Wonk Wednesday: Social Infrastructure – Rebuilding the Public Sector and Public Services is Critical for Economic Recovery
The following post is authored by Karsyn Kendrick, BlueGreen Alliance Associate Policy Advisor.
Investments in economic recovery and rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure—such as those proposed in the American Jobs Plan—must include investments in social infrastructure. Social infrastructure— the services required to promote the health and economic, cultural, and social well-being of the community—is critical for communities to be able to respond to and prepare for future crises. To achieve true economic recovery, we need to rebuild stronger, more resilient communities while investing in our health care systems, public health agencies, education, community-based services, essential utilities (i.e. water), and the workers that operate these services. We must also rebuild and expand the social safety net—including pensions, healthcare, and retirement security—and ensure and enforce worker and community health and safety. Finally, social infrastructure must also include support for state and local governments for climate change planning, resilience, adaptation, and response, prioritizing low-income communities and communities of color that are disproportionately affected by climate impacts.
Why does Social Infrastructure Matter?
The public sector, including our frontline health care workers, home caregivers, social workers, teachers, and other public servants play an indispensable role in ensuring the health and resilience of our communities. Workers providing public services are the first people to respond to a disaster and are the people we rely on for so many basic necessities—from health care and education to water, heat, and electricity. A strong public sector not only creates a standing pool of well-trained emergency responders, but contributes to a higher quality delivery of public services every day.
Unfortunately, social infrastructure has too long been neglected and underfunded, with the COVID-19 pandemic straining the capacity to deliver existing services and casting a harsh spotlight on the decades-long disinvestment in our public sector and public services.
Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing extreme weather events from the impacts of climate change require a robustly funded and prepared public sector to deliver services and respond to crisis events. But social infrastructure investments cannot be one time, piecemeal solutions that are reactive instead of proactive. That’s why, along with our partners, the BlueGreen Alliance released a social infrastructure platform in December of 2020, outlining the policies and programs needed to ensure our public sector is prepared for and resilient in the face of crisis.
If done correctly, investing in social infrastructure will create and support critical jobs in our communities and build stronger, more prepared, and resilient communities in the process.
The American Jobs Plan: Social Infrastructure is Infrastructure
The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) is a $2 trillion investment in building back better through investing in rebuilding our infrastructure and creating good-paying, high quality jobs in the process. The AJP recognizes the need to invest in social infrastructure and build community resilience, laying the foundation for an economic recovery that will invest in the care economy and workforce development, protect our workers, and increase the resilience of our infrastructure.
Specifically, the AJP calls for:
- A $400 billion investment in the care economy to expand access to quality, affordable home or community-based care services (HCBS).
- Better benefits, higher wages, and opportunities to join a union for caregiving workers.
- Passage of H.R. 842, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, and expanding union and bargaining rights for public sector employees.
- $48 billion for workforce development infrastructure and worker protection, including strengthening the capacity of our labor enforcement agencies to protect against discrimination, protecting wages and benefits, enforcing health and safety safeguards, strengthening health care and pensions plans, and promoting union organizing and collective bargaining.
- $50 billion to improve infrastructure resilience, including the electric grid, food systems, urban infrastructure, community health and hospitals, roads, rail and other transportation.
- Funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program.
While these provisions are significant, Congress must translate the roadmap presented in the AJP into a robust, upfront, and obvious commitment that rebuilds and invests in our social infrastructure. We are also calling on members of Congress to reject the narrative that economic recovery policies should only include investments in physical or “hard” infrastructure. This narrow definition of economic recovery ignores the value of investing in social infrastructure for our communities and workers. Not even to mention the job creation potential of social infrastructure policies.
A recent paper from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) found that social infrastructure investments create 3 times more jobs than investments in traditional infrastructure, and for every $1 billion invested in state and local public health care, home care, and child care, 17,400 jobs are created.
Below I will highlight some of the exciting social infrastructure provisions from the AJP as well as some of the gaps and opportunities for Congress when developing the AJP into a full legislative proposal.
Social Infrastructure and the American Jobs Plan
The American Jobs Plan includes a $400 billion investment in boosting the infrastructure of the home and community-based care economy, including creating new jobs for caregivers with higher wages and the opportunity to unionize. These investments are much-needed, as the AJP fact sheet points out that these care workers are some of the lowest paid workers in our economy, with one in six living in poverty. However, additional funding is needed to build out resilience within the public health sector more broadly. Maani and Galea (2020) estimate that there is a $4.5 billion shortfall in funding needed for the public health sector to “provide a minimum standard of foundational public health capabilities.”
