Trump Can Build the Nation and Save It at the Same Time

By Chandra Bozelko

January 25, 2019 6 min read

Even during a congressional closedown, some Washington insiders' spirits are up, optimistic that 2019 can deliver an infrastructure plan when everyone's back in business. President Donald Trump convened with the National Economic Council about it, and Republican lawmakers are praying that the topic appears in his State of the Union address, whenever and wherever it's delivered.

Another hope would be that Trump and Congress see the potential in such an infrastructure program for continuing criminal justice reform.

It sounds like a mismatch, I know.

But it makes perfect sense for the federal government to recruit formerly incarcerated people to become the engine of visible change and growth in our communities by subsidizing jobs for them for the nation's eventual infrastructure overhaul.

Just months ago, the Prison Policy Initiative pegged unemployment among formerly incarcerated people in this country north of 27 percent. This is an record high; it's highest, during the Great Depression, was only 25 percent.

Historically, when unemployment has reached such heights, the government has stepped in to solve the problem by subsidizing jobs. The federal government did it about 10 years ago, during the Great Recession, with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — a $787 billion stimulus package that passed rather convincingly in the 2009 Democratic-controlled Congress — which allocated $12 billion to the transitional job programs that had been overwhelmed with enrollees when unemployment hit a mere 10 percent.

Most of those subsidized jobs were developed in the energy sector — a smarter grid, clean coal, energy efficiency — rather than traditional infrastructure.

When unemployment hit a mere 20 percent in 1935 during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration, which was not only a subsidized jobs program that employed 3.3 million people but also an infrastructure plan that built 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sanitary sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads and planted 24 million trees.

We could use that type of edification in this country right now. The American Society of Civil Engineers' gave the country's infrastructure a D+ on its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

Pairing people who need second chances with public spaces that need rehabilitation should be an easy match. In California, former Governor Jerry Brown saw this as a way to provide skill-building jobs to the formerly incarcerated and to invest in the state's infrastructure at the same time.

Despite the logical appeal of partnering people who need jobs with jobs that need to get done, it's rare. For an unknown reason, this waiting and willing workforce is often left out of traditional Keynesian economic calculations.

And it's not because the government is unwilling to use public dollars on this population; mass incarceration costs the country between $182 billion and $1 trillion when you add in the loss of opportunity and wages in communities when family members are behind bars.

Jobs are the way to stanch that fiscal hemorrhage. For instance, a subsidized jobs program called the Center for Employment Opportunities reduced recidivism between 16 and 22 percent over a three-year period, and saved taxpayers $8,300 for each program participant.

Reserving the jobs generated by an infrastructure plan for people with criminal records doesn't give them an unfair advantage. Breaking the law deserves accountability, but to impose an economic life sentence on offenders doesn't punish them exclusively; it destabilizes the economy and public safety for everyone. High unemployment rates generally correlate with higher crime rates, an increase in lawbreaking that can't be countered effectively by an increase in police power.

Seeing such an infrastructure program as taking employment from those who haven't broken the law would be the wrong way to look at it. A better question is how we can debate any infrastructure plan without including more formerly incarcerated laborers. Paradoxically, it's a lack of skilled labor that drives up the cost of construction. When there aren't enough workers, projects get delayed for months. Filling positions quickly with people who need and want to work will keep us on budget and on time as we rebuild the nation.

Subsidizing former prisoners' employment with jobs that will rebuild our country isn't a handout. It's an effective way to maintain public safety and to repair the United States' crumbling insides, all at the same time.

To find out more about Chandra Bozelko and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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