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The Civilian Climate Corps Is a Big-Government Plan That All Americans Can Embrace

It was a rare case of Presidential understatement in the unveiling of a program: the Secretary of Agriculture and the Secretary of the Interior, according to a paragraph buried in Joe Biden’s long executive order on climate change, had been directed to make plans for a Civilian Climate Corps, modelled on the Civilian Conservation Corps—the C.C.C.—of the nineteen-thirties. It would put underemployed Americans to work on projects intended “to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”

That is plenty of justification for such an initiative in the country’s current circumstances. But the potential of this idea, if the record of the original C.C.C. is any guide, goes far beyond the advertised purposes. A modern-day C.C.C. could be an attention-getting reminder of something that a great many Americans seem to have forgotten: the capacity of government to be an instrument of the common good.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, created in the spring of 1933 at the behest of the new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, gave jobs to an eventual three million young men, before the Second World War took over the task of fighting unemployment. (Roughly eighty-five hundred women participated in a “She-She-She” program, belatedly established at Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence.) The C.C.C. left a legacy of trees, trails, shelters, footbridges, picnic areas, and campgrounds in local, state, and national parks across the country. It had equally notable effects on the health and outlook of the men who served. Most were undernourished as well as unemployed when they signed up. They came home with muscles, tans, and, according to a letter sent to corps headquarters, in Washington, by a resident of Romeo, Colorado, an “erect carriage” that made them easy to pick out from the rest of the young male population.

Joseph Kaptur, of Toledo, Ohio, treasured the memory of his corps service, spent reforesting the shores of the Miami and Erie Canal. His gratitude stuck in the mind of his daughter Marcy Kaptur, now an Ohio congresswoman and the sponsor of one of seven C.C.C. bills introduced in Congress last year. “I don’t know anybody who wasn’t changed and uplifted by that experience,” she says.

Although Roosevelt sold the C.C.C. as a jobs program first and foremost, it was shaped by his strong interest in timber and soil management, acquired over the course of efforts to revitalize hundreds of acres of badly tended farmland attached to his family estate in Hyde Park, New York. The C.C.C., in turn, raised the conservation consciousness of many of its participants, according to “Nature’s New Deal,” a book from 2009 about the program, by the historian Neil Maher. C.C.C. camps had lectures and night classes, as well as libraries. A corpsman named Robert Ross, assigned to a camp near Crystal Springs, Arkansas, used his off-hours to investigate matters that he “had been totally ignorant of—soil erosion, restoration, protection of the forests, the uses of land, the damage of forest fires.” Less than ten per cent of the enrollees had graduated from high school. Many of them learned to read and write during their time in the corps, however, and hundreds went on to jobs with the National Park Service, the forestry-service unit of the Department of Agriculture, and other federal, state, and local conservation programs.

The C.C.C. had educational value for the people living alongside its camps, too. Many communities, Maher writes, objected mightily to the anticipated arrival of “street-slum foreigners,” “corner holders,” and “bums.” The hostility tended to evaporate once corpsmen came to town in person, proved unthreatening, and began spending their wages at local diners, shops, and movie theatres.

The program was hugely popular everywhere, and Roosevelt promoted it as a morale booster in a time of extreme hardship—and as a vote-getter in election years. Among his Administration’s many groundbreaking policies, only this one escaped the anti-New Deal fulminations of Alf Landon, the Republican governor of Kansas, when he ran for President, in 1936. Landon, like other Republicans, praised the corps; he even tried to take credit for getting Congress to extend its operations to state parks. Despite his claim, the presence of C.C.C. camps flipped several Kansas counties blue and helped F.D.R. win the state in his landslide reëlection victory.

The revival of interest in the idea can be traced to two loose groups of C.C.C. champions. One, whose ranks include the retired General Stanley McChrystal and the Starbucks founder Howard Schultz—who are among the backers of an initiative called Serve America Together—sees a way to overcome the “political, social, economic and religious barriers causing such divisiveness in our country,” as McChrystal and Schultz put it in a joint op-ed last summer. The other group, composed mainly of academic economists, is more concerned about the job-replacing effects of robots and computers, and the marketplace’s chronic failure to meet important social needs. Those two streams of thinking converged and gained force last spring, after the pandemic abruptly terminated the employment of some twenty million Americans.

