with a national work program that might prove their claims wrong, so they ignore and block such proposals (see, for example, "Senate GOP blocks veterans jobs bill," CBS, September 20, 2012). For them, it's better that the unemployed remain unemployed, and thus convenient political punching bags to insult, shame, and scapegoat for easy political points.

Which approach would you prefer today? A national jobs program for the unemployed, so we could begin to work on our national park system's multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog; and replace the nation's aging drinking water infrastructure that's poisoning our children with lead? Or, would you prefer that we continue the current right-wing approach: Ignoring contaminated water and labeling jobless Americans as lazy Internet porn junkies? Well, if you chose the first option, you're in the minority. The majority people have spoken--either through their voting behavior or their apathy--and they are simply not interested in clean water, infrastructure modernization, or a national jobs program for the unemployed - at least, not interested enough to actually take action and/or vote for progressive-minded candidates.

Unfortunately, there will not be another New Deal. Instead, tax-breaks-for-the-wealthy, voodoo economics, reduced spending on our crumbling infrastructure, insulting the unemployed, and a massive prison system will remain the prescriptions for our national ailments. For tens of millions of Americans, the poisons are still seen as the cure.


  1. One of those Rosie's just retired at 93 when Boeing shut down the last airplane manufacturing in Southern California a few years ago. The photos of the young guys building a building in Compton brings to mind an NYA built rec center in Fresno that I got a picture of recently. You can't imagine today's computer addicted youth doing something like that today.

    In another aspect of this theme, on an agriculture group on Facebook that I watch, when folks were complaining about the shortage of workers thanks to Obama's overzealous deporting of Mexicans, I suggested that perhaps it's time to start recruiting in the city since we have an epidemic of homelessness here in Los Angeles and they might go if work is available. I was disabused of my presumptuousness by the warning that they're all drug addicts and they don't want to bring that problem out there.

    1. I've come to believe that when employers say "there's a shortage of workers," they're leaving off a part of what they mean. What they really mean to say is, "There's a shortage of workers...who are willing to work for the crappy wages and benefits I'm offering." Offer enough money, and nice benefits, and I bet there won't be a shortage of workers.