David B. Woolner

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow

Recent Posts by David B. Woolner

  • Saving a “Lost Generation” Through the National Youth Administration

    May 19, 2011David B. Woolner

    We could use the ingenuity of FDR's program to combat unemployment and skill stagnation among the country's youth.

    We could use the ingenuity of FDR's program to combat unemployment and skill stagnation among the country's youth.

    As college seniors prepare to graduate across the country, recent reports on the state of employment among young people offer discouraging news. In 2010, for example, the unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 16 and 24 was 18.4 percent, and in January of 2011, the Department of Labor reported that it had climbed to a staggering 21 percent. Moreover, even for those college graduates lucky enough to find work, the jobs they acquire often pay less and do not require a college degree. And with grads taking on employment in the lower and unskilled market, the prospects for work among those without a college degree become even more discouraging. At the same time, those who do go to college in the hopes of better employment often graduate under a heavy burden of student loan debt -- an average of $22,900 for the class of 2011.

    Statistics like these -- which represent the highest youth unemployment rate in more than 60 years and the highest level of student debt ever recorded -- have led to concerns about a the emergence of a "lost generation." Thanks to the Great Recession, this group may lose skills and/or follow a career trajectory that will place them in a lower income bracket for years.

    Such concerns are not new. More than three-quarters of a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt faced a similar set of problems. During the Great Depression, youth unemployment was estimated to be as high as 30 percent and many young people found themselves unable to afford the cost of even a high school education. Taking stock of these grim statistics, Eleanor Roosevelt remarked in 1934 that she often had "moments of real terror when I think we might be losing this generation." To combat this problem, the Roosevelt administration created a unique federal agency dedicated to helping young people: the National Youth Administration.

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    The National Youth Administration (NYA) was launched by executive order in June of 1935. Its goals were two-fold. The first was to prevent young people already enrolled in high school and college from dropping out due to financial hardship. This was accomplished by providing the students with grants in return for part-time work in libraries, cafeterias, as janitors, etc., with the twin objectives of developing the talents of young people while at same time keeping them out of the struggling labor market. The second goal was to provide training and/or employment of long-term value. By 1937, more than 400,000 youth were either employed or in job training programs under the auspices of local NYA offices. With the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 these figures increased significantly, with the vast majority of those in the program getting training as skilled machinists to work in the nation's burgeoning defense industries. The productive labor of these NYA-trained workers helped turn the United States into the great "Arsenal of Democracy" that made it possible for us to win the war against fascism.

    Moreover, under the leadership of such enlightened figures as Aubrey Williams, the NYA also worked to specially address the problems of unemployment and access to education among African Americans. Williams created an Office of Minority Affairs headed by Mary McLeod Bethune, who would soon become one of the most effective and outspoken advocates for the employment and educational rights of blacks in the country.

    Overall, the NYA helped over 4.5 million young people find work, get vocational training, or afford a better education before the office was closed down in 1943. Equally important, it helped a struggling generation not only to maintain its dignity, but also to contribute to the growth and productivity of the American economy at a desperate time in our history. Indeed, even though the NYA was a federal program, it became enormously popular among the business community and offers us a fine example of what enlightened leadership can do in a moment of great crisis. Surely providing jobs and making education and vocational training more affordable for young people is an investment in our future that this generation of Americans -- and all generations -- deserve. With youth unemployment approaching 25 percent, and with the cost of higher education skyrocketing, perhaps it is time to offer this generation the hope and promise of another NYA.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • When Faced with Floods, FDR Fought Back with Jobs

    May 12, 2011David B. Woolner

    FDR chose action to combat flooding and soil erosion that did much more than conserve land.

    FDR chose action to combat flooding and soil erosion that did much more than conserve land.

    The massive flooding that struck the Midwest in recent days has led a number of climatologists to argue that this event -- along with the occurrence of similar floods in Australia, Pakistan and elsewhere -- is further indication of the impact of the increase in greenhouse gasses in the earth's atmosphere. The warmer air associated with the increase holds more moisture, and the greater the moisture content, the greater the level of precipitation. Hence the record snowfalls for the upper Midwest this season and the extraordinary amounts of rain that much of the region received in April (Paducah Kentucky, for example, received 22 inches of rain in April, as compared to the average 5.4 inches it usually receives).

