Friday, January 6, 2017

A CCC to end the violence

Above: A group of CCC boys in California, 1933. In the CCC, young men of all racial backgrounds learned discipline, ethics, and how to live and work peacefully with others. All the while, they developed and improved our state and national parks and forests. A win-win situation that we should replicate today. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

An Epidemic of Shootings, An Epidemic of Apathy 

In 2016, 4,368 people were shot in Chicago (perhaps some victims were shot on multiple occasions). During the first week of 2017, which isn't even over yet, 61 people have been shot. In fact, by the time you read this blog post, the number will almost certainly be higher (see, e.g., "Chicago shooting victims," Chicago Tribune, accessed January 6, 2017).

What's even more astounding than the number of people shot is that, let's face it, most American don't even care. As long as it's not happening to them, most Americans are content to stay glued to their smart phones, or keep an attentive eye towards Twitter, or desperately try to find out what color thong Kim Kardashian is wearing today. Celebrity and technology distraction is turning us into an amoral, apathetic culture - more interested in celebrity dating news than in solving America's most pressing problems, like perpetual war, crumbling infrastructure, lead-poisoned children, and tens of thousands of Americans shooting each other (or shooting themselves out of despair) every year. Our apathy gives permission for these things to continue. And so they do. 

Most of the shootings in America are by young males, often in gangs and often during drug turf wars. We have created a nation pockmarked with economic ghettos - ghettos with few opportunities but plenty of guns. For decades now, our collective right-wing-inspired response to the problem has been a moronic, "Go get a job at McDonald's!" And when you have nothing to offer but a callous, infantile response to a major crisis of violence and death, you're only to get more violence and death. And so we have.

Above: These CCC Boys in Pennsylvania, 1933, are learning how to operate radios and send radio code. How many of them would take these skills to the private sector and/or use them to help America win World War II? My guess: A lot. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Policy Alternative: A New CCC

Instead of saying, "Go get a job at McDonald's," we could--and should--create a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Frequently, people join gangs because they do not feel that they're a part of the larger culture, or a part of something bigger than themselves, or even part of a family (see, e.g., "Poverty, Broken Homes, Violence: The Making of a Gang Member: How the need for community leads some teens to find it in gangs," Psychology Today, August 24, 2013). I think many people realize, either consciously or unconsciously, that the larger American culture doesn't really give a crap about them. And given that that's true--especially in our current, Ayn Rand-inspired socio-political environment--it's hard to blame them for seeking out some sense of belonging, somewhere.

We could reduce the number of people in gangs, and thus reduce the number of shootings in America, by creating a new CCC. A new CCC would provide a sense of belonging to millions of American youth who need companionship, camaraderie, and direction in their lives. During the New Deal, millions of unemployed, low-income, and troubled youth joined the CCC, creating hundreds of parks and forests that we still use today. They earned a small paycheck, but they learned a large amount of discipline and ethics.

New Deal Administrators Gave Us Good Advice. Sadly, We've Ignored It. 

Above: Anne Treadwell, far left, ca. 1935-1939. In her later years, Treadwell advised us to create a new NYA and CCC. We didn't listen. We think we're so smart, and that we don't have to listen to the wisdom of our elders, but our refusal to listen to Treadwell (and others) has resulted in mass incarceration and out-of-control violence. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

Anne Treadwell was the director of the New Deal's National Youth Administration (NYA) in California from 1935 to 1939. In 1994, she was interviewed, and asked what she had learned from that period. She said: "I have thought over and over that we should have a program of that sort [NYA, CCC] during this current period when youngsters are joining gangs and buying guns and all this sort of thing. There was nothing like that in those days. I mean, youngsters didn't feel they were totally abandoned or that nobody gave a thought to what they did with their lives. It seems to me that was an extremely valuable thing."

The interviewers then asked: "Was your sense that, from 1935 to '39, the NYA and the Civilian Conservation Corps between them pretty much took up most of the young people who needed jobs?" Treadwell replied, "I think so. I don't think there were very many stray people who had nothing to do and no place to go. I don't think so. I think they were extremely valuable programs. And I think we should have them in any situation where the social condition is deteriorated."