In addition to the White House plan and Representative Kaptur’s measure, bills have been introduced by Colorado’s Joe Neguse and Illinois’s Bobby Rush, in the House, and by Delaware’s Chris Coons, Illinois’s Dick Durbin, and Oregon’s Ron Wyden, in the Senate. Thinking separately, they have come to common conclusions about what a new C.C.C. should be like—and what it shouldn’t be like. The original corps, besides excluding women, was racially segregated, with camps for African-Americans often placed in remote areas, according to Maher, “because of local protests in every region of the country, including the North.” A twenty-first-century C.C.C. would correct those fundamental defects. Most of the idea’s backers agree that it should also pay a living wage, in contrast to Roosevelt’s program, which offered room and board and thirty dollars a month (about six hundred dollars in today’s money), with most of it earmarked for families back home.

Another difference: cities and suburbs could be major work sites this time around. Openlands, a Chicago-based nonprofit that collaborated with Durbin on his plan, has drawn up a list of project categories, including brownfield remediation, the greening of schoolyards, the repair of biking and walking trails, and the planting of urban vegetable gardens and orchards. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat of Pennsylvania with his own C.C.C. proposal in the works, imagines a corps that would build and improve parks in green-starved inner-city neighborhoods and reverse the loss of tree canopy that has made cities especially vulnerable to global warming.

Casey has allied himself with the coalition of more than a hundred organizations behind an economic-policy package called “Reimagining Appalachia.” It proposes a C.C.C. that would restore wetlands and areas scarred by coal-mining while making room for ex-prisoners, victims of opioid addiction, and others unlikely to be hired by private employers. Along the way, Casey says, such a program could have the salutary effect of reminding rural and urban Americans that “they have very similar and overlapping problems,” including cycles of community decay set off by the exodus of well-paid jobs, whether in mining or manufacturing.

The White House effort is focussed, for now, on developing an administrative structure (it is likely to build on AmeriCorps, a Clinton-era national-service program) and finding funds in the existing budgets of the Agriculture Department, the Interior Department, and other federal agencies to get a fledgling corps up and running. Putting more serious money into such a program would require Congress’s coöperation and, perhaps, a degree of bipartisanship.

That might not be outside the bounds of possibility. Although Democrats have been the principal instigators of legislation so far, there are signs of Republican enthusiasm for the idea, aligning as it does with the party’s preference for work over cash relief. Seven G.O.P. senators—including Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina; Roger Wicker, of Mississippi; and Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana—signed on as co-sponsors of the Coons bill, which was comparatively modest in scale and tailored to Republican tastes (omitting all mention of climate change, for example). With that show of bipartisan support, it came close to being included in the pandemic-relief package passed in December.

The prospects for some version of a revived C.C.C. are favorable. To realize an ambitious version of the idea, the Biden Administration would have to bring a sense of urgency to the effort. It should. The Administration, with its $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan,” hopes to accelerate the pace of vaccinations, expedite the reopening of schools, give tens of millions of stressed-out Americans the wherewithal to pay their bills, and get a frozen economy moving. There is little in this measure, however, to lift a vast number of Americans—including roughly four million who have been unemployed for more than six months, and more than fifty million low-wage workers whose annual median income, according to the Brookings Institution, is eighteen thousand dollars—who were already feeling disheartened and undervalued when the pandemic came along.

Trumpist Republicans, fixated for the moment on settling intra-party scores, will turn their attention back to Biden and the Democrats before long. The backward elements of corporate America and Wall Street have been quiet lately, perhaps out of a sense of pandemic-induced propriety, but they, too, can be counted on to get back to obstruction mode. The best things that the new Administration has said and done—its commitments to racial and gender equity, its welcoming attitude toward immigrants, its seriousness about climate change—guarantee blowback.

Biden and his party can take comfort in opinion surveys that show overwhelming support for many of their proposals. To go by the polls, however, wide majorities of Americans have come down on the side of progressive policies for years. Meanwhile, mounting distrust of government has led many of those same people to consistently not vote for candidates committed to putting progressive policies into effect.

That dynamic will probably be with us until Americans without wealth or privilege see convincing evidence (more convincing than checks in the mail, however badly they are needed) of the government working zealously and effectively on their behalf. The old C.C.C. told that story in Roosevelt’s time. A new one could tell it in ours.



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