Three Ways to Ensure That an Infrastructure Plan Benefits Workers, Not Wall Street
Investing in infrastructure is crucial for the nation’s competitiveness and long-term economic growth. President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that rebuilding America’s infrastructure will be one of his first priorities upon taking office. Unfortunately, the plan he has put on the table would provide enormous tax breaks to elite Wall Street investors instead of real dollars to communities facing significant infrastructure needs.
A true 21st century infrastructure plan should create good jobs for all communities while strategically targeting investments to communities that have the highest need for infrastructure investments and job creation. It should create high-quality jobs that enable all families to get ahead, not just get by. And it should prioritize smart, clean investments, such as improving and expanding existing public transportation, modernizing energy infrastructure and water systems, and rebuilding the nation’s crumbling housing stock.
Here are three ways to make real infrastructure investments that would lift up working families and invest in the communities that are most in need.
1. Invest in projects that benefit local communities rather than line Wall Street pockets
Whether urban, suburban, or rural, every community should have access to 21st century infrastructure systems that allow residents to safely and economically travel to and from work, school, and beyond as well as enjoy other amenities critical to safe and healthy living. Yet, despite working hard, too many Americans still suffer from concentrated poverty and inadequate infrastructure—from roads and bridges to schools and housing. And due to factors such as segregation and inequitable access to resources, many historically disadvantaged communities of color remain cut off from the economic opportunities necessary to thrive.
Unfortunately, because it relies exclusively on tax credits to private investors, President-elect Trump’s current proposal—to the extent that it builds anything that would not have otherwise been built—will prioritize only mega infrastructure projects that generate a steady stream of revenue for investors while ignoring projects that would benefit the broader public. In the absence of direct federal investments, essential, nonrevenue-generating projects—basically, anything that does not include a toll or user fee—will not get built. As a result, critical rehabilitation of existing infrastructure—and construction of new nontoll bridges, nontoll roads, and water and sewer infrastructure—would likely not receive critical funding. This includes infrastructure affected by lead contamination and especially infrastructure in communities with urgent needs, such as Flint, Michigan, and its decaying water system.
2. Create good jobs and provide pathways to employment
Investing in infrastructure is not only about what gets built. It’s also about how things are built. Done right, an infrastructure plan should be a pathway to good jobs and the middle class.
Infrastructure designed with workers in mind would create good jobs and grow wages. Despite the longest streak of job growth on record and a current unemployment rate of only 4.6 percent, far too many American workers are still struggling to secure good jobs with decent wages. For example, the African American unemployment rate is 8.1 percent, and far too many workers who want to work full time are still stuck in part-time jobs. Additionally, 2 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more.
Thus, while a well-designed infrastructure investment would create jobs and raise wages, it should also create on-ramps to good jobs for workers who have been left behind, such as people of color, women, youth who aren’t working or in school, individuals with disabilities, and individuals with criminal records. Apprenticeships, subsidized jobs, and national service are all effective tools to help workers gain in-demand skills and connect to good jobs that offer competitive wages. At the height of the recession, for example, the TANF Emergency Fund created 260,000 subsidized jobs in 39 states and the District of Columbia.
A plan targeted toward benefiting workers would also be accompanied by protections that proactively safeguard middle-class wages and equitable rights to work. This means requiring any company that receives federal funding in the form of contracts, loans, or grants to comply with federal anti-discrimination policies as well as with affirmative action laws and policies, prevailing wage laws, and minimum pay requirements. Such companies should also be required to respect worker voice and provide essential benefits such as paid family leave. The U.S. Department of Labor should be empowered to engage in robust oversight of these companies to ensure that they are playing by the rules and to safeguard workers.
Additionally, policies that address paid family and medical leave—as well as access to affordable, high-quality child care—will help ensure that more women, who still engage in a disproportionate amount of caregiving activities, have access to the jobs created. Lastly, funded projects should also work with community-based organizations to identify what services are needed to ensure that workers can secure employment and remain in the workforce. These services may include transportation assistance and job training programs.
3. Target funds to communities where they will have the greatest socioeconomic return
A meaningful infrastructure plan should also invest in smart and sustainable investments such as better-connected public transportation systems; cleaner energy structures; and greater availability of integrated, high-quality affordable housing. It must also address the immense threat of contaminated, aging water systems, buildings, and houses that contain toxic materials such as lead, asbestos, and arsenic.
Flint is not alone; many communities across America are dealing with the life-altering consequences of toxic environments. Because of an increased likelihood of living near environmental hazards, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods continue to be disproportionately exposed to harmful pollutants. Consequently, they face a lifetime of harmful health outcomes. Better investments in these communities are long overdue.
An infrastructure plan must invest in safer and healthy living environments by supporting projects such as lead remediation in aging housing stock, which often contains dangerous lead levels; removal of neighborhood blight; and greening of vacant lots to increase community access to parks and recreational spaces. A plan should also foster climate-resilient infrastructure to prevent exacerbating the health and economic impacts of extreme weather. Furthermore, clean drinking water is a basic human right, of which an astonishing number of people across the country are currently deprived. It’s been more than a year since the children of Flint were found to have dangerously elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams. City residents remain without safe drinking water, and there is still no dedicated federal money to fix the contaminated municipal water system as Congress continues to wrestle over funding.
These types of infrastructure projects should therefore be a top modernization priority of the federal government before wholly preventable toxicant poisonings devastate more lives and further undercut the potential of rural, suburban, and urban American communities.
A well-designed infrastructure plan offers tremendous opportunity to create good jobs; invest in hard-hit communities; and allow all people to become safer, healthier, and more connected.
If the above principles go overlooked, however, policymakers run the risk of making investments that accomplish none of these essential goals. President-elect Trump campaigned on promises to help workers—promises that those who voted for him fully expect him to keep. Yet his current infrastructure proposal not only fails to make good on those campaign promises but also pulls a bait and switch on American taxpayers. Ultimately, the plan provides massive tax cuts and corporate welfare to Wall Street, helping those at the very top of the income distribution at the expense of the struggling workers, families, and communities that desperately need meaningful federal investments.
Rejane Frederick is an Associate Director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Angela Hanks is the Associate Director for Workforce Development Policy on the Economic Policy team at the Center.
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Associate Director, Poverty to Prosperity Program
Director, Workforce Development Policy