A New Deal

With appreciation for Habitat For Humanity and others, and despite an urgent need, more homes for the homeless and prisons for the less fortunate is dumping more dirt on a dam.  As the reservoir’s area and depth increase a higher dam is futile.  Someone needs to say, “Hey!  Where the hell is all this water coming from?  Grab a canoe.  Let’s paddle upstream and see.  Maybe we can ditch the water to agriculture, industry, cities.”

With over half its workforce in bread lines, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave America “The New Deal”, the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Projects Administration (WPA) its Crown Jewels.  In the CCCs, for three hots, a cot and a stipend young men were set to work building

bridges, roads, trails, fire lookout towers, airport landing fields, dams, ditches, canals, camp and picnic grounds, lakes and ponds; worked in tree and shrub nurseries, on insect and plant disease control; in fire prevention, rangeland, and steam improvement; stocking fish and assorted emergency work.*

Works Projects Administration (WPA) employees constructed over a half-million miles of roads

10,000 bridges, airports and housing, schools, libraries, courthouses, hospitals, sidewalks, waterworks, and post-offices  .  .  .  museums, swimming pools, parks, community centers, playgrounds, coliseums, markets, fairground, tennis courts, zoos, botanical gardens, auditoriums, waterfronts, city halls, gyms, and university unions.  Most of these are still in use today.

It’s Tennesse Valley Authority constructed dams for electrical power and irrigation.*

I’m surprised and heartened to learn It didn’t stop with sweat work.  Under “Federal Project Number One” the WPA employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in its Federal Writers’ Project, (FWP), Historical Records Survey (HRS), Federal Theater Project (FTP), Federal Music Project (FMP), and Federal Art Project (FAP).  How’s that ?  Government dollars for artsy, fartsy nonsense!  Anathema!

I enumerate The New Deal’s projects and accomplishment to demonstrate where there’s a will there’s work.  Not “make work,” significant, substantial work.

Could today’s America stomach a New Deal?  As I see it, government employing the homeless would face three roadblocks: Bureaucracy, Free Enterprise, able and willing workers.

With five hundred of America’s most inflated egos pushing, shoving, schmoozing, cajoling, wheeling-dealing, and threatening, it’s astonishing anything gets done in Washington D.C—Some argue it doesn’t.  Fact is, without a heavy-duty shove from “K Street” any hope that Congress would pass legislation to help the homeless, dispossessed and mentally ill makes a Megabucks ticket seem a reasonable bet.

Roadblock two: On any suggestion of Government hiring folks for work it is not and otherwise would not do would trigger shrieks of “Communism!”, “Meddling in the Free Market!” from Business.

Roadblock three: Despite our homeless tragedy, finding able and willing workers is a challenge.  Folks sleeping on sidewalks in tents and under tarps appear to fall in three groups: workers who’s jobs were shipped to China, Mexico or India or were sacrificed to financial profit, those who have never been employed, and the mentally ill.

A century back  America’s work ethic was dramatically different.  Most of those in nineteen twenty-nine bread lines had worked, knew how to work and wanted to work.  Likewise, most of today’s laid-off workers would grab any chance of a paycheck.

I hope it’s only my prejudice but many of today’s homeless appear to have grown up where few people held steady jobs.  For these folks, learning to crawl out to a five-thirty alarm and show up eight hours a day five days a week would seem to demand cradle-up retraining.  The means to break this cycle demands wisdom far beyond my poor power.

Confronting America’s mental illness crisis is, to the contrary, a no-brainer.  When Ronald Reagan knocked funding for Federal mental health treatment and research in the head, the mentally ill were shoved off a cliff and have never climbed back up.

In the end, fixing homelessness, its causes, implications and consequences is a choice, a matter of will, i.e. Public dollars.  Do we give tax breaks to the top five percent or invest in the ten percent who, through happenstance, can’t or wont work or suffer brain diseases equivalent to cancer?  For a pittance of what we spend on rockets, satellites and space stations, for putting men on the Moon and Rovers on Mars, for Cassini’s snapshots of Pluto we could at least attempt to ingrate the homeless into the workforce here on Earth.

The New Deal demonstrates where there’s as willingness to make the effort, to invest the dollars, to think out of the box, there is worthwhile work for the homeless and otherwise unemployed.  Can that century-old model be exporter into twenty-first century America?  Given today’s Politics, Business and, despite available bodies, the questionable nature of an able, willing Workforce, the prospect appears bleak.

In an arctic or temperate climate a roof overhead is essential.  By itself, more housing treats only the symptom, not the root issues.  More dirt on the dam allows the reservoit to grow larger and deeper.  Switching metaphors, housing by itself is a band aid on a growing abscess.