What Are the Underlying Systems That Hold a Society Together?

For a functional country, is a focus on care for children, seniors and the disabled just as important as the maintenance of bridges, roads and airports?

By Nicole Daniels
April 28, 2021

When you hear the word “infrastructure,” what comes to mind? Merriam-Webster defines infrastructure as “the system of public works of a country, state, or region” or “the underlying foundation or basic framework.” When you think about your country, whether the United States or elsewhere, what are the underlying systems that allow the country to function?

Many legislators have been asking themselves this very question after President Biden unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan. The plan not only includes provisions for rebuilding roads, bridges and rail lines, but also seeks to address racial inequities and offer better child care and paid family-leave benefits.

Do you think providing services for parents and families and addressing inequality should be considered “infrastructure”? Or are these things secondary to physical systems like highways, bridges and airports?

In “The Debate Over What ‘Infrastructure’ Is Is Ridiculous,” a Guest Essay, Bryce Covert argues for an expanded view of what falls into this category:

Ask any of the parents who have spent the last year at home with their children, while trying to participate in Zoom meetings, whether child care enables them to show up to work and perform at their best. The direct conflict between children’s need to be cared for during the day and working parents’ need to devote their attention to their jobs exploded into full view during the pandemic, not just for families but for their employers and co-workers. Suddenly it was everyone’s problem.

It’s an unfamiliar experience in a country where we’ve treated these kinds of conflicts as private crises to be solved individually. But it has always been true that without an adequate system of child care, elder care and paid leave, personal emergencies and family demands often derail Americans’ ability to get to work — and to concentrate once they’re there. An older parent’s sudden decline forces a child to quit his job when he can’t afford round-the-clock care. A catastrophic injury means a worker has to take weeks off, costing her her job when her employer loses patience. A day care center’s sudden closure forces a full-time student with children to drop out of classes while she hunts for another option.

We’re in the middle of a loud debate over what, exactly, counts as “infrastructure.” The word has come to be associated with the country’s physical assets: our national highway system, the pipes that bring us water and the cables that bring us electricity, the tarmac in our airports and the tracks on our train routes. These things are infrastructure because they are underlying systems that facilitate other critical functions — moving people and goods, connecting communities, delivering necessities. They are important for what they make possible.

But they are not the only systems that undergird critical needs. President Biden’s next legislative priority is fixing the country’s decrepit infrastructure as a way to help the economy rebound from the pandemic, and he’s taking a more expansive view of what falls into that category. The first half of his package expands home- and community-based care for seniors and the disabled, and he has promised to include more so-called soft infrastructure in his follow-up American Family Plan, including investments in child care and paid leave.

Republicans are lining up their opposition to the package behind the idea that these things aren’t “real” infrastructure. “There is a core infrastructure bill that we could pass” focused on “roads and bridges and even reaching out to broadband,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, told “Fox News Sunday.” “So let’s do it and leave the rest for another day and another fight.” Business lobbyists are pushing hard to get Mr. Biden to drop the caregiving parts of his package. But it’s not just conservatives; it’s (mostly) men of differing political persuasions. Politico’s Playbook deemed it “silly” to call home care services for the elderly and disabled infrastructure.

It’s only silly if you think men in hard hats are the only ones who work on systems that are critical to the functioning of our economy and our society. The women of color who predominantly take care of young children, elders and disabled family members, allowing everyone else to go to work and school, might disagree. They have long known that their work makes everyone else’s possible, whether we invest in it adequately or not. Both snarled traffic and a morning without a home health aide can make you late for work.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What is your reaction to Ms. Covert’s argument? Do you agree that providing care to individuals and families is an important part of a country’s infrastructure? Or do you think these are personal issues that should not be supported by the government?
  • In what ways do you think providing funds for paid medical leave, child care, as well as the care of older adults and people with disabilities would help facilitate “critical functions” in society? Are there other services that you think should be included as part of infrastructure in Mr. Biden’s plan? Why or why not?
  • Do you think these programs present any disadvantages for the economy or otherwise? Do you have concerns about including social services in an infrastructure plan?
  • What role do gender, race and ability play in the debate about what “counts” as infrastructure? Mr. Biden’s plan includes expanded care for seniors and the disabled, as well as investments in child care and paid leave from work. How might this address inequality, if at all?
  • Did the pandemic change the way you think about the kind of support children, families and caregivers need? Do you think about things like school or child care differently after seeing your family navigate work and care during the pandemic?
  • Can you think of a time in your own life when systems such as paid family leave, child care, disability care or elder care allowed you or your family to work or go to school more easily?

SOURCE: nytimes.com
MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Damon Winter/The New York Times