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Repairing Bridges Can Lift Families Out of Poverty

The American Jobs Act Addresses Both Crises

SOURCE: AP/Jim Mone

The center span of Interstate 35W, which collapsed in August 2007,nears completion on the new Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River July 3, 2008 in Minneapolis.

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that one out of every six Americans lived in poverty in 2010, 3 million more than in 2009. A more up to date snapshot of just how bad things are can be found in the August employment numbers—zero jobs added. That eye-popping statistic suggests that poverty numbers for 2011 might surpass the depressing 2010 findings on poverty released last week.

To address the desperate need for jobs, help lift people from poverty, and meet the needs of keeping our roads, bridges, and transit systems safe, President Obama introduced the American Jobs Act, which would invest $50 billion in critical infrastructure improvements. This proposal mirrors the successful strategy of infrastructure investments made under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which invested nearly $50 billion in infrastructure that put as many as three-quarters of a million Americans to work.

The president’s jobs legislation again taps the investment power of the government to stimulate private-sector business growth. Rebuilding America’s crumbling roads and bridges is one of the most effective ways to put Americans back to work. There are approximately150,000 bridges in America that are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. At the current rate of investment it will take decades to bring these bridges into a state of good repair.

Instead of waiting for more bridges to fall down we can make the kind of investments that helped make America great and will help put Americans back to work. Table 1 shows the top 10 states with the most bridges needing work.

Fix the bridges, employ more Americans

There are so many bridges in need of repair, nearly 68,000 in these 10 states alone. That works out to 37 unemployed workers per bridge. If work began on just a quarter of these bridges with funds from the American Jobs Act thousands of unemployed construction and skilled trades workers could return to work.

Doing so would go a long way toward reducing the poverty rate in each of these states. Before the Great Recession hit, 9.5 percent of all American families were living in poverty. From beginning of the recession in 2008 through the end of 2010, the economy lost more than 7 million jobs at the same time poverty rose to 11.3 percent.

Simply employing all the workers who lost their jobs due to the recession will not eradicate poverty. But it would go a long way toward reducing the tragically alarming incidence of 1 in 6 Americans who are struggling today to stay afloat with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Obviously not everyone boasts the skills to rebuild a bridge. But there is no question that a national bridge repair campaign, the start of which is envisioned in the American Jobs Act, can offer tens of thousands of Americans a bridge to greater prosperity.

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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