“These bills are about competitiveness versus complacency. They’re about opportunity versus decay. They’re about leading the world or continuing to let the world pass us by, which is literally happening. To support these investments is to create a rising America, America that’s moving. And to oppose these investments is to be complicit in America’s decline. To support these bills is to pursue a broader vision of our nation. And to oppose them is to accept a very cramped view of our future.” — President Biden, Oct. 5, 2021, Howell, Michigan
Filibuster. Cloture. Reconciliation. The chatter surrounding President Biden’s landmark infrastructure investment and Build Back Better agenda seems endlessly focused on the legislative process, on political maneuvering, on faceless numbers taken out of context.
What we’re not hearing enough about: parents desperately searching for child care only to encounter yearlong waiting lists and abrupt shutdowns due to understaffing. Schoolchildren forced to do their homework in parking lots because they have no internet access at home, and their school buildings are closed because they have no heat. Senior citizens who rely on Medicare skipping life-sustaining medications because they can’t afford their prescriptions. The millions of homes and businesses stranded without electricity because storms knocked out an inadequate and shoddily-maintained power grid.
Decades of neglect and failure to investment in America’s physical infrastructure and public institutions — a trend that accelerated when Tea Party members of Congress forced drastic cuts to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and intensified during the Trump era — have left us with dilapidated schools and crumbling bridges. Childhood asthma linked to poor air quality causes 13.8 million missed days of school annually. A water main breaks every two minutes, losing enough treated water each day to fill over 9,000 swimming pools. We’re the only developed country in the world that doesn’t mandate paid family leave, and our failure to invest in child care costs us $57 billion a year.
Black Americans have borne the brunt of this neglect. Income inequality grew at a faster rate during the Trump era than during any of the past five administrations. The typical Black family holds about $12.50 in wealth for every $100 held by the typical white family. The Black unemployment rate remains nearly twice the rate for whites, and Black women are the least recovered from pandemic job losses.
The infrastructure investment and Build Back Better agenda — which largely incorporate the National Urban League’s Main Street Marshal Plan — represent a historic opportunity to transform our economy while enhancing racial equity.
There are five million fewer Americans working than in February 2020, and 2.7 million people have been out of work for six months or more, even as employers struggle to fill a record number of job openings. Taken together the infrastructure and budget reconciliation packages, could create 2 million jobs by mid-decade, according to Moody’s Analytics. Over the course of the 10-year budgeting window, the combined legislation would provide fiscal support for more than 4 million jobs per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
In fact, Moody’s found that the educational provisions of the legislation — universal pre-K, two years of free community college, expanded Pell Grants and other education benefits — would boost the economy beyond the 10-year budget window “given greater educational attainment and higher labor force participation.”
The two initiatives would invest about $4.1 trillion in America’s physical and human infrastructure over the past 10 years — almost exactly what the Main Street Marshall Plan called for. To put this number into perspective, the cost of the War on Terror since Sept. 11, 2001, is about $8 trillion. The reckless 2017 Trump tax code revisions — which every Republican Senator and all but a dozen Republican House members eagerly supported — carried a $2.3 trillion price tag. What’s more, while the tax code revisions were enacted without a plan to pay for them, the infrastructure and Build Back Better plan would be funded by tax hikes on the wealthy, tougher tax enforcement and other revenue raisers. A modest tax hike on the wealthiest 0.05% of Americans alone would bring in at least $3 trillion in revenue over 10 years.
The post-World War II Marshall Plan spurred the fastest period of growth in European history. Industrial and agricultural production skyrocketed. The poverty and starvation of the immediate postwar years disappeared, and Western Europe embarked upon an unprecedented two decades of growth that saw standards of living increase dramatically. We have not only the opportunity but the moral obligation to replicate that success in 21st Century United States.
So when you hear politicians and talking heads opining about Senate and House procedures and legislative vehicles, know what’s really at stake: the future of you, your family, our community and the nation. It’s time to Build Back Better.
Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.