    For the vast majority of scientists -- and for an increasing number of individuals and institutions in other parts of the world -- the potential impact of climate change is being viewed with growing alarm. But in Washington, just the opposite is true. The US House of Representatives recently rejected an amendment that would have put the House on record as acknowledging that global warming is occurring and that human activity is the major cause. In this milieu, and in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is almost no chance that we will see any significant climate legislation emerge from the current Congress.

    Interestingly, 75 years ago the United States faced a very similar natural disaster in the form of the Great Flood of 1936. Unlike today, however, the death and destruction that struck much of the eastern United States as a result of the flood spurred Congress into action. It passed of one of the most significant -- though lesser-known -- pieces of legislation to come out of the New Deal: the Flood Control Act of 1936.

    Recognizing for the first time "that destructive floods upon the rivers of the United States constitute a menace to national welfare" and that "flood control on navigable waters or their tributaries is a proper activity of the Federal Government in cooperation with States," the Roosevelt administration worked with members of Congress to pass the first piece of legislation to provide for national flood relief. The hundreds of reservoir, levee, and channelization projects that resulted from the 1936 act protected millions of acres of farmland, saved countless lives, and literally changed the face of the nation. Taken together, the projects that came about as a consequence of the act constitute one of the largest additions to our nation's economic infrastructure, on par with the development of the nation's highway system. Moreover, in keeping with the spirit of the New Deal, the construction of many of these flood control projects (which usually took place under the auspices of the US Army Corps of Engineers) also spurred local and regional economic growth and helped conserve one of our nation's most precious resources -- our soil.

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    It was perhaps soil erosion, in fact, more than any other issue that drove President Roosevelt to support the passage of the flood control act. Having seen the dire consequences of the Dust Bowl, and as a great lover and believer in the restorative power of the land, FDR was deeply concerned about the long-term productivity of American topsoil. To combat erosion, he not only passed the Flood Control Act of 1936, but also established the Soil Conservation Service, which encouraged farmers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices; the Civilian Conservation Corps, which helped restore our nation's forests; and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only helped control erosion in the Tennessee River Valley, but also provided inexpensive hydroelectric power to an entire region of the country.

    Most importantly, all of these programs helped create jobs and spur economic activity. And while today many environmentalists might take issue with certain aspects of the flood control work that came about as a consequence of the act (such as the channelization of rivers and streams), few would take issue with the spirit of conservation that inspired it.

    The Flood Control Act of 1936 is but one example of the remarkable record of legislative achievements that came about in the 74th Congress. In response to the needs of a people in the midst of both environmental and economic crisis, members of Congress worked with the Roosevelt administration to pass not only this landmark piece of legislation, but also the Social Security Act, National Labor Relations Act, Banking Act of 1935, Soil Conservation Act, and the $4.8 billion Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, out of which came the WPA, among other programs.

    It is perhaps the best testament to our current era that this Congress, facing a remarkably similar set of circumstances, has chosen not "action and action now," as FDR would put it, but rather to do nothing.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • The WPA that Built America is Needed Once Again

    May 6, 2011David B. Woolner

    Begun 76 years ago today, the WPA brought America into the modern age. Our times call for a repeat of this effort.

    Begun 76 years ago today, the WPA brought America into the modern age. Our times call for a repeat of this effort.

    More than three quarters of a century ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that the "demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally it is the greatest menace to our social order." He also insisted that he would "stand or fall" by his "refusal to accept as a necessary condition of our future a permanent army of unemployed." On the contrary, he said, "we must make it a national principle that we will not tolerate a large army of unemployed and that we will arrange our national economy to end our present unemployment as soon as we can and then take wise measures against its return. I do not think it is the destiny of any American to remain permanently on relief rolls."

    To put people back to work, FDR launched a series of programs designed to protect America's environment (through the CCC reforestation programs and creation of the shelter belt in the Midwest to bring an end to the Dust Bowl) and build America's economic infrastructure. The most famous of these was launched seventy-six years ago today: the Works Progress Administration or WPA. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA literally built the infrastructure of modern America, including 572,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 fifty airfields, and 4,000 airport buildings. It also constructed 500 water treatment plants, 1,800 pumping stations, 19,700 miles of water mains, 1,500 sewage treatment plants, 24,000 miles of sewers and storm drains, 36,900 schools, 2,552 hospitals, 2,700 firehouses, and nearly 20,000 county, state, and local government buildings.

    Conservatives critics charged that the WPA was a "make work" program, but its accomplishments, which touched nearly every community in America, continue to make a mockery of this charge. The WPA put millions of skilled and unskilled laborers back to work -- it was a requirement of the program that all those involved in the projects, from the architects and engineers down to the construction laborers, be hired by WPA dollars. It provided the critical economic infrastructure needed to bring the United States into the modern age.

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    Sadly, many of the conditions that led to the creation of the WPA are once again with us today: high unemployment and a crumbling economic infrastructure that is rapidly rendering the United States less and less competitive in the global economy. This sorry state of affairs is detailed in a recent article in The Economist, which notes, among other things, that the United States' public spending on transport and water infrastructure has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at a paltry 2.4% of GDP. Meanwhile, Europe spends on average 5% of GDP on infrastructure and China is spending 9%. In fact, the United States, according to the article, does not spend nearly enough just to maintain, let alone expand, its existing transport and water systems. The result is that today the US ranks 23rd among the nations of the world in overall infrastructure quality, according to a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

    A new and even modest stimulus package would help alleviate this critical problem and provide millions of skilled and unskilled jobs, but the deficit hawks in Congress will have none of this. They insist that such a use of government is contrary to the American way.

    To this, FDR's would no doubt reply:

    [T]o those who say that our expenditures for Public Works and other means for recovery are a waste that we cannot afford, I answer that no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources...

    In our efforts for recovery we have avoided on the one hand the theory that business should and must be taken over into an all-embracing Government. We have avoided on the other hand the equally untenable theory that it is an interference with liberty to offer reasonable help when private enterprise is in need of help. The course we have followed fits the American practice of Government -- a practice of taking action step by step, of regulating only to meet concrete needs -- a practice of courageous recognition of change. I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that "The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."

    Isn't it time we rebuilt our nation and put people back to work? Time for a new WPA?

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Time for an End to the “War on Terror”

    May 5, 2011David B. Woolner

    FDR laid out the Four Freedoms and took the moral high ground against Hitler's aggression. Obama should follow suit and work to win hearts and minds.

    FDR laid out the Four Freedoms and took the moral high ground against Hitler's aggression. Obama should follow suit and work to win hearts and minds.

    In a prescient article written a few months following the September 11 attacks, noted British military historian Michael Howard argued that the Bush Administration's decision to label our struggle with Al Qaeda the "war on terror" may have been a mistake. Howard takes issue with the use of the term "war" in part out of his conviction that its use elevates the status of the terrorists who should be seen not as military opponents, but rather as international criminals. He writes that they are no better than murderous drug traffickers who should be ruthlessly pursued with all the tools at our disposal, including the use of the criminal justice system. This is not to say that the military should be excluded from our struggle against Al-Qaeda and related organizations. On the contrary, in some parts of the world, as evidenced by the recent killing of Osama bin Laden, they must remain a vital component of this effort. But as we have known for some time, it is impracticable and unfair to expect our armed forces to "win" a "war" against such an amorphous enemy, and doing so creates unrealistic expectations. Our struggle against terrorism will not end in a spectacular battle. It will take years of plodding effort, and as we know from hard experience, it may never end completely.

    In light of this, and in light of the fact that we have finally brought the mastermind of the September 11 attacks to justice, a growing chorus is calling on President Obama to bring the "war on terror" to an end. To a certain extent, the President has already done so. He rarely uses the phrase "war on terror." In his first few months in office, he took care to differentiate himself from his predecessor by stressing his desire to close the base Guantanamo, bring an end to combat operations in Iraq, and shift his administration's emphasis back to the conflict in Afghanistan. But his decision to keep Guantanamo open and dramatically increase the number of US combat forces in Afghanistan has led some of his critics to charge that American foreign policy has changed little under his tenure. The President, in short, may not refer to the "war on terror" all that often, but his policies in South Asia and elsewhere remain highly militaristic and in many respects it continues in all but name.

