In Washington, Congress has begun a debate that will stretch out over the summer. That debate right now has been — at least in part — focused around the most appropriate definition of “infrastructure” and how the federal government should approach economic recovery from the impact of COVID-19.
As an economist, I hear “infrastructure” as just code language in politics for the essential investments necessary to grow our nation’s economy and support a strong future workforce. A dictionary definition of the term is “the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.”
Some in Congress argue that this term refers only to physical improvements through investments in road and bridge repair, water and sewer plant upgrades, or maybe better internet access. These investments are important for our economy but form an incomplete picture of what can build this nation’s economic future and lift up the workers that are critical to any real economic prosperity.
Take this macro-economic and political debate down to the micro-economic level. Picture a West Virginian who is getting up in the morning to head out to a job. Certainly, it helps that person if the road is in good shape, the bridge passable between home and work. It is important that they start the day with clean water and they don’t face the unpleasant challenges of a failing sewer system.
But that West Virginian — who wants to go to work and get paid a living wage to support their family — can’t even get on that road to work if they don’t have a safe place for their pre-school child to go or don’t have a person who can check-in on the elderly parent with health problems who lives with them. They need to know that their school-age children will not be home after school unsupervised but rather can go to a safe after-school program. And that West Virginian needs to be able to take care of their own health issues so that they have the basic, decent health necessary to get their job done at work.
As our nation looks toward the future, we must take this opportunity to invest in a robust recovery and an equitable economy where we support all working people and people struggling in the job market; where all children can reach their full potential and are protected from hardship and poverty; and where everyone has health coverage and can get the care they need without fear of financial ruin.
Congress must make critical permanent investments that include:
n Expansions of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit that help boost incomes so that work is economically worthwhile.
n Expansions of tax credits that make health insurance premiums affordable and programs that open the door for new more affordable options for health insurance coverage.
n Expansions of programs to promote housing stability with vouchers that help families with low incomes pay the rent and keep a roof overhead.
n Expansions of nutrition programs, including SNAP, school meals, and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children) so that our children and families can afford enough to eat.
n New funding for safe, affordable childcare options for low- and middle-class families.
All debates about investments for a robust economic future in Washington always come back around to this question: what can our wealthy nation afford to spend? In fact, our nation can afford to invest in workers in West Virginia and across our nation. Only a few years ago Congress passed huge corporate tax cuts that provided little benefit to low- and middle-income families. Corporate taxes were at 35% until President Trump and Congress cut that rate to 21%. Congress can raise taxes on rich corporations to 28% – still a lower rate than before the 2017 tax law changes. And we can address tax loopholes so that corporations pay fair taxes on offshore profits and investments.
We are a nation that has the tools to repair the organizational structures — the backbone — of our nation and economy; the backbone that supports our workers and their families. We shall see if our elected representatives in Congress have the backbones to take up this challenge