It’s About Time: We Can Help Create A New WPA

One more day to go, not to achieve heaven on earth, but to the relief of anticipating the Present White House Occupant’s exit.

For me, that’s also one day closer to the reality of a new WPA, a public service employment program to enlist all kinds of workers in rescuing the public good from the greedy villains who have all but liquidated it for their own profit.

Joe Biden’s platform contains some welcome ideas to bring healing and decent livelihood to the ailing body politic. But it doesn’t include the massive, innovative workforce plans that would come with a new WPA. When we have large-scale public service employment program, I foresee fossil-fuel workers taking part in the transition to clean energy, artists and cultural organizers helping to reweave social fabric after the pandemic, a new Conservation Corps repairing the damage done to public lands and waters — and much, much more.

My fear for a Biden administration is that the pull of politics-as-usual, our money-driven and damaged electoral system, will be strong, and he will succumb to the fantasy of returning to “normal,” abandoning the powerful policy ideas put forward by advocates of equity and justice. The best antidote to this type of political sleepwalking is a mass movement. We are seeing that begin to coalesce now — climate, economic, racial, and gender justice all address the same forces of domination and oppression — so there is cause for optimism.

But there are also things that can be accomplished more modestly, with the right action at the right time. No elected official in DC has been willing to take on the political risk of proposing a new WPA since Reagan came into office and demolished the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the last such initiative. If there is such a person in Congress today — or in your state house or city hall, to start the ball rolling on a local or state scale — now is the time to stand and be counted.

In a Democratic Congress, the elected representatives who introduce the new WPA legislation will go down in history as true lovers of democracy and visionary social imagineers. If you know someone who has just been elected — or re-elected — to Congress or to a state legislature or municipal government, the first step you can take is to share this idea and the honor it will bring to those who claim it, whether starting locally, regionally, or nationally.

Tell them that public service employment program is essential for three main reasons:

  • Unemployment hit an all-time high in April, nearly equaling Great Depression levels. Current figures have improved, but with new COVID-19 cases approaching 100,000 a day, a further spike is inevitable. People want to work, not only to help themselves but to help fellow sufferers in this terrible time.
  • Unlike most industrialized countries, the US failed to provide for the well-being of unemployed workers after an initial package of one-time payments, loans, and unemployment insurance supplements was passed in March. Just this weekend, the UK announced an extension of the 80% wage subsidy it has offered workers laid off during the pandemic since March. Masses of US residents are not only out of work but out of money and at or beyond the breaking-point.
  • The triple pandemic — COVID, structural racism and state violence, and climate crisis — has taken a remarkable toll, with no end in sight. Each day the polarization of wealth and health is allowed to worsen brings us closer to the nightmare world of dystopian fiction, in which the well-being of the many is so unfeelingly sacrified to the privilege of the few that common humanity is erased. Any hope of a livable future depends on nourishing cultural fabric, the matrix that transforms a crowd into a community, on facing the damage with open eyes and common purpose.

On October 22nd, I was delighted to offer a presentation entitled “In My Secret Life: (Nearly) Fifty Years in Pursuit of A New WPA” as part of receiving the Randy Martin Spirit Award at Imagining America’s virtual National Gathering. You can download my talk here, and watch the entire session, including important contributions from Caron Atlas and Jeff Chang.

My Imagining America presentation starts as a walk down memory lane, describing new WPA organizing efforts since the 1970s. I go on to suggest what is most essential to bear in mind as a new program is created. In earlier writings, I’ve spelled out my own ideas for what a public service employment program for the 21st century ought to look like. Below are just a few examples that specifically touch on the cultural sector. (You can find more ideas in my 2009 essay, “The New New Deal, Part 2.”)

  • Investment in the vast network of community centers and community-based organizations that do the work of building society from the grassroots, supporting the staff and facilities they need to serve their communities.
  • Placing community artists and teaching artists in in social institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, community centers and social service organizations.
  • Supporting a national story archive, serving community development by connecting the massive amount of material now produced and collected through local initiatives into a digital network, training people to produce the stories of challenge and recovery that need to be shared, and forming the distribution system to share them.

This is an idea whose time has come, and come, and come again even as both major political parties have lacked the spine and clout to put it into action. We have a chance to do the right thing now. Who can you engage to start the ball rolling? I’m making my list, and I’d love to see yours.

John Trudell, “Listening.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about

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