Texas outages shed light on a different kind of infrastructure: Human
Disasters have a way of shining a spotlight on the deferred maintenance of critical infrastructure.
These are often well-known problems that, for financial, political, or other reasons, are left to fester until they boil over into the headlines. The widespread utility outages across Texas are the most recent example.
The vulnerabilities of Texas’s power grid were well-documented, but without investment in maintenance and upgrades millions of families are now burning their furniture for heat and boiling water to drink.
Rather than just plug the few holes that can easily be blamed for this disaster, such a disaster should spur us to truly invest not only in our physical infrastructure, but our human infrastructure as well.
Policymakers often limit their definition of critical infrastructure to the physical structures, but in reality, critical infrastructure includes people — often low-wage workers who care for us and keep our economy moving.
These “maintainers” tend to earn above the Federal Poverty Level but still not enough to make ends meet. We call them ALICE — Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — and they constitute a large part of our population. According to our recently published report, 42 percent of U.S. households could not afford even basics like housing, food, and health care in 2018 — before the pandemic hit.
They are grocery store cashiers earning $11.37 per hour, pharmacy technicians earning $16.32 per hour, and more. None of them earn enough to afford household basics for a family of four — and these economic struggles long predate COVID-19. A little over a year ago these workers were largely invisible in the American economic narrative, now we recognize their essential role in our society.
Texas’ deep freeze has thawed and the pandemic will pass, but their economic destruction — including job insecurity, unemployment, and emaciated state budgets — will affect us for years to come. And because we have spent decades thinly patching holes in an economic system in need of serious investment, our economic infrastructure is not robust enough to drive a post-COVID recovery — or weather the next inevitable disaster.
So how can America grow stronger? Going back to the pre-COVID-19 status quo, in which nearly half of U.S. households and many of our essential workers were already struggling, cannot be the goal. The recovery needs to restructure our economy so that it prioritizes the economic security, health, and safety of all people.
History provides much-needed guidance of how we can achieve President Biden’s mission to “Build Back Better.”
The Homestead Act of 1862 granted instant economic standing to white men and their families who settled the Western frontier. Reimagined for the 21st Century, it could build wealth through baby bonds, access to low-interest mortgages, and small business support.
FDR’s Depression era programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority collectively built schools, dams, and roads, created national parks, and electrified the south. Unleashing that spirit and those resources today can rebuild our crumbling infrastructure while providing universal broadband that allows everyone to capitalize on the technology of the 21st century.
And a repurposed GI Bill, which gave rise to widespread homeownership and education for millions of Americans returning from World War II, could ensure our workforce is equipped to run the most technologically advanced infrastructure, and be able to afford safe housing where those jobs are located.
Beyond an adaptation to contemporary circumstances, any reimagining of these programs must address the structural racism inherent in their first iterations. At times through legislation, and almost always through practice, these programs discriminated against non-white persons in a way that created a self-perpetuating wealth gap between White Americans and their Black and Hispanic counterparts. A 21st century investment in human infrastructure must not only be cognizant of avoiding these mistakes, but it must seek to reverse the racial disparities in income, wealth, and health created through government edict.
We welcome short-term relief for those struggling during these harrowing days; but we cannot continue to defer maintenance and increase risk for American workers and families. We have a chance to recommit to our shared values — that our country is strongest when all workers can support their households and when all households are healthy and safe. Our communities all benefit if everyone’s work receives the recognition, protection, and security it deserves.
Dan Treglia, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Research Fellow at United for ALICE. Jessica Meyerson, MS, is co-director of The Maintainers and Director of Research and Strategy at Educopia Institute. She just regained power in Austin, Texas.
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