Time for a 21st Century CCC

Camp Roosevelt, Virginia
The first Ccc camp.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Franklin Roosevelt was, among many other things, a knowledgeable forester. He frequently described himself as a “grower of trees.”

Long before his entrance on the political scene, he spent years reforesting his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt established a “tree army” of unemployed young men to restore the state’s abused forestland. “Forests, like people, must be constantly productive,” Roosevelt told the Forestry News Digest.

After his presidential inauguration in 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, with millions unemployed, he persuaded Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that, he said, would solve two crises by employing “wasted human resources to reclaim wasted natural resources.”

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The CCC planted a billion trees in parks, national forests, and on spent farmland
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Creative Commons

Scholars are still not sure whether FDR was aware of the William James 1906 speech at Stanford, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which the eminent psychologist and philosopher seeks to replace war with its moral equivalent. In lieu of the destructive outcome of wartime patriotism, James called for constructive civil service in the interests of the individual and the nation. That is precisely what the peacetime army of the CCC did.

During its decade-long run, the CCC employed three-and-a-half million young men to plant over three billion trees.

Racially integrated outside of the South fifteen years before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, the “Cs” recruited jobless, indigent, and often illiterate young men and gave them nutritious food, housing, health care, education, and hard work in some of the most rugged and beautiful places in the nation.

Fighting Fires, 1936

Fighting Fires, 1936
CCC enrollees battled wildfires and provided flood relief
Photo Credit: Idaho Department of Forestry

They fought beetle infestation and blister rust as well as forest fires, conserved soil, and were on call to help in the natural disasters—epic floods, hurricanes, and drought—that added to the hardships of the 1930s.

The CCC also left a vast legacy of superb rustic structures in national and state parks and wildlife refuges whose expansion and development during the 30s they were largely responsible for. Many CCC veterans recalled their service as among the happiest times of their lives and attributed it to success later in life.

Brass Button, Collar button from CCC uniform

Brass Button
Collar button from CCC uniform
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

After decades of tax cuts our national, state, and local jurisdictions are today incapable of dealing with the ever-growing danger of conflagrations such as those that recently devastated California, and the hurricanes from which Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico are struggling to recover.

Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has introduced the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act, HR 2206, reviving a proven model to address chronic unemployment, heal our forests, and meet the challenges and consequences of climate change. It deserves our support.

Highway maintenance project, 1933.

Highway maintenance project, 1933
Lassen National Park, California
Photo Credit: NPS

The president and key CCC staff, 1933

The president and key CCC staff, 1933
Big Meadows CCC camp, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Front row, left to right: Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, CCC Director Robert Fechner, FDR, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Social Security at 80: Still Missing the Keystone

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935

Signing the Social Security Act, 1935
FDR signs the Social Security Act with Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet.

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, declaring:  “If the Senate and the House of Representatives … had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.” Nonetheless, Roosevelt acknowledged that the groundbreaking legislation was “a cornerstone in a structure … by no means complete.”

Once the cornerstone was laid, Social Security soon expanded. Initially, its two social insurance programs, Old Age Insurance and Unemployment Insurance, covered only a portion of the work force. Left out were workers in very small establishments and the public sector, along with the self-employed. Also excluded were domestic workers—largely women and agricultural workers—occupations in which many African Americans were employed.

Within four years Social Security extended benefits to widows and orphans. In 1950, Congress added coverage for domestic and agricultural laborers. Disability insurance was also added in the fifties, and Medicare in the mid-1960s. In 1972, automatic cost-of-living increases began. Unemployment Insurance has been less expandable, but groups previously excluded became covered in 1970 when Congress also provided for automatic extensions of benefits during recessions when many workers are laid off.

Social Security Poster 1935

Social Security Poster 1935
Social Security was funded entirely by payroll taxes.

Headed by FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the Committee on Economic Security, which proposed the Social Security Act, recognized that “employment assurance” was the key to economic security. The committee acknowledged that public-work programs might be necessary not only during periods of economic depression, but during normal times as well. Roosevelt and Federal Relief Administrator Harry Hopkins considered creating a permanent government employment program for those still jobless after receiving short-term unemployment compensation.

Ultimately, the government settled on permanent, short-term Unemployment Insurance as part of the Social Security Act, and a temporary employment program—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired millions of people and vastly enriched the country’s physical, social, and cultural resources. The WPA was terminated during World War II when job creation became temporarily unnecessary. Thus, Perkins wrote in the mid-1940s, “Unemployment Insurance stands alone as the only protection for people out of work.”

What might Roosevelt, Hopkins, and Perkins have said when, in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, many jobless workers collected extended unemployment benefits instead of getting paid to restore the country’s decaying infrastructure, making our economy and planet more sustainable, and providing sorely needed social services?

Ida May Fuller, 1940

Ida May Fuller, 1940
Ida May Fuller was the first to receive a monthly Social Security check. She received $22.54.

Nearly seven years after the Great Recession 20 million people remain jobless or are forced to work part time. The proportion of working-age people working or actively looking for work is the lowest since 1976.

Federal legislation pending in Congress comes close to completing the Social Security edifice begun 80 years ago. The Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment & Training Act, https://conyers.house.gov/index.cfm/jobs introduced by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) commits the U.S. to full employment at a living wage, paid for by a small tax on financial transactions. Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-OH) bill for a 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps https://kaptur.house.gov/images/114th-Kaptur-CCC-bill.pdf would, like its famous New Deal predecessor, create needed jobs dedicated to preserving and restoring the nation’s resources.

Let’s observe Social Security’s 80th birthday by taking steps toward employment assurance—jobs—the keystone of economic security.

Professor Emerita of Social Work and Social Policy at Adelphi University, Trudy Goldberg has written about the feminization of poverty from a cross-national perspective; the history of work and welfare; and the New Deal. She is chair of the National Jobs for All Network. A version of this article first appeared in the organization’s February 2023 newsletter.