How things change! Biden campaigned for president last year on a promise to buttress not just the nation’s physical infrastructure but also the well-being of its citizens. The jobs and infrastructure plan Biden recently debuted is a down payment on that pledge. It includes not only money for roads, bridges and trains but also for social services such as $400 billion targeted at in-home health care for the elderly and disabled. His next package is expected to include paid family medical leave and child-care funding.
So it seems somewhat fitting that Gillibrand summed up the controversy over Biden’s increasingly expansive definition of “infrastructure” in one pithy and supportive tweet this week:
Paid leave is infrastructure.
Child care is infrastructure.
Caregiving is infrastructure.
In the comments following Gillibrand’s tweet, many of the women supported it. Many men — even those who are in favor of the Biden package — did not. “We don’t have to pretend everything good is ‘infrastructure,’” Slate’s Jordan Weissmann tweeted in response.
Allow me to push back. Infrastructure means not only public works but also the underlying foundation of a society. If the latter definition doesn’t include all the unpaid labor parents (mostly women) perform to keep their families healthy and well, I don’t know what does.
Of course, I realize that when we casually say “infrastructure,” we mean the physical stuff surrounding us. The term is most often used to refer to the United States’ decrepit physical state, the one that routinely receives borderline failing grades from the American Society of Civil Engineers because of regular events such as this week’s near-failure of a Florida wastewater site.
But, as the pandemic showed, our personal infrastructure is on the verge of failure too. The flames of the pandemic were fanned by our lack of care for nursing homes, places where more than 70 percent of residents are female — and which are all too often badly maintained, and with little more than lip service to the best practices. The staff, also majority-female, is paid relatively little, with the result that many need to work at two or more homes to make ends meet — which also contributed to the pandemic’s spread.
And it wasn’t like things were going so well before the pandemic. Women’s workforce participation peaked about 20 years ago, alongside many other countries, but other countries offer more support for families, all but running laps around us. This is almost certainly costing us, not just personally, not just professionally but also economically by lowering our gross domestic product.
We live in a country whose rules were mostly written by and for White men, and everyone else is supposed to fit themselves to that standard. This manifests in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes not so clear. On a semi-comic level, women’s spending on clothes is deemed frivolous and excessive, while the same is almost never said of excessive spending on, say, electronics, a generally male weakness. And even now, boys are raised to build things, while girls are brought up to be caretakers. Guess which role our society considers the most valuable?
Yes, collapsing roadways and less-than-up-to-date railroad technology can kill people, but our less-than-well-developed human infrastructure has life-altering impacts too. In fact, polls show federal spending on personal infrastructure is popular. As the past year demonstrated, tending to things without paying sufficient attention to people is not adequate. Congratulations to President Biden for changing his mind over the years, and using his political capital to build both physical and human bridges.