Former President Obama once said, “a budget is more than just a series of numbers on a page; it is an embodiment of our values.” Now in Congress, legislators are debating how the country’s infrastructure needs should be addressed in a funding bill, how much that funding should be, and what constitutes “infrastructure.” A bipartisan bill to address traditional infrastructure, roads, bridges, water, and sewer systems, etc. has gained significant support and is likely to be enacted into law. Anyone driving around our cities and towns or seeking public transportation to their destination can attest to the need for such a bill.
A louder debate, fracturing the bipartisan alliance, is taking place over whether there are other aspects of the United States condition, essentially human needs, that hold the country back that should also be considered “infrastructure.” Proponents of a human infrastructure bill suggest that if the country struggles with the income and health security of its people; if it fails to keep the skills of its workforce current; and if it leaves millions of the elderly and children in poverty, it will fail on many other measures to achieve our national goals.
Can we put the debate in local terms?
The Elder Index is a measure of “income needed by older adults to maintain independence and meet their daily living costs while staying in their own home” produced by the Gerontology Institute, University of Massachusetts Boston. Fully 61.7% of Massachusetts elderly find themselves below the Elder Index for our state. Bristol County Elderindex.org found that couples who are 65 or older who rent and find themselves in poor health need $46,056.00 to meet the standard. It’s a fortunate elderly couple in New Bedford or Fall River who can meet that standard. With the infrastructure debate in Congress focused in part on the expansion of Medicare and greater support for the Affordable Care Act, we can envision strengthened communities, with fewer burdens on adult children and grandchildren.
Our future depends on our kids’ education. With government support for our public schools ossified by cramped funding sources and zealous competition from private operators, our kids struggle in schools with large class sizes and poor physical facilities. Young people entering the modern workforce, employers with skilled jobs to fill, and the fortunes of future families will all reap benefits from increased sensible support to education. It goes without saying that improving educational options for working-class people is a prerequisite to building new physical infrastructure. Add to these much-needed proposals expanded childcare, free pre-school, and making permanent the child tax credit enacted in the pandemic relief legislation and a stronger, more equal, more capable society will be the result.
These changes and others will be expensive, but we can’t afford not to make them.
(Kim Wilson is a New Bedford resident and director of the Dubin Labor Education Center at UMass Dartmouth.)
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