A U.S. program once put to work as an economic lifeline in the 1930s is being proposed for revival as a 21st-century response to youth unemployment, devastated ecosystems, and the climate crisis.
“As youth unemployment soars and people inside and outside of government finally begin to confront our climate crisis, numerous proposals have cropped up to resurrect the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC),” writes Next100 workforce policy expert Daniel Munczek Edelman in a recent op-ed for Yale E360.
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Tallying up the various proposals that have been put forward for a refreshed CCC to date, Edelman notes that “Joe Biden’s campaign has one plan, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force has another. Think tanks have written a couple. And Congress has produced at least seven.” In California the ball is already rolling, he adds, with the launch of the state’s Climate Action Corps in late September.
A cross-country Civilian Climate Corps could employ “thousands or even millions” of the young people who lost work during the pandemic in the urgent task of restoring America’s degraded land and water systems, and in shoring up ecosystems and communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, explains Edelman.
Looking back on the history of the original CCC, he highlights the speed with which the Corps was able to put people to work.
“FDR proposed the program to Congress as a collaboration between the Interior, Agriculture, Labor, and War Departments on March 21, 1933, and signed it into law 10 days later, mere weeks after his March 4 inauguration,” he writes. “The first participant enrolled the following week, and the first camp opened on April 17. More than 100,000 volunteers were working in June, and 300,000 were spread across 1,500 camps by August.”
The Corps accomplished a huge amount of good work, the legacy of which still stands—albeit often in degraded form from lack of upkeep—all over the United States. The improvements the Corps made to federal lands “established the national parks system as we know it today, allowing millions more Americans access to the outdoors,” Edelman writes.
Recent research also suggests the program “benefitted those who served in it tremendously, helping to boost their lifetime earnings and long-term health.” But, crucially, not for everyone.
“The CCC originally had integrated camps outside of the South, but the program eventually gave in to racist pressure and segregated Black participants into their own work sites,” explains Edelman. Women of all races were blocked from inclusion altogether, as were many of the impoverished—despite their obvious need for such a program. Therein lies the critical change that would need to be implemented in today’s climate-focused CCC: a new Corps must be open to all, and particularly attuned to “young people from places that have suffered environmental injustice, especially communities of colour.”
Designing a modern Climate Corps “with equity at its core” would not undo systemic racism, Edelman writes, but “it could help ameliorate it.”
To be most effective, a Climate Corps would be launched through an expansion of the federal Americorps civic engagement and youth employment program. That approach would keep costs and implementation timelines in check by drawing on “its existing infrastructure, its partnerships with numerous conservation non-profits and government agencies, and its recruitment and job placement expertise.” It must also focus on hiring young people directly into jobs that are relatively short-term (no more than two years) and that “don’t require significant up-front training”: for example, projects like irrigation system repair, coastal and native grassland ecosystem restoration, and disaster preparedness work—an endeavour that could include community engagement and education.
Critically, though, what the Corps must not do is invest “in low- to middle-skill green construction work, such as installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings, or creating urban bike lanes.” That’s because bringing a subsidized work force into those areas “could box out and slow the growth of the small- and mid-sized construction and construction-adjacent businesses that would normally do these jobs”. Those businesses, Edelman writes, “would be better served by receiving government contracts, grants, or subsidies that allow them to make their own hiring decisions, as most existing climate action plans propose.”
While there currently exists no comprehensive data on just how many jobs a Climate Corps could create, the fact that “the maintenance backlog of the National Parks Service is in the billions of dollars” bodes well for its demand. The U.S. also “has suitable land for an additional 60 billion trees”, and its rich wetlands “occupy just half of their historical acreage”, leaving plenty of opportunity for restoration.
A final benefit of such work is that it could train workers to fill a growing green job force. “Beyond providing education awards for future tuition costs as existing AmeriCorps programs do, a Climate Corps could offer a menu of options for industry-recognized green job certifications, as well as the schedule flexibility to earn them before graduating from the program,” explains Edelman.
But a successful Climate Corps would have to pay its members considerably more than what is currently offered by existing AmeriCorps programs. Noting that current programs “have an annual living allowance that ranges between about US$5,000 to $25,000, as well as an education award worth up to $6,000,” he writes that “such a low allowance makes it difficult for young people without significant family resources to sign up.”
A Climate Corps truly fit for the 21st century, in contrast, would “reduce barriers to entry by paying a livable wage and providing quality health insurance and an education award that covers the cost of attending a local public university for at least the duration of a volunteer’s Corps service.”