In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” During his time in office, he jump-started the Apollo program, which would include the Apollo 11 moon landing. That program at its peak employed nearly half a million Americans, from engineers to seamstresses.
At a time when some were calling for budget cuts, the successful effort cost $98 billion (inflation-adjusted to 2008.) It made an impact on many levels, launching decades of prosperity and bringing America together. Historically, other such efforts led similar successes, and something similar should be on the table today.
If you have visited Mission La Purisima in Lompoc you have seen it. If you’ve visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, skied at Sun Valley or Stowe, or enjoyed a quiet walk in a forest, you have benefitted from it. It was the Civilian Conservation Corps, established by Franklin D. Roosevelt on the heels of the Great Depression.
“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work,” said FDR. “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.”
The program employed and, on a voluntary basis, provided an education to some 500,000 men in an economy with 25% unemployment. In exchange, we gained 3.5 billion trees, 711 state parks, 3,000 fire lookout towers, ski runs, 30,000 miles of terraces to protect agricultural lands, and 6.5 million days of firefighting service.
Today we face threat upon threat. A global pandemic for which we were undersupplied and unprepared. A recession. A world that has seen nearly every sector affected, from education to government, supply chain to food processing to hospitality and entertainment.
This on top of an economy that saw some thrive but far too many live paycheck to paycheck, or worse. Toss in a politically divided county that has seen historic unrest. The answer to these isn’t as simple as mailing out checks, though that certainly helped people pay rent or retain employees, which was a very good thing. We need to come together and accomplish things — together.
Recently I heard a presentation from our local elementary school district laying out scenarios for the next school year. Due to conditions of the virus, a “normal” school day would cost roughly an additional $5 million a year due to the need for additional staffing to ensure social distancing and sanitation.
The space to accommodate the extra elbow room was simply not available (but would cost millions more) so “normal” won’t happen.
Even a modified version means we need added teachers and tech-savvy online instructors and facilitators. And more support staff.
Nursing homes running short of staff have had tremendous problems. Veterans, homeless and the working poor still need services in a time where even the most resourceful of us face challenges, delays and shortages.
Our all-too-typical short-term focus has led to a shameful D+ grade on infrastructure health, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Roadways, power grids, water supply and flood control are only some of the long-neglected projects that beg for workers and funding.
In the last year, we have seen calls for census workers, for health care workers, and for helpers for our seniors. There are so many more areas that could stand to have a serious national call for help, to benefit us all.
Our military and transportation sectors are shorthanded. The private sector can’t find workers.
Some government contracts receive only one or sometimes no bids due to a lack of capacity.
Wouldn’t it be grand if we could pull off a National Service Corps? What if you could build or rebuild a career? What if the laid off or willing retired folks could be paid to contribute their skills to something that would stand for decades, whether it be a road, solar farm, reinforced levees, scientific research, new housing or a child’s education?
What if, rather than fighting and complaining, we all could, collectively, look back at what we accomplished?
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, elected official and mom living in Santa Clarita.