For just a dollar a day

Tuesday, August 04, 2009
I snapped the cellphone picture to the left at Florida Caverns State Park. It was a monument to the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The passage through the caverns had been improved by the CCC.

At one point on the tour, to the left of the path you were on, you could see the original passage. It was little more than a crawl space that was two to three foot tall. The guide said the boys cut the larger passage with nothing more than pickaxes, hammers and chisels. They hauled the excess rock out one pail full at a time.

Their pay was a dollar a day, of which they only got to keep $5 a month, the other $25 was sent to their families.

The CCC was a popular and successful New Deal Program. Anybody who has been to a National or State Park has seen the result of their handiwork in the lodges, visitor centers and trails they built. In addition they planted over 3 billion trees, cut miles of road and strung miles of telephone cable.

The program's popularity is such that from time to time calls are made to create a modern version of the CCC. Obama is only the most recent of a long line of politicians, from both parties, who has evoked them as a model for paid volunteerism.

As potent as such appeals may be, that was then and this is now. The CCC was very much a product of the Great Depression. Because of the high level of unemployment of the day, its ranks were filled by young men looking for a pay check. Many of the boys were dirt poor, had little education (an 8th grade average) and few prospects. Further, it was ran largely by the military. It was organized into the same eight districts as the state-side army was, staffed by officers and its camps started out as tent cities and only later were military style built for the workers. They ate in mess halls and discipline was strict.

Still, the young men were happy for the work. Many of them speak fondly of their days in the CCC. If nothing else, three squares a day and a bit of cash lifted their spirits. However, the true effectiveness of the program was in the night classes it offered and the skills it taught. Many of them parlayed their experiences in the CCC into careers. The Justin Oral History Center has a pages with numerous anecdotes for those interested.

In reading about it for this post what stands out is how pragmatic the program was. No-nonsense managers exerted discipline and the boys worked hard. However, what they worked hard at wasn't busy work, rather it was work directed at strengthening the infrastructure of our parks and wilderness areas. To this day we can see the fruits of their labors.

As compelling as the CCC mythology may seem to modern ears, it is hard for me to imagine such a program working today. The thought of a graduate with a degree in the Social Sciences trying to supervise hordes of forced volunteer slackers leaning on their shovels and text messaging each other all day is not a pretty picture, but it is hard to imagine anything else. Hopefully it is a scheme that, while it may get mentioned from time to time, never gets beyond the speechifying phase.

Note: I edited this post to add a title and clarify the final paragraph.


chuck said...

Joining the CCC was a childhood dream of my father. But as you say, the work ethic was different back then. My father spent a summer clearing a bit of land for his oldest brother: pulling/blasting out stumps and cutting trees. The pay was a suit ($15) and not much else. Reminds me of Davy Crockett working for food and clothing.

PatriotUSA said...

In today's world of free programs and entitlement something like the CCC would not work very well. I have two teenagers who have been raised on helping out others, working hard(whether they liked it or not), saving their money and knowing what it means to work for what you earn. I am 56 and disabled work part time, try to run a very small restoration business. It both angers and saddens me me that so much of this society in the USA has gotten so spoiled and lazy. I can only cringe at the thought of what Obama and the democrats version of the CCC would be like. There are lots of folks who still know the value of hard work, a job well done, no fear of such hard work and assisting others. Seems we are a dying breed and that is part of our problems.