Infrastructure Plan May Not Help Lift Economic Burden On Women

Apr 14, 2021
Originally published on April 14, 2021 10:17 pm
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What is infrastructure anyway? Some say the Biden administration is defining it too broadly, adding things to its infrastructure bill like support for families and the elderly that just aren't infrastructure. Here's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reporting on the stakes for women.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: There's a key divide in Joe Biden's infrastructure plan.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: In a few weeks, I'll talk about the American Family Plan. But today, I want to talk about the American Jobs Plan.

KURTZLEBEN: The more than $2 trillion American Jobs Plan is touted as a salve to a pandemic-battered economy. A big part of it would go towards things that people traditionally think of as infrastructure.

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BIDEN: The American Jobs Plan will modernize the 20,000 miles of highways, roads and main streets that are in difficult, difficult shape right now.

KURTZLEBEN: And this is where another key divide comes in, according to Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.

NICOLE SMITH: If we were to look at the traditional definition of infrastructure, which includes, you know, construction jobs and production occupations and some installation and repair, then those tend to be traditionally male.

KURTZLEBEN: Biden's plan does offset that some, for example with money for elder care.

SMITH: By doing that, by including those domestic concerns in the bill, we might, in fact, have an opportunity to reach out to women much more so than we did in the past.

KURTZLEBEN: According to one rough estimate from Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, the jobs from the American Jobs Plan would split 60-40 in favor of men. He added that the still unreleased American Families Plan would sway the balance back toward women. Still, that two-part structure worries California Representative Katie Porter, who I reached at home last week.

KATIE PORTER: Danielle, hang on one second. People, I will take you to lunch, but you have to wait 10 more minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I will wait.

PORTER: Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Thank you, Mom.

PORTER: Let me tell you about the need for child care in this country.

KURTZLEBEN: Porter is one of the few single parents on Capitol Hill.

PORTER: Oh, these people. That was my 12-year-old and my 15-year-old.

KURTZLEBEN: She said she will be watching to make sure that issues like child care don't get a lower priority than traditional infrastructure.

PORTER: I think that divide of jobs then families suggests that these things are in tension when, in fact, if we want to have a strong, stable economy, then we need to make sure that families can go to work.

KURTZLEBEN: In response, a Biden administration told NPR that, quote, "the order in which the president stages his rollout does not reflect the relative value he places on each policy." All of this is particularly important after a pandemic that has hurt women economically and particularly women of color. And the debate over what infrastructure really means reflects an ongoing conversation among progressive Democrats about structural inequalities and biases.

PORTER: Why is that word infrastructure magic? And I think when you look behind that, you start to realize that what infrastructure actually traditionally often has been used as is as code for jobs for men.

KURTZLEBEN: Meanwhile, some Republicans have criticized the administration for looping elder care and child care in under the infrastructure umbrella. Those labels matter politically, says Republican strategist Alex Conant.

ALEX CONANT: A lot of this is a big branding exercise. And if Biden can convince the American people that this actually is an infrastructure bill, its chances of passage are much higher simply because voters are overwhelmingly supportive of spending more money on infrastructure.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a debate that won't go away soon. The American Families Plan is expected in the coming weeks.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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