Chicago - Mar. 19, 2022
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New WPA Stamps Are a Good Reminder To Bring Emergency Public Employment Infrastructure Programs To Violent Neighborhoods

The United States Postal Service is issuing a set of 10 new stamps on Wednesday to commemorate the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Roosevelt, creating the WPA.

The purpose was to provide public employment slots to build public infrastructure (roads, bridges, schools, post offices, etc.) at prevailing wages, and in the process preserve skills, self-respect, and bolster aggregate demand.

The 10 stamps showcase 10 of the projects or purposes of the WPA. Their topics include providing wage work opportunities, encouraging work safety, promoting domestic tourism, and building tennis courts, zoos, airports, national parks, hiking trails, and docks.


As a professor of economics with an interest in the economics of crime, and seeing the standstill in addressing the violent crime spikes in some of Chicago neighborhoods as well in other cities, it appears to me that a WPA-type program should be the one of the first violent crime reduction strategies - to both be a source for job slots for youth living in violent prone neighborhoods and to augment public infrastructure.

My version would restrict the program to youth between the ages of 16 and 21 living in high violent crime neighborhoods and who are not in school nor have a job. A key aspect of this would be the option of WPA job slots in places outside the neighborhood and urban area with a residential and tutoring component.

Providing the option for youth to exit local gang influence would a big improvement for many. The human capital goal of this WPA program would be get participants leaving the program back into school leading to college or to a job or an apprenticeship program. For those with a business or hustling inclination, there would be a Micro-Entrepreneur track proving a mentor and hands-on experience in selling or running a small business.

In Chicago, I am aghast that there is an official public community street market which has more 150 empty vendor spaces that youth could be recruited for to earn extra money and learn about business. Such markets could be created all over the city.

Jobs alone for at-risk youth won't make violent neighborhoods safe, but it would be a first step to make them safer. Other realms of policy changes to improve violent prone neighborhoods should include: decriminalization of drug offenses that emphasizes treatment over punishment, social work training for police, increased use of civilian patrols; school curricula for political activism, non-violence, and dispute resolution; and a basic minimum income policy.

Because the job market is presently so tight, now is not to time for a WPA program for the general population. But there is a need for WPA programs targeted to youth who are structurally unemployed where there is a mismatch between skills and job slots and between place of residence and location of employment.

Most high violence neighborhoods have unemployment rates for youth that are at Depression levels and where job prospects do not lead to middle class career futures. A goal must be not just jobs but career trajectories that lead to good jobs: middle class wages and benefits, a chance for advancement, and interesting work.

There are policy tools from our American past that can be profitably used again but adapted to today's circumstances. If the federal government is in paralysis, states should take up the slack. Diverting prison budgets to this WPA program would seem a good reallocation. Either you pay for this violence reduction now or you pay for it later. A New Deal WPA for at-risk youth can and should be created.

Steve Balkin is a professor emeritus at Roosevelt University.


Previously by (or including) Steve Balkin:
* The Maxwell Street Muddle.

* Maxwell Street Malfeasance.

* City Needs New Policy For The Maxwell Street Market: An Open Letter To Mayor-Elect Emanuel.

* The Maxwell Street Market Vendors Association Wants You To Like Them.

* The Olympic Bid That Could Have Been.

* Lil Scotty: 'Give Him His Flowers While He Lives.'

* Remembering Lil Scotty: Bluesman, Buttonman.

* Remembering Lacy Gibson, Master Bluesman.

* Here's To Bobby Too Tuff.

* Continuing The Political Revolution.

* Reducing Chicago's Violence: A 10-Point Plan.


Comments welcome.


Posted on March 6, 2017

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