During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiative established a series of government programs and agencies that put thousands of Americans back to work, building large-scale infrastructure and conservation projects.
On Thursday, Senate Democrats proposed a similar program designed to employ those who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic, which this week numbered more than 38 million people.
The Jobs to Fight COVID-19 Act of 2020, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, would give states and localities $100 billion in grants to hire and train newly unemployed workers to perform pandemic response work, including contact tracing, surveillance, mitigation and cleaning services.
“With nearly 40 million people unemployed, we need solutions that meet the scale of the problem,” Schatz said in a statement. “Our bill will put people back to work and provide the workforce we need to stop the spread of the coronavirus and help us safely reopen.”
Senators who co-sponsored the measure included Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Contact tracing is a critical tool in fighting highly infectious diseases. It’s been used to fight other viruses, including Ebola. Countries such as South Korea have used it and other surveillance methods to bring their coronavirus caseloads close to zero.
Without federal guidance on contact tracing, states have pushed forward with their own plans to hire armies of contact tracers in an effort to curb coronavirus spread.
California is planning on fielding a force of 10,000 state employees to track those who have been infected with the virus, for example. Other states — such as Washington, West Virginia, Iowa, North Dakota and Rhode Island — are using National Guard personnel to trace contacts.
Still, not every state government has the resources to marshal huge cadres of people dedicated to tracking the spread of coronavirus. Many states and localities are already facing severe shortages in tax revenue because of stalled economies, a problem that is threatening essential services such as police, fire and sanitation.
The idea of a federal jobs program on the scale of those seen during the Great Depression has barely been discussed in Washington, D.C. Congress has instead focused on other measures to provide relief to Americans ― such as increased unemployment benefits, payroll support and direct checks from the federal government.
Billionaire businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the most prominent voices calling on the government to create a program like the one that Democrats proposed on Thursday. His tweets pushing the idea caught the attention of freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Totally agree,” the New York Democrat tweeted in response on Sunday. “It’s time for a Federal Jobs Guarantee.”
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