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Marcos Villatoro on how a government jobs program changed his father’s life

My father Ralph was born a sharecropper in east Tennessee, worked most of his life as a car mechanic, and died a coal miner.

Sharecropping tobacco meant hunger for two winter months of the year. His mother would shove a tobacco leaf into my father’s mouth in order to dampen the cravings for food.

In my childhood, dad crawled under Chryslers and shoved his hands into the guts of a Chevy. He’d come home smelling of oil and brake fluid.

His final job was one of the most dangerous in the nation: Coal miner. He rode a giant bucket down into the depths of the earth and fixed mechanical moles that dug into walls of coal.

He had a fifth grade education from a one-room schoolhouse in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. He was nine when the stock market crashed in 1929, and thirteen when Franklin Roosevelt became president:

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; It lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten.”

In just the first month after he was sworn into office Roosevelt proposed and Congress passed a New Deal program called the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC. It was an ambitious, first of its kind government employment initiative that would eventually create jobs for three million Americans desperate for work. And they were real jobs. CCC workers built hundreds of campgrounds, hacked out thousands of miles of hiking trails, planted hundreds of millions of
trees to stop soil erosion, and helped build a first class infrastructure across the nation.

Dad joined and helped build the Smokey Mountain National Park. He was paid thirty dollars a month, and like all the other workers, the government sent twenty-five dollars to his family and gave Dad five for spending money. It was a real stimulant, not only for the economy, but for Dad’s own bouts with depression. Work helped keep him sane. Work wasn’t the cure for depression; but a job did those magical things that drugs cannot do: kept him occupied. Put his hands to use. Made him greasy and proud at the end of the day. Dignity: that’s one terrific medication.

Roosevelt’s and Congress’ lightening quick action so early in FDR’s presidency, helped save the country. Think about that kind of government action. The program went from concept to law in a month’s time. A note to our elected leaders: Dare to do something radical. Work together. Nothing relieves the pain of depression — both economic and mental — than a government that gives a damn.