Don't Go Small on Infrastructure

Originally published in OtherWords.

For the past few months, a debate has been unfolding over what it will take to address the country’s infrastructure needs.

Earlier this year, President Biden released the American Jobs Plan, a blueprint for physical infrastructure like transportation, water, broadband, and buildings, including childcare facilities and public housing.

It came alongside the American Families Plan, which emphasized “human infrastructure” — like universal free pre-K, free community college, child and elder care, a national paid family medical leave program, an expanded child tax credit, and more.

These plans — totaling about $4 trillion — would be funded primarily by higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. Together, they accounted for both the physical infrastructure and the human infrastructure we need to repair this country.

More recently, a bipartisan framework came out that focuses only on physical infrastructure, totaling just $579 billion and relying on privatization to finance part of it. As we have seen before, this will only lead to higher user fees and fines, and put communities at risk of losing access to basic public services like water.

We can do a lot better than this — and in fact, we can do more than Biden has proposed, too.

In June 2019, the Poor People’s Campaign released a Poor People’s Moral Budget that made two essential points: First, we have abundant resources to meet everyone’s needs. And second, investing public resources to meet everyone’s needs will strengthen our economy.

Inspired by this vision, members of Congress introduced the Third Reconstruction Resolution this spring.

This plan offers a much broader vision of what it means to fully address poverty and economic insecurity, including around infrastructure. Alongside big investments in green infrastructure, it calls for universal health care, a living wage, a jobs guarantee, and more.

As the Reverend William J. Barber II, a campaign co-chair, said: “Only poor and low-wealth people and their moral allies have the legitimate contractor’s license to reconstruct America.”

The proposal has been endorsed by the 90-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and lawmakers from dozens of states.

We’ve already seen a glimpse of what this vision might look like in practice.

During the pandemic, government programs were significantly expanded. Medicaid enrollment went up 14 percent, covering over 80 million people. Stimulus payments and expanded unemployment insurance kept millions of families and the economy afloat. Meanwhile, moratoriums on evictions and water shutoffs prevented mass homelessness and water scarcity.

Although these programs have been a lifeline, there’s been pushback against them. Several states have refused to expand Medicaid, and others are prematurely ending expanded unemployment programs.

This resistance is not just cruel, inhumane, or bad for the economy. It has a history — one rooted in the ongoing redefinition of who is entitled to all of our Constitutional and human rights.

Similar counterattacks came in response to both the First Reconstruction after the Civil War and the Second Reconstruction of the Civil Rights Movement, when multi-racial alliances expanded democratic participation and the substantive rights that a robust democracy offers.

In the first Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, poor people and their allies lobbied Congress and camped for six weeks on the National Mall to demand economic justice for everyone in this country.

“We come to you as representatives of Black, brown, and white Americans who are starving in this land of plenty,” they wrote in a statement. “We say that the system must change and adjust to the needs of millions who are unemployed and under-employed.”

That’s the legacy upon which we’re building the Third Reconstruction today. Now as then, we say: Don’t go small — not on infrastructure, and not on anything we need to ensure dignified lives for us all.


Shailly Gupta Barnes is the Policy Director for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and the Kairos Center. This op-ed was distributed by