Brendan Klein is a Growth & Justice Intern and Jackson Fellow at the College of St. Benedicts and St. John’s University
Many federal programs, from Social Security to Medicare to the National Park System, have improved and enriched our lives and are seen as great American achievements. Others have failed or been discontinued for various reasons, but few defunct programs are remembered as fondly as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
CCC workers in Cook County, taking a break from planting trees
(Courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society, no date given)
The CCC began in 1933 and was a brainchild of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. The CCC was particularly active in Minnesota and played an integral part in developing the state’s conservation movement and our distinctive ethic around stewardship of the environment. Numerous studies place Minnesota near the top in environmental sustainability efforts and outcomes, including a recent Wallet Hub summary that puts Minnesota 2nd in overall environmental quality.
The original mission of the program was to alleviate poverty and unemployment during the Great Depression through employment of young men, to help build infrastructure and plant trees. This program played an unintended role in preparing the US for World War II. The History Channel notes that the federal “experience in managing such large numbers and the paramilitary discipline learned by corpsmen provided unexpected preparation for the massive call-up of civilians in World War II.”
The men working under this program had a chance to experience nature, learn about environmental conservation, and receive valuable vocational training. By the end of the program in 1942, more than 3 million men had served. They planted millions of trees, restored dozens of national parks, and built thousands of road and ditches to ease access to the West.
CCC Poster from Illinois
It remains one of the most revered government work programs in national memory and vestiges remain. A handful of states have variations of public or non-profit CCC-style programs, including California and Texas. Conservation Corps Minnesota is a small non-profit program that serves both Iowa and Minnesota and trains about 100 people annually.
Today’s circumstances, 75 years after the demise of the CCC, ought to excite new interest in a new 21st Century CCC for Minnesota.
Here are the circumstances:
• Stubborn, relatively high underemployment for unskilled young adults, both women and men, in both rural and urban regions, especially for communities of color. Low-wage jobs are in plentiful supply, but that’s not the answer for sustainable growth and equitable prosperity in Minnesota.
• An urgent need for public-private partnerships advancing renewable energy and conservation infrastructure. Experts agree that Minnesota, is particularly poised for explosive growth in solar energy, wind power, and retro-fitting our infrastructure for sustainable energy consumption. Eco-friendly buildings, parks, and transit systems are the wave of the future.
• With a so-called “Silver Tsunami” and mass retirements underway by Baby Boom workers in both conventional and renewable energy jobs, demand is particularly high for more skilled workers.
• Although overall unemployment is low, Minnesota needs to prepare for the next recession, which inevitably falls hardest on young low-income people and communities of color. A CCC program could be ramped up to insulate against that future shock.
Our communities of color would especially benefit from a revived CCC. African-American unemployment is twice as high as the overall rate, and youth unemployment is higher than it was twelve months ago, now at 11.4 percent. Experts agree that many of our underemployed youth need to learn the discipline and work habits that the CCC was famous for instilling.
Rural populations also stand to benefit. The counties with the highest unemployment are in northeastern, southern, and western Minnesota. The latest statistics from the Department of Employment and Economic Development report that most new job growth is in construction and utilities, and a newly funded CCC could prepare young women and men for those fields.
Minnesotans are ready for and demanding a major transition to renewable energy as a focus for new jobs and economic development. This is evidenced in a 2014 poll which shows that Minnesotans are looking for policies that will improve the economy by creating clean energy jobs and training Minnesota workers to fill them.
The high level of bipartisan support shows that we are ready for serious private-public investment in green technology. In the same study that put Minnesota second in environmental quality we ranked only 31st in “Climate Change Contributions,” which means we are behind other states and our neighbors in green technology investment. Support from state and national business establishment is also strong, with many companies signing on to the Paris Agreement.
Finally, the inevitability of business cycles makes it probable that the nation and state will face another recession within the next five years. Recessions inevitably hurt low-skilled, under-educated workers first and most, and a public-sector full-employment programs can be ramped up quickly to help soften those blows.
Minnesota can once again be a leading innovator. We need sustainable development, answers for high unemployment in regions that need workers and technical expertise, and help for an urban population that would benefit from this type of work and training. This would be a wise investment that lifts up a generation of workers who can be our next carpenters, welders, and engineers in the renewable energy field.
Perhaps most important, the CCC built a sense of resilience and confidence in a young population that was demoralized. The CCC was a major factor in that cohort of young people beating the Depression, winning World War II, and building a post-war economy that was the envy of the world. Their motto was “We Can Take It,” and they became part of “The Greatest Generation.”
Minnesota and the nation could use another generation like that one.