Business of Politics

The New WPA

by Jeremy Alford

Gulf Coast activists press for billions in recovery funds. Is Washington listening? President Barack Obama’s inauguration marked a turning point in African-Americans’ civil rights struggles of the past two centuries. Now activists are asking the new commander in chief to ameliorate human rights and poverty issues on a new Southern front — the Gulf Coast.

In the three-plus years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, the federal government’s response has been labeled as a human rights fiasco. Not only did the feds fail to safeguard the region with proper infrastructure, such as levees, but progress has been slow in delivering the housing, health care and jobs promised in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Today, more than 30,000 low-income homeowners are still not eligible for federal assistance.

Elected officials, church leaders, parish governments, conservationists and others are lobbying Obama to create 100,000 jobs specifically for the Gulf Coast as part of his promised stimulus plan.

In case he declines to issue an executive order, the vocal coalition known as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign has sent letters to Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, pushing for legislation on that front.

In a similar letter to Obama, the coalition notes its proposal enjoys bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, was previously endorsed by several city and parish governments and represents a singular vehicle that his administration can use not only to keep campaign promises, but also right a wrong by the federal government.

“In visits to the Gulf Coast, you have articulated a desire to partner with hurricane survivors as they rebuild their communities and revitalize the region’s economy,” the coalition wrote. “Whether by inaction or injustice, we still have failed to protect the rights and well-being of Gulf Coast survivors, immigrants and their families, especially the children, the elderly, the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.”

At the heart of the proposal is a call for the federal government to create civic work jobs at prevailing wages to rebuild everything from levee systems and marshlands to churches and businesses. The framework was outlined previously in legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon in 2007, just two years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the Gulf Coast region, and about one year before Gustav and Ike inflicted more damage.

Melancon, from Napoleonville, plans to reintroduce the bill this year and is working with fellow Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu on a companion bill. It’s in the developmental stages, much like Obama’s plan was last week. “As it is now, the bill is very broad and doesn’t specify where programs would be developed,” says Robin Winchell, Melancon’s communications director.

The coalition has become a driving force behind recent recovery efforts. It’s a true grassroots story, germinating initially through student activists, then transforming into a political network. There’s an edge to the group’s message as well; on its site,, it invites activists to “Join This Generation’s Human Rights Struggle.”

Scott Myers-Lipton, a San Jose State professor and the campaign’s lead organizer, likens the proposal to FDR’s Works Progress Administration. From 1936 to 1939, nearly $7 billion moved through the WPA, and many communities in the country ended up with a bridge, park or school program.

The civic works program being proposed now is estimated to cost as much as $4 billion. Thus far, only members of the Libertarian Party have voiced opposition, calling it “another boondoggle.”

Myers-Lipton says the initiative might seem huge on paper, but it may also be the only thing that can save the Gulf Coast. “During the New Deal, the federal government partnered with communities to create 4 million jobs in two months by building or repairing thousands of hospitals, schools and playgrounds through public works programs,” he says. “This is exactly what the Gulf Coast now needs.”