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Local governments need a better economic response to pandemic | COMMENTARY

Local officials could play more of a role in employing people during the pandemic, one former state senator believes.
Local officials could play more of a role in employing people during the pandemic, one former state senator believes. (David McNew // Getty)

The year was 1933 and America was mired in a Great Depression so vast that it forever changed the relationship between the government of the U.S. and its people.

Until then when the economy went into a tailspin, like the recession of the 1890s, it was unheard of for the U.S. government to intervene. Likewise, even during the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt walked a fine line between mediating the strike between the owners of the coal mines versus dipping his hands into helping out the miners and their families during intense economic hardship. Even his mediation of the coal strike was considered bold, because never before had the U.S. government intervened in capitalism.

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But after the stock market crashed in 1929, Herbert Hoover showed the real ramifications of government inaction. His failure to act to help the American people during times of immense suffering was so profound that Congress actually changed the time from four months to two months after a president leaves office and a new one assumes office because of Mr. Hoover’s inaction after he lost the 1932 election.

What Mr. Roosevelt inherited from Mr. Hoover was horrific. In 1932, nearly a quarter of a million families lost their homes. In the first half of 1933 more than a thousand homes were being foreclosed on every day. Nothing was more painful to Mr. Roosevelt than watching Americans who wanted to work and could not find a job, having no hope of obtaining one.

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Rather than acting as his predecessor had, Mr. Roosevelt went to work. In his first 100 days, Mr. Roosevelt unleashed an avalanche of legislation so profound that the first 100 day of progress during a new president’s tenure is judged by what he did. The Tennessee Valley Authority saw huge achievements in power and flood control along the Tennessee Valley and even helped establish book mobiles and lake restorations. His Civilian Conservation Corps put 500,000 people to work at peak enrollment paying them a dollar a day to help with soil conservation and reforestation. And in 1934 Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration built or improved 500,000 miles of roads, 40,000 schools, and 3,500 playgrounds and athletic fields

Now America is facing a new crisis: an international pandemic that is bringing the economy and small business to its knees. Despite division and hyper-partisanship, there is true belief among both parties that the federal government must intervene until its people can get back to work. The results have been promising; massive stimulus programs to lend people money and put hard currency in the hands of those forced out of work. But this is not enough.

Local governments in Baltimore City and Baltimore County must get in on the action and make this a win-win. Local leaders must match unemployed bartenders, servers, telemarketers and others out of work and looking to get some fresh air and a paycheck to help rehabilitate our neglected parks, streams and trash-strewn alleys and neighborhood parks in Baltimore City. Loch Raven Reservoir in Northern Baltimore County is littered with tires, old HVAC systems and other garbage just waiting for an unemployed person to be paid $50 a day to socially distance with gloves and masks and join a work crew supervised by the various departments of recreation and parks.

The opportunity for our youth in Baltimore City to restore long neglected parks in the city and finally put an end to alleyways long considered dumping grounds is finally upon us. The only thing stopping us is in all of this is our imagination. I urge the mayor of Baltimore and the Baltimore County executive to think big and be creative, and help make our region beautiful again while we put our citizens back to work during these very trying times. FDR did it on the macro-level, and together there is the potential to have a profound positive impact in our region at this very moment.

Jim Brochin (jimbrochin@gmail.com) is a former state senator who represented District 42 from 2002-2018.

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