In its text, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for investments in roads and bridges, public transportation, research and development, improved caregiving for aging and disabled Americans, and the construction of new public schools and buildings among other investments.
But read between the lines, and the plan does a lot more. It restores dignity to and empowers regular, working-class Americans. It makes a statement – perhaps for the first time – that people of color, who often are euphemistically referred to in the media as “lower-income families,” are worthy of our attention, respect, and investment.
Systemic racial injustices have led to disproportionate environmental burdens for communities of color and the poor. And the same emissions that harm our health are changing the climate. These converging crises call on each of us to pool our collective resources, energy, and ingenuity to innovate for justice.
But it won’t be easy. Standing between our constitutional aspirations of equal justice and opportunity for all are those who advocate for smaller government. One can already hear them revving up their engines with messages of “smaller government is better” and “there’s no such thing as systemic racism.”
“Smaller government” has meant neglecting our crumbling roads and bridges, demolishing our educational system, and dismantling the magnificent structure of American business and private life.
“Smaller government,” as defined by many Republicans, is a stranglehold on our freedoms and a serious threat to our future and security. And, our history is loaded with examples of systemic racism. The Biden administration is wielding federal power to address a long history of “smaller government”-driven racial inequities.
There are many examples of well-intentioned public infrastructure investments that decimated Black neighborhoods. Such as in Syracuse, N.Y., where the construction of Interstate 81 scattered the residents of the 15th Ward, a close-knit community. This also led to a sharp decline in tax revenues for Syracuse, such that the city now has the highest concentration of poverty among Black and Latinx households.
There are countless similar stories of Black and minority communities – in Miami, Detroit, and other major cities – that found themselves in the path of relentless bulldozers. These communities were of course unable to combat development projects given their scant political leverage. Wealth was stripped from these communities before it had the opportunity to grow. And these historical gaps have persisted over generations.
And the public supports the plan. According to a recent poll by Invest in America and Data for Progress, more than 60% of voters support every potential provision of the proposed legislation, including those investments that specifically address inequality including the care economy, American manufacturing, clean energy, and housing.
Weatherizing low-income properties, replacing lead pipes, and investing in minority communities will come with a price and the investment is long overdue. As part of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, the proposal specifically channels funds to rebuild the low-income and minority infrastructure by including $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit more than 2 million affordable and sustainable places to live, $111 billion to replace the nation’s lead pipes and service lines and upgrade the nation’s aging water systems, increasing the pay of low wage health care workers and $100 billion for workforce development for underserved Americans.
And Biden should stand firm on asking the wealthy and corporations to pay for these changes. The numbers are stark. The top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 92%, and the 50 wealthiest Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of American society – 165 million people. While millions of Americans have lost their jobs and incomes during the pandemic, over the past year 650 billionaires have seen their wealth increase by $1.3 trillion. The 400 richest American billionaires have more total wealth than all 10 million Black American households combined. Since 1978, the top 0.1% of the nation’s population has increased its share of the overall economy from 7% to 22%.
And the pandemic has highlighted this disparity in wealth. The numbers are heartbreaking. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau “Pulse Survey” data, one out of three families has reported difficulty paying basic household expenses. And for minority groups, those who have been hardest hit by COVID, this number is even higher: 45% of African American households and 44% of Latinx households reported difficulty paying household expenses this month.
This Biden proposal will put the brakes on these trends. It will provide an enormous economic stimulus to the economy as a whole, and infuse urgently needed funds in households and communities that have suffered from chronic underinvestment. It means upgraded public school and child-care facilities, universal access to broadband, and clean drinking water.
It may very well be impossible to design any singular policy agenda that would fully reverse the effects of centuries of racism. But the American Jobs Plan reflects President Biden’s vision, one where a transformed society works for transformational justice, and not just transactional reforms.
This vision matters. And it needs to be brought to reality.
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