Construction May Be
Our Long-Term Salvation
Any hope that the coronavirus pandemic would quickly diminish, and the world’s economy would soon be getting back to business as usual, has evaporated. While the pandemic seemed to have been controlled in some states that were first hit the hardest, the rest of the country is experiencing a dramatic surge. Things are getting worse, not better. Mother nature is taking us to school.
Avoiding Economic Collapse
With over 50 million Americans now on extended unemployment the economy is in unchartered territory. Businesses across the country are shuttered, and entire industries are in hot water. The Federal Government has responded with aggressive emergency measures.
- In mid-March Congress passed an $8.3 billion healthcare support package and a $100 billion for free testing, paid emergency leave, and unemployment and Medicaid funding.
- At the end of March, President Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act establishing the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program, the $500 billion corporate bailout fund, and expanded unemployment payments and state and local government support of $150 billion.
- Another $484 billion ‘Interim’ CARES Act was passed just two weeks later to add funds to the already exhausted PPP.
- A slew of emergency initiatives like rate cuts, lending programs, and credit facilities were enacted by the Federal Reserve to inject a collective $6 trillion in cash into the financial system.
- Finally, the House just passed the $3 trillion Heroes Act that supplies an additional $875 billion to state and local governments, $75 billion in mortgage relief, $100 billion in rental assistance, a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals, $3.6 billion for elections, a $10 billion Nutrition Assistance Program and $10 billion for small businesses. This legislation has little chance of being enacted into law in its current form, but some similar form of additional stimulus will likely be enacted.
Rebuilding the Economy
These emergency measures add up to an astounding $9 trillion. They are, however, emergency measures designed to prevent sudden economic collapse. They cannot, and do not, address the task of rebuilding the economy after the shock passes. We cannot pay half the working population unemployment benefits indefinitely. We must restart industry and put people back to work to rebuild the economy. We should know how to do that because our country did it once before and it worked. They used the construction industry to dig us out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.
A Little History
Long before “stimulus” became a popular word in Washington, the federal government put people to work building things. Lots of things. This spring marks the 85th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the biggest and most ambitious of more than a dozen New Deal agencies created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Designed to give millions of unemployed Americans jobs during the Great Depression, the WPA remains the largest public works program in the nation’s history. It provided 8 million jobs in communities large and small. And what those workers put up has never been matched.
The WPA built, improved or renovated 39,370 schools; 2,550 hospitals; 1,074 libraries; 2,700 firehouses; 15,100 auditoriums, gymnasiums and recreational buildings; 1,050 airports, 500 water treatment plants, 12,800 playgrounds, 900 swimming pools; 1,200 skating rinks, plus many other structures. It also dug more than 1,000 tunnels; surfaced 639,000 miles of roads and installed nearly 1 million miles of sidewalks, curbs, and street lighting, in addition to tens of thousands of viaducts, culverts and roadside drainage ditches. In short, infrastructure across the country, much of which still stands today, was built 85 years ago by 8 million workers employed by the federal government to put people back to work.
The construction industry is about to be called upon again to rebuild our country battered, this time, by a viral pandemic. The retention and re-employment of millions of people can help turn our economy around. The construction industry can take on that task. History taught us that.
The problem the industry faces is when? Backlog falls off quickly and when new work is funded in requires time to be designed, permitted, and contracted for before actual construction begins and additional people are gainfully employed. While some of the infrastructure funding has been passed into law there is still a lot more of the proposed funding struggling its way through congress.
The term “shovel ready” was coined during the 2009-2012 recession when a similar financial recovery effort was made with limited results. I am not certain there is anywhere near the amounts of work proposed that is in fact shovel ready. Timing is everything in programs like this and our legislative process has a history of too little to late. Appropriate urgency is being expressed by many but not all of those in a position to advance or delay this much-needed stimulus. Hesitation in the past has usually been “how are we going to pay for this”. However, for whatever reason that seems to no longer be a concern.
The proposed infrastructure work may be of limited help for building contractors, but it is a welcome prospect for many others and for our industry in general. Particularly if it is enacted in the near-term.