Putting people to work

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By Hardy Jackson

Today we are facing an unemployment crisis.

It isn’t our first.

Nor the worst.

That was back in 1933.

Depression was hard on the land.

Of all the problems facing newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, few were more pressing than the massive unemployment of unmarried young men in their late teens and early twenties. Where in the past they would have gone from high school into the workforce, and become contributing members of the community, now jobless they became a burden on their families and on society.

To combat the situation Congress, at Roosevelt’s urging, created the Civilian Conservation Corp, – the CCC.

The concept behind the CCC was simple – young men need jobs, public land needs conservation, so put young men to work conserving and improving public land.

The Army set up camps to house the enrollees.

Most who joined were sons of hard scrabble farmers and laid-off mill workers. For some, it was their first time living away from home.

Which was the first of the many “firsts” they experienced.

One volunteer told of how the physical exam that he was given was the first time he had ever been to a doctor.

Once approved for manual labor they were given new clothes and boots that actually fit – more “firsts,” for the majority arrived at the camp poorly clothed and shod.

Then they were organized into units (“companies” and “sections”).

In addition to medical attention, enrollees got three meals a day, which for the estimated 70% who came to the program malnourished, was also a first.

And they were paid.

Officially CCC workers received $30 a month. According to the agreement, $10 of this was sent home to their families. It was another way to get money back into the economy and put the country on the road to recovery.

Many workers sent more money home because there was little in camp to spend it on.

A “company store” that sold soft drinks and candy, was about it.

However, a good deal of money changed hands in the poker games which reportedly went on every evening. My father told me of a friend of his who was the best draw-poker player he knew. That skill was developed and fine-tuned under the auspices of the CCC. When he left the camp, he had accumulated enough money to buy a new car.

Then there was the work.

Up early, fed, and on the job, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” planted over 3 billion trees, reclaimed and terraced eroded land, built and repaired thousands of miles of roads and foot trails, and constructed buildings that still stand today. It was a massive undertaking and on the whole a successful one.

The CCC was not without its critics. The governor of Georgia, who hated Roosevelt, claimed the enrollees were nothing but “bums and loafers,” and there was the oft repeated joke that the sun moved faster than a CCC worker. Nevertheless, the CCC became one of the most popular of the New Deal programs.

Would something like the CCC work today? Times are different.

Young men are different. But the CCC was unlike anything the nation had ever tried. Maybe what we need from Washington is not old, tired, approaches to our economic problems, but something new, something that helps people who need help and reaps tangible benefits in return.

It worked once.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hhjackson43@cableone.com.

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