Government Work

The federal sector is the one place no one seems to want job creation.

When he unveiled his $787 billion economic stimulus package a year ago, President Obama declared its goal would be to "save or create 3 to 4 million jobs over the next few years." By the end of the 2009, with the unemployment rate still in the double digits, he acknowledged how difficult the task was. "Even though we've reduced the deluge of job losses to a relative trickle," he said, "we are not yet creating jobs at a pace to help all those families who've been swept up in the flood. There are more than 7 million fewer Americans with jobs today than when this recession began."

Obama's stimulus measure aimed to spur private sector job growth using a variety of levers, from tax incentives to federal grants and contracts.

The last time the government faced a crisis of these proportions, the president took a similar approach. Franklin Roosevelt launched the Public Works Administration to leverage federal funds to push companies to boost hiring. But when that failed to jump-start job growth, Roosevelt took a very different tack. As Charles Peters, founding editor of the Washington Monthly, wrote in Newsweek in November 2009: In the winter of 1933-34, Roosevelt put Harry Hopkins in charge of the Civil Works Administration, with orders to build a huge government program to directly employ Americans.

Hopkins put 4 million people on the federal payroll in two months, working on projects from building outhouses to producing works of art.

That was a pretty high-risk proposition, even during the Great Depression. In early 2009, Peters and Timothy Noah noted in Slate that Roosevelt ordered Hopkins to shut down the CWA before the congressional elections of 1934, fearing it would cost him Democratic seats in Congress. Today, even Obama's proposal to give the government an indirect role in job creation has been derided as "socialism."

These days, there is simply no constituency for an expansion of government jobs. To be sure, as Alex M. Parker notes in this issue, Obama has pledged to "insource" key federal positions that have been farmed out to the private sector over the past decade, but they amount to a drop in the federal bucket.

Indeed, the government has contracted out functions so assiduously that it no longer has a handle on how many people are actually working on its behalf, or exactly what they do. Now Obama has ordered agencies to try to figure that out and to develop long-term plans for managing a multisector workforce.

That's a tacit acknowledgment that agencies need to permanently adjust to a world in which their job is largely to manage the work of contractors. Which is fine, as long as we acknowledge it also takes bold options for addressing unemployment off the table.

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