When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in 1933, he was faced with a massive economic crisis. To combat it, he embarked on a plan unprecedented in scale to mobilize the federal government through public works programs, welfare expansion, and financial reform.
One of the most celebrated public works programs implemented as part of FDR’s New Deal was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which aimed to give unskilled young men the opportunity to work on projects such as “the prevention of forest fires … plant pest and disease control, the construction, maintenance and repair of paths, trails and fire-lanes in the national parks and national forests and such other work.” After nine years of operation—in which over 3 million men were enrolled in total—the CCC was discontinued in 1942.
Almost 90 years after the program was first implemented, there is now a growing movement to revive the CCC—endorsed by President Joe Biden, along with several Democrats in Congress, and refashioned as the Civilian Climate Corps—to address the effects of climate change and mass unemployment as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. And polling suggests that there is a demand for such a revival. In fact, half of voters under 45 say that they would consider joining the CCC if given the opportunity.
In this series of blog posts, I will argue that it would be misguided to implement a new CCC despite its popularity. A review of the effects of such public works programs on unemployment—as well as an understanding of basic economic principles—makes it clear that reviving the CCC would be imprudent. Moreover, the justifications provided for a new CCC do not hold up to the facts when examined carefully.
The CCC has long been considered one of the most successful New Deal programs. People often cite the fact the CCC planted 3 billion trees, constructed over 3,000 fire lookout towers, and gave jobs for young men during a time of economic calamity in order to justify their support. But did the CCC—along with the many other public works programs put in place by FDR—actually accomplish their primary goal of abating unemployment?
The answer is No.
In March 1933, the month FDR took office, the unemployment rate was 25.3 percent. Over the next few years, his administration would implement New Deal programs that were supposed to stimulate the economy, dramatically reduce unemployment, and effectively end the Depression. But by the start of 1936, unemployment had yet to go below 15 percent. And, by June of 1938, unemployment spiked again and hit 20 percent. Even at the end of 1939, unemployment was still above 15 percent.
One could make the case that because unemployment reached the worst of the Depression in 1933, the New Deal generally—and certain public works programs, such as the CCC, in particular—succeeded to some extent. But the fact unemployment stayed as high as it did for as long as it did is that narrative’s fatal flaw. Very few people would suggest that programs put in place to combat unemployment, but that ended with an unemployment rate above 15 percent for about seven years—with only one short period where it dipped under—should be classified as a success.
The reason for the failure is straightforward and can be explained by basic economics. An article from the Foundation for Economic Education explains:
Even though the programs may “create” jobs for some workers, the resources to pay for the programs must be extracted from the private sector. Taxing the private sector reduces its ability to create jobs, so, at best, government jobs programs can only alter the composition of employment, not the total volume. More government jobs are created, but at the expense of fewer private-sector jobs.
In other words, for every dollar that the government spends, that is a dollar not used in the private sector to generate economic activity. The piece goes on to explain that the popularity of these various programs “stems from the fact that the jobs ‘created’ are highly visible, whereas the jobs lost are difficult to identify as being caused by the programs.”
This is clear when one considers the CCC. It is true that it put over 3 million men to work over the nine years of its existence—and those jobs were highly visible. But what went unseen were the potential jobs lost by taking money out of the private sector, where economic efficiency is often paramount.
And so, in the end, despite whatever kind of nostalgia the CCC and other public works programs conjure up for people who romanticize the days of the New Deal, the truth is that they were simply not an effective means of reducing unemployment. Rather, it hamstrung the private sector by depriving it of the capital necessary to promote economic growth.
In the following posts, I will carefully examine the present-day justifications for a new CCC. While the arguments for it sound plausible on the surface, a deeper dive suggests that they are not accurate.