To ensure we have the people and resources needed to help workers and communities adapt to a changing climate and future crises, we recommend Congress boost these initial investments by strengthening and increasing funding for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Hospital Preparedness Program to support hospitals and other critical health facilities to prepare emergency plans and ensure that the Public Health Emergency Fund has sufficient reserves for activation of public health resources for emergencies.
The American Jobs Plan also includes a $48 billion investment in workforce development infrastructure and worker protection, including creating new registered apprenticeship slots, new career pathways into high quality jobs, and strengthening the Women in Apprenticeships in Non-Traditional Occupations program. The AJP isn’t specific about how the $48 billion will be funneled into these programs, and does not mention worker training specific to climate impacts and resilience. Congress should take the opportunity presented within the AJP to direct increased funding towards training workers on climate impacts, disaster response, and resilience, building on existing worker training programs such as the Susan Harwood Training Grants, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Environmental Worker Training Program, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Training and Workforce Development, and FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Training Program.
Importantly, the American Jobs Plan includes many provisions to protect workers on the job and ensure they are working in safe and healthy conditions. First and foremost, the AJP includes the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act (H.R. 842), the most ambitious labor law reform bill in decades. The PRO Act strengthens workers’ rights to bargain and organize—and would make tangible steps towards empowering workers and reducing violations of workers’ rights. Earlier in this blog series, we detailed all the reasons why the PRO Act is so important for workers and a strong economic recovery.
The AJP also includes $10 billion for investment in enforcement for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a great first step for an agency that is critically lacking the capacity to adequately enforce workplace safety. But protecting our workers doesn’t stop there. To keep workers safe and healthy on the job, Congress must ensure that OSHA is fully and adequately funded to hold employers accountable for workplace health and safety, focusing on staffing for timely and effective enforcement and development of standards for climate related health impacts.
Finally, the AJP includes $50 billion for infrastructure resilience, including funding for FEMA’s BRIC program. This program is a critical resource for communities looking to increase their resilience and reduce their risk to natural disasters and hazards. However, the AJP is vague about the level of funding and how this funding will be prioritized. We are calling on Congress to increase the funding level for BRIC to the maximum amount authorized by the Disaster Recovery Reform Act, an estimated $8.7 billion over 5 years. Congress should also create a set-aside within BRIC dedicated to assisting low-income and BIPOC communities, which often lack the capacity to apply for grant funding. Finally, Congress should make it clear that BRIC funding can be used for social infrastructure projects and community planning as well as traditional infrastructure projects.
There are many additional programs Congress should direct funding towards that are key resources for resilience and long-term economic recovery, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Coastal Resilience Fund, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative, and the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) program. Full funding requests for these programs are outlined in the table below.
Social Infrastructure Investments Needed and in the American Jobs Plan
|Recommendation||Needed investments||American Jobs Plan|
|Public health, care and resilience||Expand eligibility/increase funding||No mention|
|Care infrastructure||$400B/10 years||$400B|
|Long-term climate adaptation funding program||No mention|
|FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance Grants||$1.5B||No mention|
|NOAA’s National Coastal Resilience Fund||$4B||No mention|
|FEMA’s Mitigation Framework Leadership Group (MitFLG)||Fund and direct inventory of resources for climate resilience training/education||No mention|
|FEMA BRIC||$8.7B/5 years||Mentioned; funding unspecified|
|CDC’s Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative (CRSCI) and Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE)||$200M/10 years||No mention|
|Federal grant program for local resilience hubs||$100M/10 years||No mention|
|Climate resilient infrastructure revolving loan fund and grant program||No mention; $50B for infrastructure resilience|
|Community Health Centers||$20B/10 years||No mention|
|OSHA Susan Harwood Training Program||$200M/10 years||$48B for workforce development infrastructure and worker protection.|
|NIEHS Environmental Career Worker Training Grant Programs||$100M/10 years||$48B for workforce development infrastructure and worker protection.|
|OSHA||Increase funding for accountability/staffing||$10B|
We believe that piecemeal approaches to investing in social infrastructure will not work. As SEIU noted in their recently released report on social infrastructure, “success relies on the dense weave of the safety net, maintained and strengthened by sustained investments over time, with continuity of relationships and coordination of programs.” The American Jobs Plan is a rare opportunity to make these investments.
Congress must now operationalize the commitments put forth in the American Jobs Plan and address our intersecting crises of climate change, economic inequality, and racial injustice, all against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Building back better and preparing for future crises will not happen unless social infrastructure is a key cornerstone of the plan. If we do it right, we can create good-paying, high quality jobs, build community resilience, protect the health and safety of all workers, and allow communities to prepare for crises before they happen.