A Big Civilian Conservation Corps is Vital for Economy and Appalachia
By Ted Boettner and Stephen Herzenberg
Momentum is growing for creating a 21st-century civilian conservation corps (CCC) that would reduce carbon emissions, grow jobs, and restore our natural resources and environment. At least seven bills have been introduced in Congress this year to revive the CCC. More than 80 members of Congress are pushing for the inclusion of a new CCC in the budget reconciliation package moving quickly towards a vote, and several House committees have included funding for a CCC in their markups of bills in the budget reconciliation process.
A new ReImagine Appalachia briefing paper makes the case that a large-scale CCC program is vital for the Appalachian region and the country and makes recommendations regarding the program elements of a revitalized CCC. ReImagine Appalachia has sent a letter to Congress outlining our priorities for CCC policies. This blog summarizes those recommendations.
Why We Need a Big CCC
The case for a big CCC starts with JOBS. Most people know that, while the U.S. economy has been recovering from the COVID crash of March to May 2021, it is not as strong as before the pandemic. The economy is still 5.7 million jobs short of the pre-pandemic February 2020 jobs number. In just the Ohio River Valley states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky, we were 755,000 jobs short of the February 2020 level in July 2021.
Most people don’t know that we had a big need for jobs—especially CCC-type jobs—even before the pandemic. Here’s why. Since the 1960s, the United States—and the Ohio River Valley states—have lost millions of good-paying, often-unionized manufacturing jobs and a smaller number of good-paying, often-unionized extraction jobs. As we lost these jobs, many men without a four-year college degree found themselves struggling to find new jobs that paid, in some cases, even half as much as their old jobs. Some men who lost good jobs became permanently detached from the formal job market, losing their sense of place in the economy and in society. This detachment, in turn, has likely contributed to higher suicide rates and opioid addiction and to the increase in “deaths of despair,” which are most pronounced among white men.
Here are the numbers on this second reason we need a CCC that will create a lot of jobs. The U.S. employment rate for prime-age males (ages 25-54) was nearly 95 percent In the late 1960s. In 2019, even before the pandemic, the prime-age employment rate had declined to 86 percent (Figure 1). That nine-percentage-point decline means there are NEARLY SIX MILLION prime-age U.S. men who don’t have jobs today but would have them if our employment rate were at the high watermark of the 1960s. These six million men are the six million reasons that getting back to pre-pandemic job numbers does NOT eliminate the case for a big CCC.
On top of creating thousands of jobs, a large-scale CCC program would play a vital role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. By employing thousands of workers in reforestation, wetland restoration, urban tree canopies, and green space, a big CCC would absorb more carbon dioxide and allow for a smoother transition away from fossil fuel use and emissions than a small CCC. This could be especially true in Appalachia. The states of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia make up 25% of the nation’s coal production and 30% of the country’s natural gas production. They also have a disproportionate amount of coal-burning electric power plants.
Why West Virginia Especially Needs a Big CCC
All four states of the Ohio River Valley have an employment rate for prime-age men that is below the national average (Figure 2). This is hardly surprising given the loss of manufacturing and extraction jobs in the region since the 1970s. West Virginia, however, stands out as the state with a particular need for a big CCC that would create jobs for prime-age men currently detached from the formal job market. Among the 50 states, West Virginia has the third lowest employment rate for this group—about 80%. In other words, about one out of every five prime-age men in West Virginia is not employed—that’s more than 70,000 people.
Connect the Dots: People Who Need Family-Supporting Purposeful Jobs + a Limitless Quantity of Outdoor Work These People Could Perform = Need for a Big CCC
We don’t mean to beat a dead horse. But we do mean to drive home the elemental common sense behind the idea of a big CCC, in West Virginia, in the Ohio River Valley, in the United States. If you have millions of people that need purposeful work in our region and a limitless quantity of outdoor work that could be performed—reducing carbon emissions, restoring the natural beauty of our region, creating amenities that would improve quality of life, helping farmers adopt healthier soil management practices, etc.—we have a perfect match. Making that match can restore hope and dignity to the lives of many who have led lives of quiet desperation in recent decades, including falling victim to the opioid epidemic.
Funding Levels for CCC Under Discussion in Washington Fall Short of Program Potential
One of the weedier parts of our new brief walks through estimates of the jobs that would be created by a new CCC at different funding levels. As a chart in the brief shows, even the biggest proposal would create only 600,000 jobs, which is about 10% of the short-term jobs shortfall from the COVID recession and 10% of the long-term employment decline among prime-age men. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposal would create less than 1% of the jobs we have lost short term due to COVID and long term due to falling male employment rates.
What our job estimates reveal is that the right response to the funding levels under discussion for the CCC today is, “so you’re talking about seed funding with the potential to scale up after initial demonstration projects.” The right response is not “oh, that’s a lot of money.” Because when it comes to capitalizing on the perfect match between the climate work we need done and the large number of people who would benefit from serving in a new CCC, $10 billion is a small amount of money.
The creation of a big CCC program should be a vital part of a large-scale infrastructure package enacted by Congress this year. A revamped CCC would bring enormous benefits to the nation and the region of Appalachia, including putting a significant number of people to work, reducing carbon emissions, cleaning up environmental damage, and restoring natural beauty and resiliency. A new CCC could also restore hope by breaking down employment barriers, building workforce skills and career pathways, and building a cultural of national purpose toward the public good.
To ensure that the CCC meets the needs of Appalachia, our brief recommends that any CCC proposal include the following:
- Focus on non-college people.
- Pay a living wage of at least $15 per hour. Corps positions should also include funding or stipends for health care insurance coverage and childcare expenses.
- Include a reentry program: The reentry population—which includes a small portion of the six million prime-age men not in the formal job market—faces many significant barriers to employment. A new CCC program could give returning citizens a family-sustaining job and a pathway to a good-paying career and chance to contribute.
- Have a funding formula based on frontline and under-resourced communities: As proposed in the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, at least half of corps members and funding allocations should go to under-resourced communities, especially areas where there are or have been fossil fuel extraction and power plants, former steel and large industrial facilities resources, and areas of persistent poverty.
- Create defined pathways to union membership, including through pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship readiness programs.
- Offer a public works option: Most current CCC proposals build on AmeriCorps in which corps members are not employed by the federal government or carrying out traditional public works projects like the New Deal CCC. A public works option through which CCC members update and build new publicly owned infrastructure at public parks and forests would help align the program more with the New Deal CCC.
The Build Back Better Legislation End Game
In one other context, Senator Joe Manchin has lauded a New Deal program as a model. He highlights the role of the Rural Electrification Administration and nonprofit cooperatives in bring electricity to rural areas—and rightly sees that model as one we could revive to bring high-speed affordable broadband to all farmers and rural areas. CCC is another case where a New Deal program—modernized and broadened to fit contemporary challenges—offers a powerful model, including its scale and its delivery model. Drawing more heavily from the New Deal CCC model to fully fund a CCC in the end game of 2021 congressional infrastructure debates could be a big win for the United States and—with appropriate targeting of resources—an even bigger win for West Virginia.
Read the full brief: