More than just jobs

Public works spending should include an educational element to help Americans better their lives

December 11, 2008|By Erik Christiansen

In response to the economic crisis, many people have called for a massive public works effort in the tradition of the New Deal-era jobs programs. The arguments are straightforward: Boost employment while improving our nation's crumbling infrastructure. Some have added the suggestion that, like the earlier programs, such a plan would promote a new sense of purpose and community.

The economy needs the short-term stimulus a jobs program would provide, but with a little imagination, we could simultaneously create lasting benefits to society - by adding an educational component that would help many Americans permanently improve their lives.

Though the 1930s saw the federal employment of writers, musicians, artists and scholars along with laborers, recent proposals have emphasized almost exclusively the need to hire construction workers. Certainly, there is a need for improving public transportation, repairing bridges, building schools and libraries, paving bicycle paths and other infrastructure work. The other common and related suggestion is to employ out-of-work Americans in some kind of "greening" program. Like the infrastructure improvements, the conversion to more environmentally friendly fuels and technologies is a worthy investment.

But why stop there? The jobs programs of the 1930s helped people by putting money directly into their pockets. However, when the job was finished or Congress terminated the program, individual workers were not much better off than before. In the wake of World War II, on the other hand, the tremendous public investment in education - especially the GI Bill - paid off in both the short and long term, and greatly contributed to the extended economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the current crisis, public and private universities across the country have announced massive budget cuts. The University System of Maryland has already imposed a hiring freeze and announced mandatory furloughs, and Gov. Martin O'Malley is said to be considering larger cuts to the system's budget and lifting the ban on tuition increases.

Nationally, many colleges have abolished needs-blind admissions, which means that they will be accepting more students wealthy enough to pay their own way (or those willing to incur massive debt). At the same time, universities are unable to hire new teachers or, in many cases, even replace those who retire. Recent doctoral graduates and others looking for faculty appointments are finding that hiring freezes leave them little possibility of gaining employment in their field. Thus, opportunities for higher education in America are shrinking despite a surplus of potential educators.

For these reasons, temporary employment projects should be combined with increased access to training and education. Anyone employed in a government jobs effort should be able to both work and study as part of a coordinated program. This broad approach could help people gain access to vocational training or a liberal arts education, thereby strengthening America's work force for the future.

President-elect Barack Obama should therefore advocate direct federal funding dedicated to reducing the costs of adult education, whether one pursues vocational training or a two- or four-year college degree. Additional financial support for hiring new instructors would not only function as a smaller-scale jobs program but also increase the number of slots available to potential students.

This new stream of education funding could be attached to appropriations for infrastructure improvements. Aid might also take the form of student debt forgiveness for graduates willing to work in public service (including teaching) for some period of time. This would help recent graduates and also provide encouragement to people justly fearful of investing too much in their own education, when the payoff seems so doubtful.

Any jobs program will be merely a temporary solution unless it is combined with a substantial effort to increase educational opportunities. If we allow the economic crisis to limit, rather than increase, access to education, we will be putting our future at risk.

Erik Christiansen is a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Maryland, College Park. His e-mail is ebchrist@gmail.

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