More cities are looking to jobs programs focused on resilience to help their economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic and provide their hardest-hit residents with employment and new job skills.
San Jose, CA is the latest major city to pursue this path. Mayor Sam Liccardo announced the city’s proposed Resilience Corps earlier this month to create over 500 jobs primarily for young adults focused on pandemic response, environmental resilience, learning loss for struggling students, economic recovery and disaster preparedness. City officials said those are five crucial areas to build community resilience.
Liccardo proposed creating the Resilience Corps as part of his budget blueprint for FY 2021-2022, noting the enormous economic impacts of the pandemic, especially on disadvantaged communities.
"The financial effects of this pandemic — compounded by racial and widening economic disparities — have wrought a host of maladies among young adults, including homelessness, increased addiction, rising suicide rates, increasing child abuse by young parents, and rising violent crime," Liccardo wrote in a message to the San Jose City Council accompanying his budget proposal. "Our young adults' futures — and our collective futures — deserve a response beyond handouts: they need a paycheck."
A growing trend
Meanwhile, other cities like New York and New Orleans are following suit and also creating their own resilience corps programs in some form.
In his State of the City address in late January, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the formation of the City Cleanup Corps, a 10,000-person strong effort to beautify the city, including wiping away graffiti, power washing sidewalks, creating murals and cleaning neighborhoods.
He compared the group to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which he said provided "good-paying jobs to people in need and improve the country’s infrastructure."
"The massive job loss in New York City caused by the pandemic-driven global economic crisis calls for a similar program to create jobs and improve our city," de Blasio continued.
New Orleans also launched its Resilience Corps in October, partnering with Resilience Force, a national nonprofit that looks to make cities’ workforces more resilient.
With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and state and city-level partners, that project will train residents to be community health workers. The individuals will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by coordinating with contact tracers, conducting wellness checks, delivering food and other supplies, connecting residents with city and state services, and more.
In a statement, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the Resilience Corps will help vulnerable communities and also provide workers "with stable jobs that are pathways to full-time careers, from which they can build their own more resilient futures."
A resilience corps could be an effective way for cities to reboot their economies and move into a brighter future, outside experts said, especially as corps can take many forms depending on leaders’ priorities.
Andrew Salkin, founding principal at the nonprofit Resilient Cities Catalyst, noted that San Jose’s focus on disaster preparedness and environmental resilience comes as California has battled rising temperatures and wildfires in recent years, while also being hit hard by COVID-19.
Meanwhile, New Orleans' focus on health comes as it has seen its economy damaged by coronavirus-related shutdowns, while also responding to increased hurricanes and flooding.
"One, it's bringing people into the economy, which is great after the pandemic, then two, actually using them and leveraging them to do the work that has already been identified as a need," Salkin said. "This is the resilience piece, as they were trying to use the investments to create the city they want from the city they have, as opposed to just repairing what was there before."
"This is a really interesting time for government to either create new institutions, new roles for government, or partner with entities that were already there."
Founding Principal, Resilient Cities Catalyst
Cities have been transformed during the pandemic, with some streets being closed to vehicles to encourage cycling and outdoor dining at restaurants. And local leaders are already looking to the post-pandemic future and evaluating what changes need to be made, especially in the fight against climate change and building communitywide resiliency.
As people look for ways to contribute to their communities, especially if they are out of work, a resilience corps can help make cities more livable for all, according to Salkin.
"This is a really interesting time for government to either create new institutions, new roles for government, or partner with entities that were already there like Business Improvement Districts to say, 'We want to manage open space now, not just the activities and restaurants and things like that,'" he said.
Other cities considering similar moves already have a wealth of potential partners at their disposal, Salkin said, with various community groups and nonprofits likely able to step in and provide guidance.
Nationally, the AmeriCorps program received an extra $1 billion in investment under the recently passed American Rescue Plan to provide immediate pandemic relief, specifically in disadvantaged communities. That program could also expand to be a useful resource for cities, but local-level action could be crucial, he said.
"There are lots of community groups and organizations that are already doing amazing work in their communities, I think they're the ones that are closest to the challenges," he said. "They're the ones that have been working through these problems and trying to think through how to build that transition for their neighborhood. Leveraging that work of those folks is as exciting an opportunity as there is."
But Salkin warned it is incumbent on cities to ensure their corps programs give participants transferrable skills that can have a long-term impact, rather than just be a program designed to give them a short-term paycheck.
"It's more than a job, it's a pathway to a career," he said. "This is an opportunity to take the federal dollars if you're using stimulus dollars and turn it into long-term career paths, which is always hard to do. But now that we have some resources to do that, that'd be great."