Depression-Era Program Should be Privatized

The Michigan Civilian Conservation Corp recruits roughly 200 young people to clear trails and clean state parks every year.

Addressing a nation ravaged by unemployment, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in his 1933 inaugural speech: "Our greatest task is to put people to work."

Five days after taking office, the new president called an emergency session of Congress to obtain authorization for a massive jobs program. Millions of men wielding shovels and spades were soon collecting government paychecks for sowing seedlings and reinforcing riverbanks from Maine to California.

Economists have long since recognized that Roosevelt's "New Deal" make-work schemes actually prolonged the Great Depression rather than relieved it. But 70 years later, Michigan lawmakers seem not to have learned this lesson.

The Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps (MCCC) is a reincarnation of FDR's federal "Tree Army." The MCCC employs some 200 recruits, ages 18 to 25, to spruce up state parks, clear trails and rake beaches. But were it not for its environmental bent-and a bit of New Deal nostalgia, no doubt-the program would not likely pass budgetary muster. The MCCC program should be privatized, that is, removed from state stewardship.

The majority of MCCC recruits are fed and housed by the state while earning $5.15 per hour on projects devised by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). (Paid leave is also available.) With a budget of $3.2 million for fiscal year 2002, the program cost per corps member runs a whopping $17,700 — or nearly three times what Michigan pays per pupil for public education.

Participants who log 1,700 hours also become eligible for a federal education grant of $4,725 (or $2,362 for 900 hours of service). Enrollment suspends all payments due on outstanding student loans, while accrued interest is covered in full by taxpayers.

The scholarship benefit, in fact, appears to be the principal draw for corps enrollment. Some 60 percent of participants cited the award as their primary reason for enlistment. Thus, Michigan families who may be struggling with their own college costs are subsidizing the eligibility of others for federal tuition assistance.

Against the state's current billion-dollar deficit, the MCCC's budget may seem paltry. But it is symptomatic of the unnecessary spending that makes Michigan 16th-highest in the nation for tax burden per capita.

There is no shortage of government-sponsored employment assistance. The Michigan Department of Career Development, in fact, spends $486 million annually on a variety of other job training and placement services.

But environmental good works evidently rate premium treatment from Lansing. This enables the DNR to avoid some of the budget discipline that otherwise requires government agencies to prioritize spending. Says MCCC Administrator Steve Philip: "The department has come to depend on this sort of program to help get work done."

If, however, the DNR cannot properly fulfill its obligations absent a corps of federally subsidized workers, perhaps some of the state's vast land holdings ought to be returned to private stewardship. Such logic did not escape then-Saginaw Rep. Fred Crawford, who defied Roosevelt in 1937 when the president unsuccessfully sought permanent status for the federal CCC.

"I would rather have a boy of mine ... grow up in private industry and agriculture than in any CCC camp," Crawford proclaimed. "I believe the proper place is on American farms and in American industries under private control."

Whether Michigan's Civilian Conservation Corps even fulfills its education and training goals is uncertain. No follow-up of participants has ever been undertaken.

The state has survived without the CCC. Budget constraints prompted Gov. John Engler to veto all funding for the program in 1991. Four years later, however, using proceeds from the sale of the state's accident fund, the Legislature created a $20-million endowment to generate about a third of the CCC's current budget.

But the state's so-called "rainy day fund" — once fed by tax cuts and a strong economy — is fast disappearing. The governor's 2003 budget proposal relies on a reduction of the fund to just $256 million from a high of $1.2 billion. In simple terms, Michigan cannot afford luxuries like the CCC.

Moreover, as the New Deal so tragically demonstrated, government's profligate spending undermines the very economic growth that would otherwise create plenty of private-sector jobs. It's long past time that lesson were heeded.

Diane Katz is director of science, environment, and technology policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.