Labor Day

By Walter Cronkite

So Labor Day came again. Many celebrated this annual recognition of the dignity of our American labor force.

But there was little to celebrate for 9 million Americans on the unemployment rolls and somewhere around 1 million others, our invisible unemployed, who we are told have yielded to soul-searing despondency and no longer even seek work. Maybe we should make them visible. We could put yellow ribbons on their homes in the same manner we recognize our heroes, for those civilians who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on outrageous fortune.

As they get jobs, the yellow ribbons would be removed. Perhaps that would make it harder for administration representatives to disguise how serious the unemployment problem really is.

We might note here that the frightening number of unemployed does not include the tens of thousands of others who have lost good jobs in industry and commerce and have only been able to find work in menial or low-paying temporary jobs. At the same time, we see a rise in the U.S. productivity data, an important economic indicator. However, that improvement is in part because thousands of jobs have gone overseas, where wages are lower.

A few days ago, the Labor Department reported that the number of persons filing new unemployment claims last month was the lowest in six months. Good news that things aren't getting worse, but the numbers still leave millions unemployed, an unacceptable figure in a caring society.

With that and some other favorable economic indicators, the Bush administration finds cause to boast. It sees justification for its contention, when it was negotiating its $1.6 trillion tax cut, that the rich who immediately benefited eventually would put their tax savings back into the economy and thus feed its recovery and gradual reemployment. This trickledown theory might work in time, but the thousands of unemployed don't have that time as their families do without life's essentials -- food, clothing and shelter.

To speed their reemployment, there recently have been suggestions, mostly by Democrats, that what is needed is the resurrection of Franklin Roosevelt's formula to deal with the Great Depression he inherited in 1933.

Roosevelt's brain trust believed in "trickle up" rather than trickledown -- give people work, and the vast payroll spread widely across the country would speed recovery from the Depression.

His program, called the Works Progress Administration, almost instantaneously put one-third of the country's unemployed back to work -- some 8.5 million people. The WPA built what in many ways is the America we know today.

In the eight years of its existence (until wartime demands created a labor shortage), the government-subsidized workers built 116,000 buildings -- including schools, libraries, hospitals and courthouses -- 78,000 bridges and 651,000 miles of highways, and improved 8,000 airports. Among the WPA's other monumental achievements: the Golden Gate Bridge, New York's Lincoln Tunnel, Virginia's Skyline Drive and the Florida Keys' Overseas Highway.

A similar project today could answer the urgent need to repair and upgrade the nation's crumbling infrastructure -- our electric power grids, our bridges and highways, our dams and waterways, our schools.

Such a program would cost billions of dollars, which our Treasury does not have, thanks to the Bush tax cut and disastrous underestimation of the costs of the Iraq war and reconstruction. What is required now is political leaders courageous enough to defy the maxim that no one ever gets elected proposing higher taxes. They would call for repeal of the Bush tax cut and the imposition of the new taxes that will be necessary not only to put our unemployed to work but to begin reducing the national debt, that financial burden that we are unconscionably about to unload on future generations.


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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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