    This is unfortunate, for as Howard notes, using military force as the lead instrument in the struggle against terrorism is fraught with risks and often plays into the terrorists' hands. Why? Because the potential loss of innocent life in the use of overt force against the terrorists often renders greater support among the local population for the terrorists as opposed to the military units aligned against them. As such, military action can be counter-productive, as terrorists can successfully be destroyed "only if public opinion... supports the authorities in regarding them as criminals rather than heroes." Moreover, in the last analysis, as Howard points out, the struggle against terrorism is fundamentally a battle for hearts and minds. If we wish to isolate the terrorists and hence greatly reduce their potential to carry out attacks, then perhaps it is time for a shift in emphasis -- both rhetorical and actual -- from the use of military force to a much greater use of existing national and international criminal justice agencies, backed where necessary by the traditional military and intelligence services.

    In the long-run, then, our goal must be to win the battle for hearts and minds. Seventy years ago, when the United States faced a much more formidable enemy, FDR came to the same conclusion. In January 1941, he responded to Adolf Hitler's declaration that he had established "a new order in Europe" by articulating a different set of guiding principles to shape the allied war effort and inspire the rest of the world to join in the struggle. As opposed to Hitler's "new order," Roosevelt said, we proposed a "moral order" based on four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. FDR may not have succeeded in bringing the benefits of the Four Freedoms to every corner of the globe, but his articulation of these simple yet eloquent values made the distinction between fascism and democracy as powerful as any weapon, inspiring a generation to struggle on for years in the face of a monstrous evil.

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    De-militarizing our struggle with terrorism also makes a good deal of sense in light of other recent events in the Middle East, where the Arab Spring is rapidly ushering in a new generation of potential leaders committed to a more open and democratic system of government. For too many Arabs, the United States is still viewed as an aggressor state, more interested in protecting American interests than promoting democratic reform. By ending the war on terror, branding terrorists as international criminals (as opposed to political/military actors), and shifting our efforts to the criminal justice system, we send a powerful message not only to the people of the Middle East, but to other potentially dangerous regions of the world. We show that the United States remains committed above all else to the rule of law. Indeed, sending out this message at this critical juncture in the history of the Middle East may prove as powerful a weapon in our struggle against terrorism as the massive array of military force we have assembled in the region.

    President Obama has made some serious steps in this direction through his somewhat halting support for the pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia and in his decision to protect the Libyan people from the savagery on Muammar Gaddafi. He also made the right decision two years ago when he publicly disavowed the use of torture and in his recent decision not to release the photos of the deceased Osama bin Laden on both security and moral grounds. But if we wish to draw a sharp distinction between the values the United States and its allies aspire to and the hatred, bigotry, and fear that stands at the heart of Al-Qaeda's terrorist network, then we need to do more. We should bring the "war on terror" to an end, wind down our involvement in Afghanistan, and place a greater focus on bringing international terrorists to justice. If President Obama will take this opportunity to signal that our foremost goal in the struggle against terrorism is to render justice and uphold the rule of law -- as opposed to engaging in a "war" against an extremist ideology -- he will strengthen our hand, make it easier for states such as Pakistan to join in the effort, and do much to marginalize the terrorists within their own communities.

    With the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time for a new approach in our struggle against terrorism. It is time for us -- as it was for FDR in 1941 -- to regain the moral high ground. We must shift our emphasis from the instruments of war to the instruments of justice and treat the terrorists not as belligerents, but as criminals, whose disrespect for the rule of law and basic human rights will ultimately be defeated. Not on the battlefield, but through the exercise of justice.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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  • Loss of High-speed Rail Funding is a Loss for America

    Apr 25, 2011David B. Woolner

    We're on the wrong track of forgetting our history of putting people to work building the infrastructure we need.

    In the recent battle between the White House and Congress over the 2011 budget, one of the major casualties was high-speed rail. This is another sad indication of the lack of vision emanating from Washington. Not only will this cost thousands of good paying and highly skilled jobs, it also represents another step back in the need for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our energy consumption.

    We're on the wrong track of forgetting our history of putting people to work building the infrastructure we need.

    In the recent battle between the White House and Congress over the 2011 budget, one of the major casualties was high-speed rail. This is another sad indication of the lack of vision emanating from Washington. Not only will this cost thousands of good paying and highly skilled jobs, it also represents another step back in the need for the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reduce our energy consumption.

    High-speed rail has also been in the news of late because of Florida Governor Rick Scott's decision to turn down funds that were already appropriated to build the first line between Tampa and Orlando. Taking his cue from the deficit hawks and proponents of limited government, Governor Scot claimed the plan would be too costly for Florida's state government -- a claim that has been disputed by a number of economists -- and rejected the federal dollars, in spite of the strong support from a significant portion of Florida's business community. Similar rejections of federal dollars for rail projects have come from the newly elected republican Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who together have turned away over $1.2 billion in federals funding for improvements in the nation's rail system, including a high-speed line between Madison and Milwaukee.

    All three governors have cited economic reasons for their refusal to accept these funds, but as Stephen Harrod, Assistant Professor of Operations Management at Dayton University notes, the real reasons more likely stem from a deep-seated ideological and cultural bias against the very idea of high-speed rail among the American right. In a recent article on the subject, Professor Harrod observes that much of the conservative opposition to high-speed rail can be linked to the widespread and erroneous notion that the construction of such a system would lead the United States into "European socialism." As such, one of the rallying cries of Tea Party advocates is "Stop the Train." These same individuals are uncomfortable with the urban nature of rail travel, and because the establishment of a rail system requires a good deal of centralized planning it must, by its very nature, be "socialistic."

    These arguments ignore the fact that the vast majority of European rail companies operate on a commercial basis. They also ignore the enormous contribution the federal government has made and continues to make in the construction of our nation's highways, best exemplified by the creation of the Interstate Highway System under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not to mention federal support for the nation's air travel and the all important but long forgotten federal subsidies for the construction of the much celebrated transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century.

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    In light of this, Professor Harrod says the tax-saving arguments used by Governor Scott and others ring hollow, as each of these governors is perfectly happy to accept federal dollars in support of their state's highway system. Hence, they are not opposed to government funding of transportation, they are opposed to government funding of rail transportation.

    The popular view, of course, is that our nation's highways, including the vast network of rural roads, are paid for by fuel taxes equally shared by all. But as Professor Harrod points out, the vast majority of revenue collected from fuel taxes comes from the urban population, which means that most rural roads in America, which are often built as a spur to local economic development, are in effect subsidized by the federal government.

    In FDR's day, similar arguments were used to try to bring an end to such programs as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which used federal funds issued to localities to employ millions of Americans in a massive effort to build the nation's economic infrastructure. Critics charged that the WPA was simply engaged in a massive "make work" effort and many conservatives regarded it as major step towards socialism. This perception -- though wildly inaccurate -- remains with us to this day. The goal of the WPA was to get people off relief and into productive employment, not only to provide them with the income needed to help support their families, but also to maintain the skills of the nation's workforce and invest in the future expansion of the economy. As such, each project was carefully screened to ensure all facets of the labor needed to complete the work, from the design and engineering work down to the actual construction, came from the ranks of the unemployed. Moreover, many of the improvements made by the WPA -- including over 570,000 miles of rural roads, roughly 100,000 bridges, tens of thousands of schools, and hundreds of airports -- are with us still.

    Thanks to this deep-seated bias against the culture of rail travel and the centralized planning required for the construction of an efficient high-speed rail system, the United States has once again fallen behind our European and Asian counterparts. Worse still, we risk losing the opportunity to employ the thousands of engineers, architects, machinists and other highly skilled workers required to build such a system. Most Americans still operate under the erroneous assumption that such federal programs as the New Deal's WPA or Interstate Highway System only involved the employment of low skilled and poorly paid labor. In doing so, we have turned away from our own legacy and have chosen to forget that the construction of our nation's economic infrastructure did not just happen by accident. It took planning, vision, a highly skilled work force, and a good deal of federal support.

    David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.

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