There are two discussion topics that federal policymakers should be having right now: relief and recovery. Relief, for the estimated 40 million people this pandemic has put out of work as well as the millions of others impacted by the steps taken to slow its spread. Recovery, for the day when it’s safe to return to work but the demand for goods and services is still missing.
Some economists predict many jobs will simply disappear as industries use this moment to reorganize, compounding the economic crisis our nation faces.
But, as we all know, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced an economic crisis. In the 1932 presidential election, Franklin D. Roosevelt decisively beat President Hoover because of the latter’s inability to revive the economy in the early years of the Great Depression. Democrats eschewed Hoover’s volunteerism and leveraged the power of government to spur an economic revival, passing a landmark domestic preference bill that the lame duck president signed – the Buy American Act of 1933 – and then cleared the way as FDR expanded the federal response to the crisis.
The banking system was reorganized. Labor protections were established in exchange for regulating industrial production levels and price coordination. Farms were incentivized to limit production and thereby raise prices. The financial system was reined in, and a modest social safety net for our most vulnerable was established. This was the New Deal.
But the program born in this crucible that has arguably had the most lasting impact on American life was the Works Progress Administration – a national project that put approximately 8.5 million jobless people back to work. Those WPA workers laid roads and bridges, dug sewers, canals and culverts, built schools and post offices, and erected art installations.
It was a massive infrastructure program that is still physically evident today. The landmark Griffith Observatory (pictured) in Los Angeles. Midway Airport in Chicago. Camp David in Maryland.
Today’s disaster was brought on by pandemic, not a banking crash. But the nation’s needs today are similar. The economy is on the verge of atrophy. There are already armies of unemployed. Be it direct cash payments to every American or a functioning Paycheck Protection Program, millions more will soon need financial aid. And no matter who is president in 2021, we’re going to need a jobs program to put people back to work and infrastructure investment to drive it.
When our nation has faced wrenching change before, we’ve responded by building something more powerful – even if it was difficult, as the slow recovery from the Great Depression was. The shift from an agrarian to industrial economy forced hard changes, but many good ones too, like the creation of public education systems that reached those at the bottom of the economy. World War II meant sacrifice in virtually every American community, but our response was the Arsenal of Democracy, the GI bill and the economic framework for a middle class that lasted decades.
So far, the response to today’s pandemic has been far less consequential. More than 100,000 Americans have died, and Washington still quibbles about who to blame, the terms of business loans, and how far to extend unemployment insurance. It owes the nation much more than that.
This is the perfect time to lay the foundation for America’s 21st century infrastructure. We should rebuild and repair the useful national heirlooms created by the WPA and Interstate Highway System, and expand our networks of rural broadband, energy storage, and clean water systems.
It’s cheap to borrow, millions of Americans need work, and factories will be eager to supply the materials necessary to turn these ambitions into reality.
But getting this done will require political movement. Senate Republicans must persuade Mitch McConnell to act instead of using infrastructure as a bargaining chip. President Trump’s supporters should be prepared to hold him accountable for his ambitious but unfulfilled infrastructure promises. And House Democrats, as they did on the USMCA trade agreement, must be willing to get to “yes” with an administration that makes it hard for them to do so.
The history of this pandemic is going to include the needless deaths of thousands of Americans, as well as the social and economic disruptions to life in the United States. But the history isn’t entirely written yet. It doesn’t have to only be a nightmare. It can also show that, like our greatest generations, Americans in the 2020s rose to the occasion and built something that will outlast them. It’s time to get to work.