The United States Postal Service issued a set of 10 new stamps on March 7 to commemorate the 1930s Works Progress Administration (WPA) Posters. 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 jobs 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 poster designs created to support the WPA program. Their topics include providing work opportunities, encouraging work safety, promoting domestic tourism, and building tennis courts, zoos, airports, national parks, hiking trails, and Foreign Trade.
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 one of the first violent crime reduction strategies - to both be a source for jobs for youth living in violent 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 neither in school nor have a job. A key aspect of this would be the option of WPA jobs 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 2017 program would be to get participants leaving the program back into school leading to college or a job or an apprenticeship program. For those with a business or enterprising inclination, there would be a Micro-Entrepreneur track providing a mentor and hands-on experience in selling or running a small business. I am aghast that in Chicago the official public community street market has over 150 empty vendor spaces where youth could be recruited to earn extra money and to learn about business. Such markets could be created all over the city. I just heard a Black teen girl shopping with her mother and begging one of the vendors at the New Maxwell Street Market for work to learn about selling at the Market.
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 violence-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 the time for a WPA program for the general population. But there is a need for WPA programs targeted to youth who are chronically unemployed where there is a mismatch between skills and job opportunities and between place of residence and location of employment. Most high-violence neighborhoods have youth unemployment rates 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. As a culture and justice worker, he has a long-time interest in keeping the New Maxwell Street Market alive along with its working class and immigrant history.