The 75th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration, which put millions of people to work during the Great Depression, is being invoked by supporters of a bill in Congress that calls for saving and creating 1 million jobs - mostly in state and local government.
"What the WPA did for all of us in the 1930s, the Local Jobs for America Act can do today," Alfred Ripley, chairman of the labor and industry committee of the North Carolina NAACP, said Thursday morning at a news conference in downtown Raleigh.
The House bill, which has more than 100 co-sponsors, carries a $100 billion price tag. It's being considered at a time that the state's unemployment rate is at a record 11.2 percent and state and local governments are wrestling with serious budget issues.
State government eliminated about 2,000 positions last year and, according to the N.C. Justice Center's Budget and Tax Center, faces an estimated budget shortfall of $1.6 billion in the coming fiscal year and at least double that in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue, Chrissy Pearson, said of the bill: "If it's money that could be used to protect services, that would be important to us."
Raleigh eliminated 85 positions in the current fiscal year and, absent any outside help, is likely to eliminate more positions in the fiscal year that begins in July, said City Manager J. Russell Allen.
"Those are people we needed to do the work here - and still need," said Allen.
But Ray Cordato, vice president of research at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, calls the bill fiscally irresponsible, and adds: "I think it is just a silly policy."
"There are too many jobs in local government as it is," he said. "We should be getting rid of local jobs."
The bill, introduced last month by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, includes $75 billion for jobs that provide local services. It would be to create jobs and save positions that would otherwise be eliminated because of budget issues. That money would go directly to local governments and nonprofit community groups.
Another $24.7 million would be allocated to states for educational jobs, including positions at state universities and local schools, and to repair and renovate educational facilities. Money also would go to law enforcement and firefighting jobs.
Another $500 million is designated for about 50,000 positions in the private sector that would offer on-job training.
"It will help communities keep vital services up and running," said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. State AFL-CIO.
"The priority for hiring will be given to current unemployment recipients, the long-term unemployed, and workers who have been laid off from public positions."
Jobless woman applauds
Alicia Sidney, a 25-year-old mother of two who lives in the Walnut Terrace public housing complex near downtown Raleigh, said she has been unemployed for about six months and is surrounded by unemployed neighbors.
"A public jobs program is what the people of Raleigh need, and they need it yesterday," she said.
A coalition of 60 national organizations focused on jobs, Jobs for America Now, urged local organizers across the country to sponsor events Thursday marking the WPA's anniversary - and to drum up support for the Local Jobs for America Act. Raleigh's news conference was sponsored by the N.C. Justice Center, an advocacy group.
WPA money built hundreds of landmarks across the state, including the Blue Ridge Parkway, several buildings on N.C. State University's campus, and many post offices and courthouses, said David Zonderman, a history professor at N.C. State University.
Still, the WPA and other federal programs of the New Deal failed to "cure" the Great Depression, he said, in part because the economy was in much worse shape than it is today. Unemployment, he noted, exceeded 25 percent.
But, he said, research has shown that the federal government should have spent more on the New Deal, not less, "despite what some of my friends on the right might say."
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