A major criticism of Democrats’ “Build Back Better” agenda — until recently expected to cost $3.5 trillion but now likely to be much smaller — is that it is too generous. The economy is recovering. Unemployment is declining (if slowly). Americans don’t need this much of a helping hand, critics argue.

It’s not just Republicans who are calling for Democrats to think less ambitiously. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) says many proposals under consideration — such as making permanent the child tax credit — should be targeted to those living in poverty and should come with work or schooling requirements. Other naysayers, such as Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), appear to think the price tag is simply too large.

But there’s another way of considering the agenda. We (the public, journalists and some lawmakers) have focused more on the cost of the package than its contents — even though our society is all but starved of supports that other first-world nations take for granted.

“We are talking about the bedrock,” says Will Ragland, a senior director at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “It’s super-frustrating to me to see us just characterizing this as a catchall social spending bill when it’s an investment in infrastructure and it’s an investment in families.”

Ragland analyzed some benefits and costs of not going forward with a full $3.5 trillion package, rounding up research on the gains a robust Build Back Better package would likely fuel. They include investments in child care, preschool and funds for universal pre-K that would benefit tens of millions of children and their families. Some other highlights:

· Making permanent the child tax credit implemented this year — which is already reducing child poverty by 40 percent — would benefit more than 65 million children.

· Planned child-care assistance would save the typical two-child family more than $14,000 annually. All of these investments in children would contribute to greater stability and prosperity, which in turn would help children achieve better lifelong health, greater educational attainment and higher incomes — factors that would help the economy decades into the future.

· Allowing the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to negotiate prescription drug prices would, as the Congressional Budget Office has noted, save the federal government more than $450 billion over the next decade — and likely free up seniors’ funds for other spending. Cutting this government spending would also help offset other investments.

Follow Helaine Olen‘s opinionsFollowAdd

· The $400 billion targeted for home health-care services for the elderly and disabled would address the three-year backlog of more than 800,000 Americans on state Medicaid waiting lists. These people have been deemed eligible for home-based care and assistance through Medicaid, but lack of funding prevents them from receiving the help to which they are entitled.

· And the paid family leave — up to 12 weeks — that Democrats are proposing would reduce the financial and emotional strains on millions of American households dealing with newborn babies, illnesses and more.

Why isn’t there more focus on these benefits, as opposed to the headline figure? First, habits are hard to break. For decades, Americans have heard that the money isn’t there for quality-of-life investments. How expanding social welfare programs stands to contribute to the economy is much less discussed.

A recent CBS News poll asking about people’s knowledge of the Biden plan found that respondents were most likely to say they knew what the plan would cost but were less familiar with what would actually be paid for.

So I’ll tell you. Workers would benefit, and women in particular. “Build Back Better is an unprecedented jobs bill for women,” Ragland told me. “The vast majority of jobs that this piece of legislation will support [are held by] women who are struggling right now.”

Child care and other types of home care are historically undervalued and underpaid fields. Women make up the majority of unpaid caretakers of the elderly. As for paid home health-care workers, 90 percent are female. Democrats’ proposals would also benefit those who receive home services via Medicaid — more than two-thirds of such recipients are women.

Our society takes women’s underpaid or free labor for granted. “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women,” as sociologist Jessica Calarco puts it. As was clear when pandemic lockdowns and activity restrictions led to millions of children and other loved ones staying home, it’s women who scale back or quit their jobs to handle family responsibilities such as child care and elder care.

We shouldn’t be debating how to limit or choose between these initiatives. All these programs and investments are needed. When our national conversation devolves into whether, say, universal prekindergarten or family leave is more necessary, we’re not so much debating priorities as playing political “Hunger Games.” It’s a contest all Americans stand to lose.