Building Back Better: A Jobs-Centered Infrastructure Plan

By Carl Van Horn and Mary Alice McCarthy – Published March 2021 by The Education Policy Center on Education & LaborSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

This is the third report summary (sub-titled “Supporting Recovery Through Community Service Jobs) from the Better Employment and Training Strategies (BETS) taskforce that has developed policy recommendations to support the Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress in addressing the labor market impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About the Authors
Carl Van Horn is the founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, one of the nation’s leading academic centers on workforce policy and practice. Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education & Labor at New America, dedicated to restoring the link between education and economic mobility.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts the U.S. will not be considered as fully recovered from the unemployment crises generated by the pandemic until 2024. In the meantime, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University surveyed 800 Americans and found that half believe the government should help laid-off workers, which happens to be the largest percentage who think along these lines since the Great Recession of 2008. In addition, government-funded infrastructure projects were supported by nine out of ten respondents, and a federally funded temporary community service jobs program was supported by eight out of ten respondents.

Recovery Strategies
It took 10 years for the Great Recession to return to a 4 percent unemployment rate after reaching a 10 percent rate in early 2010.  Even prior to the pandemic, the Federal Reserve Bank noted that one in four Americans had only $400 in savings. The pandemic made things even worse for folks who have historically struggled to make ends meet.

Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell said that “given the number of people who have lost their jobs and the likelihood that some will struggle to find work in the post-pandemic economy, achieving maximum employment will require more than supportive monetary policy.” 

During the recovery of the Great Recession, tax cuts, low interest rates and regulatory reforms “yielded painfully slow economic growth,” and the private sector is not expected to quickly solve the problem. Plus, unemployment insurance is not the answer for providing adequate relief and is not evenly distributed from state to state. 

“Creating new jobs and improving the quality of existing jobs must be a central goal of the nation’s economic recovery.” Enter the Biden-Harris Build Back Better Plan. 

Four Ways to Invest in Infrastructure Jobs:

  1. Give hiring priority to the most disadvantaged and long-term unemployed.
  2. Train workers at a variety of skill levels and “incorporate dedicated training funds that are accessible to local stakeholders.”
  3. Invest in labor agreements that require employer commitments to provide training, hire locally, and include women, Black and Latinx workers.
  4. Investments managed by federal, state, and local governments can be delivered by public, private, and nonprofit bodies, including minority business accelerators. “Open and transparent bidding processes should reward the most cost-effective quality proposals.”

Community Service Jobs Can Help the Recovery

  • Community service projects, as opposed to large infrastructure projects, are less expensive, can start quickly, and can benefit communities and workers hit the hardest, including people who have not earned any kind of postsecondary credential. 
  • Community service jobs program have historically been highly effective, dating back to the years following the Great Depression and during the 1970s. These types of job programs “fell out of favor during the 1980s, part of an ideological shift away from government intervention toward an embrace of free markets and neoliberalism.” Today, however, “public opinion has shifted, and many Americans want government to do more.” 
  • Several needs require special consideration, such as the creation of more public health and early education and childcare jobs. Ensure that workers in these community service job programs are paid a living wage and reduce inequities that have existed pre-pandemic, “particularly for women and for frontline workers, who are disproportionally Black and Latinx.” 
  • Support President Biden’s recommendation to create a “civilian climate corps” that can assist communities in the event of any climate-change-oriented disasters.

“Working with the Biden-Harris administration, Congressional Democrats and Republicans must seize this opportunity to create jobs and restore the public’s faith in government and their elected representatives.”

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