This post is one of five that will dig deeper into the issue areas that will be featured at the SDC’s Symposium on Poverty – Family Relationships, Community Violence & Public Safety, Community Development, Neighborhood Development, and Job Creation & Workforce Development.
The Greater Milwaukee Human Rights Network, Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, and Wisconsin Citizen Action will lead a track entitled, “Approaches to Reducing Joblessness in the Inner City - Learning from the Past to Build for the Future” at the upcoming SDC symposium on poverty. This track will discuss options for reducing joblessness including work relief programs, community based enterprises, and cooperatives. This blog post will explore the work relief component.
The need for massive job creation in today’s economic climate is universally understood. The national unemployment rate stands at 9.6% (September 2010 Unemployment Summary). This high rate of unemployment has been virtually intractable—with only modest fluctuations in monthly data.
At the state level, Wisconsin’s unemployment stands at 7.8% (WI September 2010 Unemployment Report). Wisconsin’s September 2010 unemployment rate was moderately lower than both the national rate and Wisconsin’s September 2009 rate of 8.8%. Nevertheless, even at 7.8%, the state unemployment rate is greater than the pre-recession rate of 4.4% (WI September 2008 Unemployment Report).
A similar pattern occurs at the local level. According to the WI September 2010 Unemployment Report, Milwaukee County had an unemployment rate of 8.7%. Milwaukee County’s rate is slightly lower than the national rate (9.6%) and better than the county’s unemployment rate of 9.4% in September 2009. However, these rates are well above Milwaukee County’s pre-recession unemployment rate of 5.4% in September 2008 (WI Local Unemployment Rates September 2009). Turning to Milwaukee’s inner city, an analysis of unemployment benefits by UWM’s Employment & Training Institute does an excellent job of highlighting the geography of unemployment within Metro Milwaukee. This analysis supports earlier research on the high levels of unemployment in the inner city relative to other sections of the metropolitan region. Dr. Marc Levine has also done a thorough job documenting the high levels of joblessness among African-American males in his research.
This recent spike in unemployment also needs to be placed in context. Even in good economic times, 4.0% - 6.0% of the workforce is unemployed. This structural unemployment (or job debt) means that several workers cannot find employment even though they are actively seeking it. Long periods of unemployment can cause a great deal of collateral damage as this New York Times article documents. We should concern ourselves with unemployment for self-evident reasons.
Locally, Milwaukee County residents have consistently recognized the need for job creation—especially in the central city. According to SDC’s 2010 Community Needs Assessment, community members see employment related strategies as the best method for reducing poverty. Specifically, community members called for more jobs, better pay, and more workforce related training.
One proposed solution to the current spike in unemployment, as well as the persistent job debt found in Milwaukee County, is the recreation of work relief programs made popular by the New Deal of the 1930s. The New Deal included multiple programs to address the severe unemployment of the Great Depression through public works projects. One of the larger programs was the Works Progress Administration or WPA under the leadership of Harry Hopkins. The WPA used a Congressional allocation to fund a number of infrastructure projects throughout the United States and thus employee unemployed workers. A cousin of the WPA was the Civilian Conservation Corps or CCC. The CCC was similar to the WPA but focused on National Forests and National Parks. These programs were established to provide employment income to workers that could not be served by the private sector due to the economic climate. At the same time, work relief programs produced infrastructure and preserved forests that are still enjoyed today—providing a number of intergenerational benefits.
Recently, the state of Wisconsin received Emergency Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds that were allocated in the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act. A portion of these funds was dedicated to the establishment of a transitional jobs program loosely modeled on the WPA. (In full discloser, SDC has received funds to administer a portion of this program in Milwaukee County.) This program is placing unemployed workers in 6 month slots at public, nonprofit, and for-profit employers. Given the intractably high unemployment level, this transitional jobs program demonstrates great promise to respond directly to the “jobless recovery”. At the same time, given the structural nature of unemployment this program may be a necessary safety net program—with its precise size fluctuating to respond to economic conditions. A permanent transitional jobs program would provide workers with employment income and the community with the fruits of their labor. Transitional jobs are not a one-size fits all solution (some people like the young, elderly, disabled, or primary caregivers) may not be able to work. But transitional jobs may be an old answer to a need that has been unmet for several years.
What are your thoughts? What are some of the benefits and costs associated with work relief programs from your perspective?
Policy & Research Manager
Social Development Commission
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