Hidden gem in Biden's infrastructure plan: dismantling the white, male veneer of the 'working class'


When Donald Trump unexpectedly won the electoral college vote for the presidency despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by millions of votes in 2016, Bernie Sanders saw it proper to twist the proverbial knife in the back of a reeling, devastated, and properly terrified Democratic party. “I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from,” he said, even though Clinton had handily defeated Trump among voters making $50,000 a year or less.

While Sanders's comments were variably taken as cynically kicking Democrats while they were down for the sake of political posturing - as I saw them - and as ominous warning from a soothsayer who fans saw as deliverance, they embedded a lasting, pernicious, and dominant false premise in American politics. Despite the fact that women and people of color are overrepresented the 'working class' coalition of Americans - defined in the dictionary as people who work in manual or industrial labor and in economic terms as lower and lower-middle income people -  the political frame of the 'working class' has been stuck with the prototypical picture of a white man in a hard hat and blue-collar shirt, carrying or handling some form of heavy machinery or tools.

Caregiving, for example, is a true working class profession that often involves difficult physical labor, but compared to the stereotypical "blue collar" work like construction and building trades, is severely underpaid. Caregivers - 75% of whom are women - make about $25,000 a year, while construction work, on average, pays three times as much. A nursing assistance - over half of whom are women of color - on average makes less than half of what a miner makes. This doesn't even begin to account for the trillions in economic value women provide through unpaid caregiving work.

President Biden's upcoming infrastructure package is shaping up to be the first serious legislative effort in US history - and maybe the history of the world - to combat this gap and in the process, begin to dismantle the white, male veneer of the 'working class.'

Beginning this week, the President is planning to lay out his infrastructure plan. The plan will be large, broad-based, and ambitious: what was initially thought to be a $3 trillion proposal will now come in at $4 trillion. Joe Biden is apparently also planning on instituting the most popular tax increase in the history of the country: $3 trillion in taxes on the rich and large corporations will help pay for the proposal, instead of putting it entirely on deficit spending.

And while everyone's attention has been on those big, eyepopping topline numbers, this, from the Washington Post's reporting, is what caught my eye:

"Some people close to the White House said they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker. In private discussions with the White House National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Domestic Policy Council, SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry urged the administration to follow through on its promise to approve major investments in the care economy."

The White House is in tune with this sentiment, and they are not just paying it lip service. As the President begins his push for the infrastructure legislation, the first stage of it will include a critical push for the caregiving economy. The White House also used Equal Pay Day last week to highlight the need to invest in the care economy.

There is no doubt that the United States needs to rebuild our crumbling physical infrastructure: from repairing, retrofitting, and building new roads, bridges, public transit, schools, and public buildings, weatherizing existing buildings, and putting in place a revamped clean energy infrastructure where charging up your electric car is just as convenient as fueling up at a gas station.

The care economy is just as crucial - perhaps even moreso - as an infrastructure investment. Part of creating the infrastructure of tomorrow is creating an infrastructure for the population of tomorrow, which is getting older, living longer with chronic illness, and requiring more assistive and in-home services. Advancements in modern medicine means that fewer people need full nursing home services and more assistive care services - whether at home or at assisted living facilities. That means having to rework our health infrastructure and workforce. At the end of the day, doing this right will also result in net savings to the health care system, as better care at home means fewer hospital trips.

Men (and women) in hard hats are essential to infrastructure - no one doubts that. But so are women (and men) in unmarked scrubs and in no particular cognizable signature uniform who help our seniors, care for a loved one, and create the condition for others to be able to do their jobs without having to worry every minute about physically taking care of a loved ones.

Ultimately, infrastructure exists to make people and businesses more productive, successful, and healthy. Making the caregiving infrastructure of this country a core part of the next infrastructure package will revolutionize not just what will be possible in the next generation, but how Americans think about infrastructure. It will change the paradigm not just of what is infrastructure but who builds it.

Like what you read? Leave a Tip. 

💰 Fund the Fight