The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wants to go big on infrastructure. History says that’s the right call.

The government’s thinking of infrastructure broadly during the New Deal set Americans up for prosperity.

In this March 1933 photo, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivers his first radio “fireside chat” from Washington. At their core, many New Deal programs aimed to build American infrastructure — defined broadly. (AP Photo) (AP)

Conservatives have criticized President Biden’s infrastructure proposal by claiming that his definition of infrastructure is too broad; to them, public investment in upgraded schools, high-speed broadband, eldercare centers, electric charging stations and clean-energy research stretches far beyond infrastructure. Or, as one Republican senator put it, “A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill. … It needs to be about roads and bridges.” But this narrow definition of infrastructure and fear of public investment in multiple facets of the U.S. economy at a time of great need does not square with the nation’s history.

Nearly nine decades ago, when the United States faced a social and economic crisis not unlike the one we confront today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched programs (under the auspices of the New Deal) that were designed to restore the social and economic health of the nation. These aggressive programs gave jobs to the unemployed and addressed long-standing problems plaguing the economy and damaging the lives of Americans. Like Biden’s proposal, they addressed infrastructure in the broadest sense and by doing so laid the groundwork for a more prosperous America, one freed of many of the plagues of the past.

Like Biden, Roosevelt emphasized the construction of physical infrastructure. Over the course of its eight-year life, his most famous relief program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), employed approximately 8.5 million people and built nearly 600,000 miles of rural roads, 67,000 miles of urban streets, 122,000 bridges, 1,000 tunnels, 1,050 airfields and 4,000 airport buildings.

These projects certainly fell within the parameters of what might be called “traditional infrastructure,” but the WPA didn’t stop there, its leaders understanding that the poor infrastructure holding the country back couldn’t be defined so narrowly. To improve the nation’s water supply, for example, the WPA built water and sewage treatment plants and miles of sewer lines and storm drains. To help bolster the nation’s education system and enhance public safety, WPA workers also built thousands of schools, hospitals and firehouses, along with nearly 20,000 other state, county and local government buildings.

Roosevelt also targeted new programs to address problems limiting various regions of the country. While not building roads and bridges, the goal of these programs was the same: laying the groundwork for Americans to thrive and giving them the tools for better lives. The Rural Electrification Program (REA) was one such program, epitomizing the president’s broad definition of infrastructure.

Much like the situation we find ourselves in today — with 35 percent of rural Americans having no access to reliable high-speed Internet — 9 in 10 U.S. farms had no access to electricity in 1933. This meant they lacked not just light, but also running water and indoor bathrooms, electric refrigeration, indoor laundry facilities and a host of other basic comforts that electricity enables.

The need for rural electrification was not new, but because of the high costs of extending lines into rural America, private companies had refused to undertake this effort — even when offered low-interest government loans to do so. The REA solved this problem by offering financial support to existing and newly created nonprofit farmers’ cooperatives that built generating and distribution facilities as well as the transmission lines to carry the power to individual farms — putting unemployed people to work in the process.

By 1940, about 40 percent of all American farms had electricity, and by the end of the 1940s, 9 in 10 farms had electricity, a complete reversal of what had existed at Roosevelt’s inauguration.

Roosevelt’s infrastructure projects also tackled the damage wrought by the Dust Bowl. The dust storms generated by this environmental disaster buried homes and farm equipment, killed livestock and on some occasions even darkened cities on the East Coast. The dust storms also led to thousands of cases of “dust pneumonia,” which could seriously harm, or even kill. The Dust Bowl laid bare millions of acres of farmland, left roughly half a million Americans homeless and forced hundreds of thousands of people off the land.

The Roosevelt administration recognized that addressing this catastrophe demanded helping suffering Americans. That meant launching operations like the Resettlement Administration, which aimed to help those displaced by the Dust Bowl. But the administration also understood that it needed to deal with the cause of the catastrophe — environmental degradation — to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again.

This meant fixing the environment — or natural infrastructure — especially the state of the soil. Overplowing and grazing, the planting of inappropriate crops and poor husbandry had left the soil in abysmal shape. The new Soil Conservation Service introduced farmers to better agricultural techniques, such as contour plowing, that helped preserve and protect the fertility of the soil. Equally significant was the Prairie States Forestry Project launched in 1935. Here the goal was to create a “shelter belt” from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border. Over the next seven years, the U.S. Forest Service, working in conjunction with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the WPA and local farmers, planted roughly 220 million trees, creating 18,000 miles of windbreaks on some 30,000 farms.

These initiatives have ensured that the United States has never suffered another Dust Bowl — even in the face of a number of severe droughts. As was typical of most New Deal infrastructure projects, the government programs that aimed to halt this unprecedented environmental disaster combined the need to provide jobs and short-term relief to those who were suffering with large-scale efforts to bring about a long-term solution to difficult problems.

The CCC took a similar approach to infrastructure. It aimed to restore the nation’s forests and parks. But it was more than just a conservation program. The CCC was also a youth employment and urban assistance program that required $25 of every $30 that CCC workers earned per month to be sent home to their families. It was also an educational program that provided basic literacy instruction, technical training and advanced courses in the arts and sciences to tens of thousands of enrollees, many of whom had little or no education. This training provided employment for jobless teachers and equipped enrollees to find better jobs after their time in the CCC.

Taken together, the scale of these and other efforts makes it clear that this was no “make work” operation — as Roosevelt’s critics charged — but a national endeavor to bring the United States into the modern world. Thanks to Roosevelt’s broad definition of what constituted the nation’s infrastructure, millions of engineers, architects, teachers, tradespeople and other high- and low-wage workers gained meaningful employment and through their labor helped improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens.

In doing so, they helped counter the argument, so prevalent in the 1930s, that the best way to overcome economic hardship was to turn to fascism and autocracy. Today, anti-democratic ideas have again found appeal as the United States endures a festering of long-standing problems — including a lack of technical infrastructure, problems with education that keep Americans from getting good jobs, and the dangers of climate change. Roosevelt’s broad definition of infrastructure — and the positive impact that such an understanding had in a similar moment, both short- and long-term — is an endorsement for Biden to take a similar approach. If anything, Biden should be even bolder in ensuring that the fruits of these projects benefit all Americans.

As Roosevelt demonstrated, the infrastructure of a nation is much more than paved roads or physical structures. It includes the social and economic well-being of its people and the building of a society that provides a clean environment and equal opportunity for all.