Depression era's 'New Deal' given renewed purpose in current crisis
For many, the 2008 financial crisis was the greatest hardship Americans had endured in their lifetime. Even today, communities continue to bear the scars of that crash. Unfortunately, it's clear now that the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will far exceed the 2008 crisis.
With virtually no corner of the country or the world left untouched, the current economic crisis is being compared to the Great Depression.
That comparison is fitting. Since the 1930s, we have never seen so many people experience job loss in such a short period of time. Unemployment peaked at 25% during that time. Today, one in six U.S. workers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That's 15% of the U.S. workforce, and it may not be over yet.
Faced with this enormous challenge, Franklin D. Roosevelt established his New Deal to get the nation working again through federally backed infrastructure projects across the country. The Civilian Conservation Corps built expansive trails and parks that we have benefitted from for generations since.
In the Northwest, perhaps the greatest New Deal example is the building of Bonneville Dam. At its 1937 dedication, FDR remarked, "As I look upon Bonneville Dam today, I cannot help the thought that instead of spending, as some nations do, half their national income in piling up armaments and more and more armaments for the purposes of war, we in America are wiser in using our wealth on projects like this, which will give us more wealth, better living and greater happiness for our children."
On that visit to the Pacific Northwest, FDR also visited the construction site of Grand Coulee Dam, which, when completed in 1941, was billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Folk artist Woody Guthrie called it, "the biggest thing yet built by human hands." More than 12,000 people found work at the dam during the course of construction.
Hydroelectric power sold by the federally owned Bonneville Power Administration paved the way for the development of the region's strong "Public Power" not-for-profit utility presence. That presence has made for some of the cleanest, least expensive electricity in the nation.
In 2019, US News and World Report ranked Washington state as the best state in the nation, in large part due to its affordable, renewable energy base which has drawn so many high-tech firms and data centers to the region. Hydroelectricity produces 90% of the Northwest's renewable power, and it often provides backup to the other 10%.
In 2020, we've encountered a crisis that FDR may not have been able to imagine, but for the post-coronavirus economic recovery, hydroelectricity's low-carbon affordability will remain critical to ensuring that people can continue to power their homes and afford basic necessities.
This statement is especially true for the most vulnerable communities, which have been hard hit by the loss of jobs and income. In these communities, every dollar will matter as people look for recovery long-term.
Also importantly, what has drawn companies to the Northwest before — clean, affordable energy — will likely do so again, which means that our hydroelectric dams will help put people back to work.
If FDR were here today, we're sure he'd be proud that the hydroelectric system he helped to champion will once again play an important part in America's recovery.
Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit organization that advocates hydropower for a better Northwest.
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