Closest Thing to Immortality? Government Programs

Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps has survived multiple defundings

A number of sources attribute jokes about government programs being the closest thing to immortality to President Ronald Reagan. At least one source traces the humor back to a United States senator in 1933. That is an apt starting point because it was in that year President Franklin Roosevelt took office and worked to create — among other relief programs — the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The CCC long ago folded but its Michigan-specific derivative, the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps, survived. And it continues today as an at-risk youth program despite having been defunded in the past. As the 2016 fiscal year ends today and 2017 begins anew, it is a good time to look back on a program that just won’t end, even though it probably should, a recommendation we began making in 2002.

The original CCC program was meant to provide work and training to unemployed people while preserving, if not improving, the environment. Michigan’s first federal CCC workers arrived near Sault Ste. Marie 83 years ago last May, according to a Michigan Historical Center article, “Roosevelt’s Tree Army: Michigan’s Civilian Conservation Corps.” The federal program ended in 1942 but that didn’t stop Michigan from creating its own version of it.

The program, inspired by FDR’s “Tree Army,” has morphed in size and scope over the years, especially during the last 25. Like the CCC, the MCCC hired people between the age of 18 and 27 to do preservation, or “ecological and restoration” work. They had been hired by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which oversaw the program. The MCCC has taken financial hits in the past and managed to find new life with other funding.

For example, in 1991 Gov. John Engler ended budgetary support for the MCCC, but it was to get a new financial infusion in 1994 with the sale of the state’s Accident Fund, a workers’ compensation insurer. The state set aside $20 million from proceeds of the Accident Fund sale to partially fund the program, through interest on the endowment, until 2007. In that year, lawmakers redirected the entire endowment to the state’s general fund to help balance the budget (Public Act 147 of 2007), reducing funds available to the program.

A small MCCC crew was nonetheless kept afloat within the parks division of the Michigan DNR and, according to the Detroit Free Press, had only eight recruits doing “stewardship” work at one point.

In 2012 a supplemental appropriation bill was passed to create a new version of the old MCCC. It was called “Summer Youth Initiative,” according to Sharon Schafer, the finance chief of the Michigan DNR. This program targeted “at-risk” youth from just four cities: Detroit, Pontiac, Flint and Saginaw.

The DNR provides grants to foundations in these cities. The foundations, in turn, teach young people, according to Schafer, “about natural resources and life skills they will need such as resume building, managing money, completion of college applications …” They also do work in state parks. In 2015 the program’s name was changed to “Michigan Conservation Corps” and it has enjoyed $1 million appropriations in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, respectively. The Corps now also accepts some veterans up to age 27. And so, under a different name and funding, Roosevelt’s Tree Army lives on.

Lawmakers almost eliminated the program this year. The state House budget did not fund the program. But funding was ultimately restored. Programs such as this one are typically run with money that is drained away from other programs and from family budgets, too, in the form of taxation.

There would be nothing stopping people from using their own resources to teach useful skills and lessons about environmental or financial resource management, if only the state would let them keep more of it.