It’s been called the Great Resignation, as millions of workers opt out of degrading or potentially dangerous work under the shadow of Covid-19. But for the youngest segment of the workforce, it’s hardly a choice at all. In September, almost a full quarter of Americans ages 20 to 34 were not working or on the job hunt.
This should come as no surprise given the current job market and the fact that young people continue to suffer under the conditions of 21st-century capitalism, where college degrees are exchanged for unpaid internships and union membership remains anemic. What is surprising, however, is how the putative party of young people in Washington has responded—with a great resignation of its own.
After months of deliberations, the House of Representatives finally voted Friday to pass President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act. Missing from this iteration of the bill, however, are key provisions that would have improved the lives of young people: free community college, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a clean electricity standard, and student loan forgiveness. All of these programs were slashed from the original bill to appeal to the most conservative members of the party.
It’s no wonder that youth turnout in Virginia’s gubernatorial election was down significantly.
If Democrats have a prayer in 2022, they’ll need to bring young people to the polls just as they did in 2020, when youth turnout reached a high-water mark. Fortunately, one key program in the Build Back Better Act has the potential to do so: the Civilian Climate Corps—assuming it survives its crucible in the Senate.
The CCC, as it’s called, is based on an experiment that happened some 90 years ago. Before climate-fueled conflagrations overtook homes in brimstone-black clouds, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s enveloped America’s farmland in squalls of dirt and debris. In response to this man-made agricultural disaster and eight-year drought, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a jobs program, backed by the federal government, to employ millions of young men in restoring farmlands in the hardest-hit states. The experiment worked. The Civilian Conservation Corps, known in the parlance of the New Deal as the CCC, revitalized the Midwest and rescued the American farmer from extinction.
While climate change poses an even greater threat to the nation’s livelihood than the Dust Bowl, however, Congress has not responded in kind. In the coming weeks, as Democrats on Capitol Hill continue to push through an eviscerated Build Back Better agenda, it is critical that they stand firm on funding for a modernized CCC.
Not everyone is convinced. Leading advocates of climate action have largely avoided pushing for a federal jobs program, preferring instead to lobby for clean energy tax credits and other incentives to nudge the economy toward decarbonization. Some, such as the executive editor of The American Prospect, David Dayen, question the utility of the CCC on its climate merits. The climate crisis is dire enough, his argument goes, that the government must focus on policies with the greatest potential to cut pollution as quickly as possible. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) put it, the CCC “just doesn’t measurably reduce emissions.” Why spend political capital on a jobs program that won’t have an immediate impact on the climate?
The answer is that creating jobs for young people is a critical step in building a durable Democratic majority. Young people will be a powerful voting bloc in 2022, and the CCC is one way for Democrats to deliver on its 2020 campaign promises to this demographic. Jobs programs are popular, as evidenced by an April poll from Data for Progress showing a two-thirds majority of voters supporting the CCC. They’re also effective, with half of voters under 45 saying they would consider taking a government-backed job to install, for example, solar panels in their neighborhoods. Funding the CCC will make the case that the federal government is a force for good in the lives of young voters—and give them a reason to head to the polls next year.
And let’s face it: Democrats need to convince voters that they deserve reelection. Unlike technocratic energy standards or invisible tax credits, a jobs program is easy to understand. After all, if there’s a lot of work that needs doing in this country, then the federal government should pay you to do it. And by sending tens of thousands of people a paycheck straight from Washington, Democrats would not only build a constituency for big government programs; they would also take their case for reelection straight to the American people. Good jobs, not arcane energy policy, are the kind of thing young voters will remember in November.
In order for this to work, of course, the government needs to implement the CCC correctly. Instead of shipping participants to different corners of the country, the government should prioritize hiring locals for community projects. Wages need to be generous, and all workers should have the opportunity to join a union.
We don’t need to speculate about what happens when Democrats pass legislation that minimizes the role of government while ignoring the needs of young people. They’ve tried it before. At the onset of the Great Recession, the Obama administration distributed a tax credit by withholding fewer funds from wages instead of issuing voters a lump-sum check. Dubbed “one of the least noticed tax cuts of all time” by Bloomberg, this decision, billed as smart policy, proved to be horrendous politics. Without knowing where the bump in their bank accounts came from, Americans had no idea that President Obama was delivering for them. The result? The infamous shellacking of Democrats in Congress during the 2010 midterms, when Obama’s youthful coalition collapsed.
A well-designed and well-funded jobs program could transform Americans’ relationship to government. By delivering meaningful and well-paying work straight to the American people under the CCC, Democrats will give young voters a reason to remain engaged in a process that historically does not work for them. That will ensure climate action is a priority for the federal government for years to come.