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21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps: A Leadership Call to Action

September 5, 2016


Sometimes a great idea is staring you in the face. Indeed, such an idea may have been introduced many years ago to phenomenal acclaim. And then time went on, and people and subsequent generations forgot about it. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it. Great ideas can be rejuvenated, refurnished or overhauled. This is the job of leadership.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a new president, having been inaugurated on March 4, 1933. He faced a mess: an estimated unemployment rate of 25%, a GDP that had fallen 15% since 1929, a plunge of 60% in crop prices, a devastating drought in the Midwest, potential social unrest, and numerous other problems.

FDR was not just an eloquent politician, with excellent people skills, gregarious personality and savvy disposition, he was also a visionary with a particular skill in taking effective action. Within months of assuming office, FDR launched the greatest public relief work program in U.S. history. This earlier post in which I wrote about the Civilian Conservation Corps provides additional information on this historic initiative. The purpose of this post is to push forward the idea of creating a 21st Century CCC.


The current Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, wants to create what’s being called a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. Introduced by Senators John McCain (R) and Michael Bennet (D) in August 2015, the 21CSC Act would enable federal land water departments and agencies to be more cost effective and to partner more easily. The 21CSC would employ by 2018 some 100,000 youth and veterans to improve public lands and waterways, as well as responding to natural disasters and wildfires. Already, there are 192 21CSC member organizations, employing tens of thousands of youth.

This is a great idea whose time has come. However, we’re on the cusp of a national election in the United States, and depending on the outcome this idea could shrivel away over time. Even if Hillary Clinton wins on November 8th, it’s very unclear on whether she would push further ahead with this initiative. Granted, both Trump and Clinton have stated that they support infrastructure spending. However, the key here is not just strategic infrastructure investment but human capital investment, with both tied together. The CCC under FDR’s leadership was able to achieve that.

As Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s August 22, 2016, edition noted (“A Cautious Return to Fiscal Stimulus”): “There’s no need to build bridges to nowhere or hire armies of unemployed youth to dig and refill holes in the ground.” Some readers may recall Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, which became a controversial topic when former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin flip-flopped on it when chosen as John McCain’s running mate in August 2008.

In the aftermath of the 2008 election, the new President Obama blew much of his political capital on driving through (with the help of chief of staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel) his healthcare legislation, when he should have deployed his energy and resources to the collapsing U.S. economy. In her 2014 acclaimed book This Changes Everything, Canadian activist Naomi Klein makes some compelling comments about the Obama administration:

… three huge economic engines—the banks, auto companies, and the stimulus bill—were in a state of play, placing more economic power in the hands of Obama and his party than any U.S. government since the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Imagine, for a moment, if his administration had been willing to invoke its newly minted democratic mandate to build the new economy promised on the campaign trail—to treat the stimulus bill, the broken banks, and the shattered car companies as the building blocks of that green future….The stimulus package could have been used to build the best public transit and smart grids in the world. The auto industry could have been dramatically reengineered so that its factories built the machinery to power that transition.


The CCC, which lasted for nine years up to 1942 when the US Congress voted to end it in order to deploy resources to the Armed Forces, employed 300,000 men annually, for a total of three million during its lifetime! Consider that the population of the United States in the mid 1930s was a mere 125 million in contrast to 2016 of 320 million. Extrapolating from that produces a 21st CSC of 768,000 workers per year. In other words, to be more effective and to engage the huge numbers of disenfranchised American young adults, the federal government needs to jack up the number by over 700%. And then there are the tens of thousands of veterans who served their country admirably but who are largely ignored by society and government.

Sure, today’s unemployment rate is much lower than during the Great Depression. However, the CCC focused on younger males. Considering the role that women play in the labor market today, the large numbers of displaced older workers due to offshore outsourcing and technology, and the huge numbers of disenfranchised youth in both urban and rural America, raising the participation in 21CSC to over three quarters of a million annually is essentially a no-brainer.

The CCC wasn’t just about men working on environmental and natural resource infrastructure projects; in the evenings they studied in classroom settings to boost their education. They improved their health by building muscle and getting fresh air. When President Roosevelt met with one group of workers, which was recorded on film, he joked that while each man had put on 12 pounds he needed to lose that amount of weight. FDR went on to talk about the good that the men were doing and how they were improving their health, something that he himself was very conscious, given his polio.

In today’s context the CCC may seem somewhat primitive, yet that program’s results are still seen today in America’s national parks. The CCC also served to maintain the dignity of men who were unemployed, thus, in FDR’s primary aim, to avoid social unrest. Each worker was paid $30 per month and given three square meals a day. Of the monthly pay, each worker was allowed to keep $5 for personal use, with the remainder being sent home to their families. FDR didn’t want to see men squander their money on alcohol and other vices, knowing the desperate situations their families were in.

It’s a personal mystery to your correspondent why Canada and the United States have not re-created a modern big-scale version of the CCC. In the brutal aftermath of the 2008-09 Great Recession, President Obama had every opportunity to initiate a serious national infrastructure program. The same applies to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper whose Action program was more about funding music festivals and rebuilding docks.

California CC

America’s crumbling infrastructure, from highways, to rail systems to airports to ports, was once lauded around the world. Ignoring its declining state only significantly raises the rebuilding costs, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Canada, on a smaller scale, is seeing its bridges literally falling apart, its highway network grossly underdeveloped and its ports struggling under the weight of increased trade. And then there’s the issue of broadband, where vast areas of Canada and the U.S. have either totally inadequate or zero access to the internet (Photo: California Conservation Corps)

But it’s not just about infrastructure; it’s also about the future: building the country’s human capital, helping those disenfranchised youth and laid off older workers to restore their dignity, honouring the service of veterans, and providing vital work experience and skills development.

This is not rocket science; however, our elected representatives for some alien reason don’t seem capable of understanding the huge benefits and merits of a nation-wide 21st Century initiative built on the principles of the CCC. Sally Jewel and other elected representatives seem to partly get it. More needs to be done—much more. And in my home country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t indicated any real understanding of how a made-in-Canada CCC initiative (aka national infrastructure project) would benefit the nation.

Where’s the much needed national leadership?

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.
— Franklin D. Roosevelt

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