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Youth program may promote sense of purpose

April 6, 2009

Though I'm an economist, and not much skilled at matters of the heart, it seems to me there's something amiss in today's national psyche. There's no real sense of purpose or unity.

For those of us old enough to have had very close relatives who lived through the Great Depression, today just feels different from the one described in their stories.

During this recession, the stimulus package could better be described as merely a huge supplemental spending bill. This does not help create a sense of shared sacrifice and later triumph. I suspect the lack of such sentiment is the price of progress, but many of us long for a stronger sense of national purpose and unity.

That is why the announcement of the Young Hoosier Conservation Corps this week piqued my interest. The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s still resonates with Americans. Legions of young men were lured to military-style camps, where they trained to work in rural areas and national parks. We ended up with some lasting benefits, including the Appalachian Trail. It must have meant something to the men because they're still celebrating their participation. In fact, the next big CCC reunion is scheduled for this May.

But my real interest in the YHCC is because my first real job was with the Youth Conservation Corps, the predecessor of the YHCC. (By the way, a real job is one you pay taxes on, unless you're nominated for a U.S. Cabinet post).

My first job started in the spring, 30 years ago in the midst of nationwide double-digit unemployment and double-digit inflation. I was 17 and had just graduated from high school. A strong back, work boots and a willingness to sweat were all I brought to the labor market (my, how little things change).

At Great Falls Park, Va., where I was assigned, 40 or so kids (almost all 16-19) were divided into four teams with a youth leader and a temporary Park Service employee. We came from all over the region—rich and poor, college students and high school dropouts. We were issued work gloves, a tin cup, a YCC shoulder patch and hardhats.

We arrived at work at 7 each morning packing a lunch bag and our gear. After a cursory training period, we were issued axes, shovels, swing blades, picks and rakes. For the rest of the summer, I mostly cut and improved park trails. Eventually we were permitted to help with an archeological site and build stone barbecue grills. I gained 10 pounds that summer and earned today's equivalent of $6.22 an hour. I was happy with both.

I suspect that the YHCC will be much the same—hard work and friendships. Hoosier parks will also be better off for it. Most of us should be tolerant of these tax expenditures.

YHCC members will make $8.50 an hour. But, there is one significant flaw. Because of federal rules, only children living beneath the poverty line can take these jobs. Yet another chance to bolster national unity spoiled.
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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu. 

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