What is infrastructure? The website Investopedia provides a basic but perfectly serviceable definition:
“Infrastructure is the general term for the basic physical systems of a business, region, or nation. Examples of infrastructure include transportation systems, communication networks, sewage, water, and electric systems.”
A significant portion of the spending in the Biden proposal is, indeed, infrastructure spending, even though it moves beyond the interstate highways and their bridges which are traditionally funded by the federal government, and into areas otherwise handled by state and local governments, such as water systems, or the private sector, such as internet service. And, to be sure, there are some components where there is not yet a firm consensus, for example, in the creation of electric vehicle charging stations.
Now, the state of Illinois has a practice of passing infrastructure bills, roughly once a decade or so, and calling each bill “historic”: a $45 billion spending bill in 2019, a $31 billion bill in 2009, and a $12 billion bill in 1999, in each case with the passage smoothed by doling out pork to legislators to spend in their districts.
And in other instances, when there’s a sudden need for significant capital spending all-at-once, it makes sense to pay for it over time. A rapidly-growing suburb which needs new schools in a hurry issues bonds to pay for them. And we get that.
But if your or my town decided that they needed, all at once, to issue bonds for routine road maintenance and resurfacing, rather than doing this work in a timely but staggered and rotating fashion, we’d judge this as a significant governance failure. And if our mayor, or the school board, or the governor, was calling for a bond issue simply to make payroll from year to year, that’d be even worse.
But now advocates of greater federal support for child- and eldercare have adopted the phrase “infrastructure of care” to try to increase Americans’ support for funding for their policy goals because of the historic support for “infrastructure.” They have redefined “infrastructure” to mean “the system of supports that enable Americans to work” (roadways help us to travel to work, for instance), then claim that the purpose of child- and eldercare is to enable Americans to work (that is, with respect to eldercare, due to the number of adult children who leave the workforce to care for aging parents), so that it, too, is infrastructure.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand got attention, and backlash, from a tweet that read, “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.”
And here is the explanation in “Roads, bridges … and caregivers? Why Biden is pushing a ‘radical shift’ to redefine infrastructure,” at the USA Today:
“Caregiving is one of the most notable examples of how the White House expanded the traditional definition of infrastructure in its jobs proposal to include ‘human infrastructure’ and ‘social infrastructure.’ . . .
“Democrats and advocates make a connection that critics don’t, calling caregiving positions ‘job-enabling jobs.’ The U.S. economy can’t thrive, they say, while many Americans, usually women, are forced to leave the workforce because they can’t find caregivers for their loved ones. One survey found 1.4 million fewer mothers are working today than at the beginning of the pandemic in January 2020 to take on caregiving for their children, aging relatives or other loved ones.
“’If you think about what roads, bridges, care and paid leave have in common – they all enable us to get to work,’ said Lisa Guide, co-founder of the Women Effect Action Fund, which advocates for women equity. ‘The next period of American prosperity is going to be built on an economic recovery that enables all Americans, including women, to work hard and contribute to a growing economy.’ . . .
“’You might say to yourself, ‘Why is the commerce secretary talking about investments in the care economy?’’ Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in a White House news briefing last week. ‘Because it matters. It is core to our competitiveness. In order for you to go to work, you need to know that your loved one is being taken care of.’”
But regardless of the earnestness of the desire to provide for people in need, the question of government funding of caregiving is not a matter of the built-up environment, or a need to create “basic physical systems,” especially in an all-at-once fashion.
With respect to childcare, one aspect of the proposed spending is the construction of childcare centers:
“President Biden is calling on Congress to provide $25 billion to help upgrade child care facilities and increase the supply of child care in areas that need it most. Funding would be provided through a Child Care Growth and Innovation Fund for states to build a supply of infant and toddler care in high-need areas.”
While the Center for American Progress created the concept of a “child care desert” (that is, parallel to a “food desert”) and supporters of new construction reference it frequently (the Biden administration is even using it in materials to promote their infrastructure proposal), their methodology is suspect and almost designed to exaggerate the problem, if any, and ignores the preference many families have for home-based care, especially for the youngest children, and the impracticalities of child care centers in rural areas. Biden’s proposal also includes a tax credit for employers to build onsite childcare centers.
But what exactly does the proposal call for? Would the states be building and running childcare centers themselves? Providing grants to for-profit companies to expand? Or does “build a supply of infant and toddler care” even mean, literally, to construct buildings, or does it refer, more figuratively, to “creating” or making-more-affordable such care (especially since there is no practice of child care centers serving only infants and toddlers, but it is true that it for these groups that center-based care is most expensive)?
And, of course, it is with respect to eldercare that even this tenuous connection to the built environment is shed entirely, as the objective of the proposal is to fund in-home caregiving.
But why does this matter? Surely the Republicans who object will simply find any basis for objecting to as many parts of Biden’s proposal as possible, so their complaint is simply not valid?
Here are my three objections.
First, as I referenced in passing in my prior column, the long-lasting nature of infrastructure is what justifies paying for it over time. This proposal’s spending is meant to be accomplished over 8 years, with the tax increase funding it over 15 years. That could be justifiable for some types of infrastructure, when it is something new rather than ongoing maintenance, but is not at all appropriate for ongoing day-to-day spending.
Second, ethics do still matter. Sure, we are long accustomed to our politicians abandoning any sort of ethical consideration, least of all seemingly less-consequential things like redefining words to suit their purposes, but I do expect better of the advocacy groups promoting increased spending on caregiving and caregivers. After all, they seek to persuade others to support their cause, by presenting data and sound arguments. How am I to believe the statistics they present to me, if I know that they are willing to engage in this sort of redefinition of terms to suit their political objectives?
And third, defining childcare and eldercare as infrastructure because it helps women stay in the workforce is troubling because it erases the well-being of those children and elders, and turns them merely into burdens of others which must be alleviated. This might seem to be useful to achieve a political goal, but, again, it takes away from the dignity of those children and, especially, elders. What’s more, with respect to elders, it misses so much of the eldercare story to portray it as an either/or situation: that, just like with young children, either a full-time caregiver is hired or a daughter (mother) must give up her job. The reality includes elders who need help with only certain tasks and those for whom the question isn’t who pays or does the work but whether life-improving care is provided in the first place, as well as services that go beyond simply paying for more caregivers or boosting their pay, such as referral services, assistive devices, etc.
None of this has anything to do with the relative importance of caregiving or the decision-making about the federal government’s role, funding, payscales, or the like. But, regardless of any of this, it’s still not right to call it “infrastructure.”
As always, you’re invited to comment at JaneTheActuary.com!