Physician Aliea Herbert administers a test for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to a patient at Interbay Village, a village of tiny houses managed by the Low Income Housing Institute, at a mobile testing site run by Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington, U.S. April 29, 2020. REUTERS/David Ryder

From the U.S. Heartland to its largest urban area has come the call to recreate the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the New Deal to address the massive unemployment nationwide caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and to resolve important environmental needs.

Jon M. Hunter, publisher of the Madison Daily Leader in South Dakota, wrote that the nation should respond the same way as when the country entered the Great Depression, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the CCC in 1933. A decade later, more than 3 million participants in “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” had planted more than 3 billion trees, built hundreds of parks and wildlife refuges, and completed thousands of miles of trails and roads, Hunter recalled.

“We’re facing an intersection of high unemployment and environmental needs,” Hunter wrote, noting that environmental needs are different, but the solutions may be similar. “Here’s a bonus: Many young people are passionate about saving the environment … There is important work to be done and we have young, enthusiastic people to do it.”

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, noted that nearly 7.7 million American workers younger than 30 are now unemployed. 

“There’s one fix that will put millions of young Americans directly to work: a 21st-century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps,” he wrote in The New York Times. 

The New Deal also established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which built roads and public buildings, many of which can be seen today on Long Island and in New York City. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has emphasized that we must “supercharge the reopening” of the U.S. economy through “major infrastructure projects.” Such projects were “desperately needed 30 years ago,” he said. “Build them now.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) have introduced legislation to create a U.S. Health Force based on the CCC and WPA models. It “would recruit, train and employ thousands of Americans in order to provide public health capacity” to focus on COVID-19 and “prepare for future public health care needs, and build skills for new workers to enter the public health and health care workforce,” they said.

“In the face of this unprecedented crisis, Congress must harness American patriotism, resilience and ingenuity by establishing a Health Force,” Gillibrand said.

“We need ideas as big as the challenge we face, and the Health Force meets the test,” Bennet said. 

New Deal programs were central to getting America out of the Depression. We need the same kind of innovative job-creating programs today.

Karl Grossman is an investigative journalist and professor of journalism.

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