There often is a fine line between governmental frugality and foolishness and, unfortunately, the Trump administration has not only crossed that line but hurdled it like an Olympian when it comes to its plan to close nine of the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers, including the program at Fort Simcoe, west of White Swan.
Under the guise of streamlining the federal government and “focusing” the resources of the U.S. Forest Service, as Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue framed the move last week, the Trump administration is dealing a crushing blow to thousands of rural, at-risk youths who receive hands-on job training and provide a valuable service in helping in natural disasters, such as wildfires and weather events.
So much for one of the shining tenets of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society.” The president who vows to “Make America Great Again” feels the country can do without it. It can’t, and we urge the Trump administration to reverse the action — or at least give Congress a say in its possible implementation.
It is a wrongheaded decision with far-reaching ramifications that negate any perceived benefit under President Donald Trump’s agenda of pushing for privatization of governmental agencies. Sure, it might save the government a few dollars by closing nine Job Corps centers and reportedly laying off 1,100 Forest Service employees. The move would wrest control of the program from the Forest Service and move it to the Labor Department, where, reportedly, private contractors will take over management of the remaining centers.
“Purdue has a goal of efficient and effective government,” Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen told staff last week.
Cost-effective? Maybe — maybe — on paper.
But its cost to the future of youths who learn valuable skills will be heavy.
Since the program’s inception in 1964 — reviving the Civilian Conservation Corps concept that successfully ran during the Great Depression — scores of young people have acquired valuable job skills. Not just in forest management, either, but in such diverse areas as auto mechanics and culinary arts.
In a period of relative prosperity with a low unemployment rate, young workers who are trained in, say, masonry or heavy-equipment operation can land well-paying jobs and ease the burden on employers looking for skilled workers.
Without such training, many youths will have a harder time finding jobs, which might lead to a rise in unemployment, hurting the robust economy about which Trump often boasts.
How can you tell this is an unwise move? The move brings together pro-union advocates and conservative lawmakers. Even two of the president’s most ardent supporters in the House of Representatives, Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, have criticized the action in the strongest possible terms.
In a joint statement, Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers called the move a “betrayal of the administration’s commitment to bring prosperity to rural America.” Those comments were echoed by Randy Erwin, president of the union representing Forest Service employees, who called it “a coordinated attack on the most vulnerable populations in the country: rural and urban low-income young people hoping to succeed in life.”
Critics are right that the futures of America’s rural workforce are at stake. Among the Job Corps centers scheduled to close are programs in some of the poorest parts of the country where career opportunities traditionally are scarce: Anaconda, Mont.; Ozark, Ark.; Pine Knot, Ky; and White Swan.
Federal figures show that nearly 80 percent of students who participated in the Job Corps program move on to careers, join the military or attain a higher-education degree.
But what Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers failed to mention is that the Civilian Conservation Centers play a vital role in saving lives and property that might be lost in wildfires and floods. One Forest Service official was quoted as saying that wildfire-fighting and preventative prescribed burns will be reduced as much as 36 percent with the nine closures. In 2017, more than 300 Job Corps students fought wildfires — with an estimated 200,000 hours of direct support to firefighters. There is no guarantee that, under the auspices of the Labor Department and private-sector contractors, members of surviving Job Corps centers will be deployed to deal with fire and natural disasters.
Not only does the program help employment opportunities and aid in disaster response, the fruits of its labor can be seen in community projects. The next time you stroll the Yakima Greenway, take a look at Sarg Hubbard Park. Fort Simcoe Jobs Corps workers contributed work on part of the construction. Ditto for a baseball field at Naches Valley High School and a skate park in White Swan.
So, we all benefit from the Job Corps, none more so than the disadvantaged students whose futures mean more than merely numbers on a fiscal ledger.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial Board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.