A new report by the Urban Institute describes how federal jobs programs could be ramped up today to address the crisis of U.S. unemployment — and to potentially provide a lifeline to young people.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the national jobs programs known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put many Americans back to work — reaching 40% of the unemployed in 1936, according to the report.
A modern form of the WPA could drastically cut unemployment, including among young adults, according to Gregory Acs, vice president for income and benefits policy at the Urban Institute.
During the Depression, the WPA ramped up to employ nearly 2.7 million people in the space of six months, Acs wrote. He estimates that a $195 billion investment in such a program could underwrite 6.5 million jobs in 2021 and reduce employment from the expected 10% to 6%. Federally funded, locally administered jobs could range from construction work to teacher aides, to public health department staff to child and elder care providers.
While many jobs will return once the pandemic is contained, in the interim, job creation and subsidies could propel an economic recovery, the report said.
Other recommendations include subsidizing the private sector to hire workers and ramping up a federal workforce of contact tracers and others to combat the coronavirus.
Hiring disconnected youth
While considering how to support the wider workforce, it’s also important to consider young people who are disconnected from it, said Claire Boyd, research assistant at the Urban Institute.
Even before the pandemic “millions of young people were not connected to work and school,” she said. “It will be even more difficult for them to find quality jobs.
“We think it’s necessary to keep these youth in mind to target their needs,” she said.
The report recommends expanding national youth service programs, apprenticeship programs and community college job training. Jobs should also be targeted to young people who are at risk of ending up in the justice system, the report said.
Currently, the Corporation for National and Community Service funds 80,000 AmeriCorps members annually at a cost of $1.1 billion, Boyd said. These young adults serve a year in various nonprofits and community-based organizations.
The report suggests bumping the program up to 250,000 AmeriCorps members at a cost of $5 billion. Service in AmeriCorps gives young adults skills that help them transition into the workforce, Boyd said. They gain education awards that can also be applied to paying down student loans. As a result of their service, they are more likely to remain engaged in their communities, to vote and to take part in public service, she said.
The report suggests giving funding to states through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, creating a “green stimulus” jobs package and providing “work-sharing” unemployment insurance in all states so that employers can retain workers at reduced hours while workers get some amount of unemployment insurance.