Above: James McEntee (hand on table), being sworn in as the new director of the CCC, in Washington, DC, March, 1940. In a book he wrote in 1940, Now They Are Men: The Story of the CCC, McEntee wrote: "Living together in barracks with other young men has a profound effect in teaching enrollees to respect the rights of others and to be tolerant of the ideas and beliefs of others. It teaches them to be good sports and to take minor defeats without flinching. These are traits of character which they will find exceedingly valuable in later life" (p. 61). Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

James McEntee, the director of the CCC during its final years, described the effect that the CCC had on its young enrollees. In his final report, he wrote: "Service in the CCC planted deeply in the consciousness of these enrollees many fundamental rules of conduct and a refreshed knowledge of right and wrong... Individual anti-social quirks, engendered by bad environments, shriveled and died when men were removed from such environments and came face to face with the pomp and majesty of nature. Something of the forests, the waters, the deserts, and the farms crept inside millions of dispirited kids and changed them deeply..."

McEntee pointed out that "Numerous studies made of CCC enrollees showed that thousands of them came from broken homes where the father or the mother or both were dead; where there had been desertion by one of both parents, accompanied by economic insecurity and social stigma. To boys from many such homes service in the CCC was their first stable, productive experience in life. Their responses to this period were almost uniformly excellent..." (Federal Security Agency, Final Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps, April, 1933 through June 30, 1942, p. 60).

Missing fathers? Missing mothers? Economic insecurity? Sound familiar?

The Proof

You needn't take Treadwell's or McEntee's word for it. You can simply look at our history and see what CCC enrollees did after their service to the country. For example, many of the young men who served in the CCC--men who had come from very troubled backgrounds--went on to lead America to victory in World War II. General Mark Clark, commander of the Allied Fifth Army during the war said, "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 (Charles E. Heller, "The U.S. Army, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Leadership for World War II, 1933-1942," Armed Forces & Society, April 2010, vol. 36, no. 3, 439-453). 

There are also may oral histories and many personal accounts of CCC alumni, testifying to the importance of the CCC to their lives (see, e.g., Perry H. Merrill, Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942, 1981). Indeed, many CCC alumni still have reunions today, three-quarters of a century after the program ended. That's how much of an impact the program had on them.

A New CCC Would Help Everyone, But it's Not on the Agenda of Anyone 

   Above: CCC Boys at work near Washington, DC. Many of the CCC Boys, before they were hired by the federal government, rode trains across the country, looking for work. They'd hang around for awhile, and then, if no work could be found, they'd hop on the next train and go to another town. The steady work of the CCC, along with the steady shelter, food, health care, and paychecks they received, made a lasting, positive impact on them. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The beauty of a CCC is that, it would not only help millions of young Americans, it would also help our national parks, which collectively have a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog; and it would also help mitigate some of the damage from the larger-than-average wildfires we've been experiencing in the 21st century.

But here's the funny thing (and a phenomenon I've mentioned in previous blog posts). If you were to say to the average American, "I think we should create a new CCC, and hire unemployed and troubled youth to work in our state and national parks and forests," you'd probably get an insincere nod, or a blank stare, or an incredulous, "How are we going to pay for that?!?" (a question that, shockingly, never seems to be asked when it's time to start a new overseas military adventure).

The fact is, we need a new CCC to end the violence. We've tried Ayn Rand, and it hasn't worked. We've tried apathy, and it hasn't worked. We've tried trickle-down economics, and it hasn't worked. We've tried mass incarceration, and it hasn't worked. We've tried, "Get a job at McDonald's!", and it hasn't worked. A new (and larger) CCC would work. Unfortunately, the billionaires and their political marionettes won't allow it. You see, a lot of them like the violence. More weapons + more prisons + more wars = greater profits and more campaign donations. The 4,368 shootings in Chicago? Doesn't faze them a bit. 

Only when we reject the false leadership of billionaires, and the false leadership of their political marionettes, will our country begin to heal. THAT is how you make American great again.


  1. On the contrary, I find the opposite reaction when I'm researching New Deal sites and are talking to the people I run across to find out if they know the history of the site. It's a pretty standard reaction when I bring up FDR's actions in public works built = less unemployed and they always say, "OMG, we need something like that again!"

    1. There are definitely plenty of people who would support it, no doubt, but I've had plenty of opposite experiences. For example, just this past week I was visiting a small CCC museum and a lady said that such a thing could never work today because people feel "entitled," which I took to mean, "too lazy to work." Also, there are an awful lot of people who are free market fanatics and believe that the government is always the problem. But you're right, there are a lot of reasonable-minded people too, who see the obvious benefits of a CCC.