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Easing the Economic Disaster for Construction Workers With Infrastructure Spending

David Callahan

Construction workers remain the hardest hit of all American workers, according to today's job numbers. This sector has a staggering unemployment rate of 12.8 percent, the highest of any corner of the U.S. economy. That rate is mercifully down from 15.6 percent at this time last year, but remains brutally high -- and, inevitably, the data doesn't take into account those who fly beneath the radar, such as undocumented immigrants.

Construction workers tend to be male and many have not gone beyond high school. This is not an easy group to retrain for other jobs. And because many of these workers used to build houses -- an industry unlikely to boom again any time soon -- it's unclear how market forces alone will offer salvation to the hardhat crowd in the near future.

Many construction workers have been out of work since the housing crash began four or five years ago. Many have already exhausted their long-term unemployment  benefits or soon will, given moves by Congress and state governments to curtail such benefits. Skilled workers once riding high during boom times are now, in many cases, totally destitute.

This is a human tragedy.

And quite apart from that, such unemployment could increasingly become a source of social instability. Does this nation really want a vast army of indigent men, adept with tools and heavy machinery, who have nothing to lose by turning to crime or other violent actions? I don't think so.

But there is an obvious way to mitigate sky high unemployment among construction workers, which is to put them to work on infrastructure projects. There is plenty to do on this front, as we have written here before. A bipartisan study last year found that the United States needs to spend some $2 trillion on infrastructure over the next decade beyond what is now projected. That same study found that many of America's competitors are investing more heavily than we are in ways that will put us at a disadvantage. China, for instance, is building the most modern rail systems and airports in the world.

With interest rates at a historic low, and a huge supply of surplus skilled labor, it's hard to imagine a better time than now for the U.S. to borrow a lot of money to strengthen its infrastructure. Unlike many forms of public spending, moreover, investing in infrastructure is one that enjoys strong support from leading business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Business gets the link between infrastructure and economic growth. This should not be a polarizing issue. 

Of course, though, everything is polarizing today, thanks to the extreme rightward shift of the Republican Party and the influence of heartland Tea Partiers who don't know the first thing about how to be globally competitive.

President Obama's American Jobs Act, introduced last September, included $85 billion for spending on infrastructure. The money would have not just gone for new roads and rails, but also to renovate and modernize public schools, which are famously dilapidated. And the Act would have capitalized a new National Infrastructure Bank to leverage billions more in private money.

Conservatives ridiculed Obama's proposal and the legislation went nowhere. Without a change of course, then, we're looking at two disasters: deep long-term unemployment among construction workers and economic decline by the United States.