In response to the GOP's misleading accusations that only a small portion of President Joe Biden's overwhelmingly popular American Jobs Plan is devoted to "real infrastructure," Rep. Jamaal Bowman argued Tuesday that the United States would benefit from adopting a more expansive understanding of infrastructure—one that includes not only building roads but also expanding public goods and investing in care workers who sustain the country.
"Just as our physical infrastructure is crumbling and requires substantial reinvestment in a 21st-century economy, our care infrastructure is fundamentally broken."
—Rep. Jamaal Bowman
"The way we think about infrastructure itself needs a rethink," the New York Democrat wrote in an op-ed published by The Guardian. "What we need to understand better as a nation is that our infrastructure does not just look like steel, concrete, and transport—it is also the nurturing, patience, and diligence of care workers."
"Care work touches all of our lives from beginning to end, from the unpaid labor of those who raise us as children, child care workers, teachers, home aides, and healthcare workers, to those who care for us in old age and see us through the end of our lives," Bowman continued. "Care is one of the strongest pillars of our economy, yet those who do this work—disproportionately Black and brown women, often immigrants—are under-supported, undervalued, and under-compensated, if compensated at all."
He added that "just as our physical infrastructure is crumbling and requires substantial reinvestment in a 21st-century economy, our care infrastructure is fundamentally broken."
The U.S., Bowman pointed out, is "the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid family and medical leave program."
As the progressive lawmaker explained, a lack of economic rights and social protection has profound consequences: "Only 17% of our people have paid family leave through their employers. Hundreds of thousands face daunting waitlists for essential home care. Child care is the highest household expense for families in much of the United States. And the median annual pay of child care and home care workers is $25,510 and $17,200, respectively, leading to high turnover and reliance on public assistance."
The Biden administration "can and must center care work as part of rebuilding the country," Bowman stressed. He urged the president and Congress to address "longstanding injustices... as part of the next investment in infrastructure," specifically by "passing universal child care and pre-K, six months of paid family leave, and free, high-quality home and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities, along with Medicare for All."
What is infrastructure in this country:— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) April 6, 2021
our energy grid
dental, vision, & hearing care for the elderly
Now is the time to begin addressing our physical infrastructure as well as our human infrastructure. Let's get it done.
Bowman's arguments are at the center of what the New York Times earlier this week called a "philosophical" debate about the meaning of infrastructure.
Whereas right-wing economist R. Glenn Hubbard told the Times that "much of what it is in the American Jobs Act is really social spending, not productivity-enhancing infrastructure of any kind," proponents of a more expansive definition "argue that in the 21st century, anything that helps people work and lead productive or fulfilling lives counts as infrastructure," the newspaper noted.
"I couldn't be going to work if I had to take care of my parents," Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told the newspaper. "How is that not infrastructure?"
It should be, according to many advocates, including Bowman, who said that "strong care programs also boost the economy."
"A recent study found that for each public dollar invested in the care sector, $2.80 in total economic activity is created; roughly speaking, five additional jobs are created for every 10 jobs created in care work," Bowman wrote.
As the Times reported:
Dan Sichel, an economics professor at Wellesley College and a former Federal Reserve research official, said it could be helpful to think of what comprises infrastructure as a series of concentric circles: a basic inner band made up of roads and bridges, a larger social ring of schools and hospitals, then a digital layer including things like cloud computing. There could also be an intangible layer, like open-source software or weather data.
"It is definitely an amorphous concept," he said, but basically "we mean key economic assets that support and enable economic activity."
The economy has evolved since the 1950s: Manufacturers used to employ about a third of the work force but now count for just 8.5% of jobs in the United States. Because the economy has changed, it is important that our definitions are updated, Mr. Sichel said.
The debate over the meaning of infrastructure is not new. In the days of the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority, academics and policymakers sparred over whether universal access to electricity was necessary public infrastructure, said Shane M. Greenstein, an economist at Harvard Business School whose recent research focuses on broadband.
In his op-ed, Bowman noted that "more than 550,000 Americans have died and 30 million have been infected with Covid-19. We are staring down decades of trauma, grief, and long-term health impacts from the past year."
"But," he continued, "this does not have to be a moment of total desolation. It can be a groundbreaking opportunity to rethink our entire economy and the workers who support it."
"Fundamentally, the next economy will be about caring for each other, our communities, and the planet."
"We must go beyond incrementalism and create new, universal, public programs that treat care as a right—bringing New Deal-level of ambition and imagination to the care economy," Bowman wrote. "We cannot build a thriving, 21st-century economy without a solid foundation of care to sustain us."
"Care jobs," he added, "should be thought of as green jobs: they are already relatively low-carbon, and are becoming even more essential as we cope with the health impacts of climate change."
As part of a Green New Deal, Bowman said, "We need to make these fast-growing jobs the high-paying, unionized jobs of the future, just as we do in the green energy and manufacturing sectors. Fundamentally, the next economy will be about caring for each other, our communities, and the planet. That means we need to think of climate and care investments as comprising one holistic, integrated agenda—and not prioritize one over the other in the recovery effort."
"What if we rooted our economy in solving problems and promoting collective wellbeing, rather than profit-making to benefit the few?" he asked. "What if we invested massively in the arts, research, and restoring the natural world—and gave everyone the time and economic freedom to care for their loved ones, and unleash their full talents?"
"We have the resources to ensure high-quality care to our people and a life of dignity to those who provide it," Bowman wrote. "Let's get it done."