Sandy Offers Chance to Rebuild Economy

David R. Jones

Originally published at Crain's New York Business. 

As our attention turns toward the election of a new mayor this year, let's hope that Hurricane Sandy—which illustrated in stark and sobering terms the vulnerability of our infrastructure—will not become a mere footnote. It should be an opportunity to rebuild, and at the same time create jobs for those out of work long before the storm hit our region.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's decision to use $27 million in federal emergency funds to hire 5,000 unemployed New Yorkers for Hurricane Sandy recovery work offers a case in point. This is the best type of public policy because it invests not just in our physical infrastructure, but also in the human capital that drives our economy. But why stop there?

Now is exactly the right moment—with a slack labor market, historically low interest rates and the great need that Sandy made apparent—to invest heavily in a much larger effort. We can put the unemployed and new labor-market entrants to work building the power and transportation infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather and meet 21st-century needs. That includes everything from burying power lines to protecting transportation routes from flooding.

A world-class city deserves a world-class airport, and a way to get to and from it. We need to speed up subway construction that is sinking retail businesses and property values. We need safe and welcoming school buildings with state-of-the art labs and facilities for all kids in central Brooklyn, the Rockaways, the South Bronx and hard-hit Staten Island—not just Stuyvesant stars. We need to rethink building codes. We need to replant thousands of trees and dream up the next High Line.

If any place can figure out how to use federal storm aid to seed a massive public-works effort, it is New York. We have the best financial minds in the world. Many of these projects can provide good-paying jobs to unemployed skilled tradespeople and create new apprenticeships for low-income New Yorkers and young people with few prospects. The city can implement local hiring requirements that offer a path to the middle class.

That a massive stimulus for jobs is needed is clear. My organization's reports have shown how these groups have struggled since the Great Recession. About half of the 380,000 unemployed city residents have been out of work for more than six months, and a third for at least a year.

In addition to the long-term jobless, targeting jobs to people 18 through 24 makes sense. In New York City alone, more than 170,000 in this age group are neither in school nor working. To ignore them would not only put their futures in peril, but our city's and state's, too. It is harder than ever for young adults, especially those without college educations, to find employment. Having this experience will build their skills, résumés and social networks, giving them a springboard to their next job.

With federal jobs legislation doubtful due to Republican obstructionism, it is up to the state and city to invest in our labor force and put people to work making vital improvements to our infrastructure. We should expand on the governor's WPA-style initiative, taking advantage of low interest rates to finance a large-scale investment in public works that could provide jobs not only to 5,000 of New York's long-term unemployed and jobless youth, but also thousands more. What started as an idea for storm recovery can become the bigger plan needed to stimulate real economic recovery.

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