How Biden’s $2tn infrastructure plan seeks to achieve racial justice

Joe Biden has said his $2tn plan to rebuild America’s “crumbling” roads, bridges, railways and other infrastructure would rival the space race in its ambition and deliver economic and social change on a scale as grand as the New Deal. The president has also vowed his “once-in-a-generation” investment will reverse long-standing racial disparities exacerbated by past national mobilizations.

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Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Embedded in his sprawling infrastructure agenda, the first part of which Biden unveiled this week, are hundreds of billions of dollars dedicated to projects and investments the administration says will advance racial equity in employment, housing, transportation, healthcare and education, while improving economic outcomes for communities of color.

“This plan is important, not only for what and how it builds but it’s also important to where we build,” Biden said at a union carpenters’ training facility outside Pittsburgh last week. “It includes everyone, regardless of your race or your zip code.”

His proposal would replace lead pipes and service lines that have disproportionately harmed Black children; reduce air pollution that has long harmed Black and Latino neighborhoods near ports and power plants; “reconnect” neighborhoods cut off by previous transportation projects; expand affordable housing options to allow more families of color to buy homes, build wealth and eliminate exclusionary zoning laws; rebuild the public housing system; and prioritize investments in “frontline” communities whose residents are predominantly people of color often first- and worst-affected by climate change and environmental disaster.

© Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Joe Biden arrives to speak about his $2tn infrastructure plan at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center.

The plan also allocates $100m in workforce development programs targeting historically underserved communities and $20m for upgrading historically Black college and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs), and quadruples funding for the Manufacturing Extensions Partnership to boost investment in “minority owned and rurally located” businesses.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party (WFP), said it was clear Biden had been listening to activists and understood the interlocking challenges of racial injustice, climate change and economic inequality.

“This is not race-neutral – it’s actually pretty aggressive and specific,” he said, noting the coalition of Black voters and women who helped Biden clinch the Democratic nomination and win the White House.

Perhaps the boldest pieces of the proposal is a $400bn investment in care for elderly and disabled Americans. In his speech, Biden said his agenda would create jobs and lift wages and benefits for the millions of “unseen, underpaid and undervalued” caregivers, predominantly women of color.

Ai-jen Poo, co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, called it “one of the single most impactful plans to address racial and gender inequity in our economy”.

Poo said the coronavirus pandemic, which disproportionately hurt women and people of color, showed just how critical care workers are to the wellbeing of the nation. And yet many of these workers still struggle to care for themselves and their families.

Poo believes Biden’s plan can do for caregiving and the economy what past jobs programs did for manufacturing, turning dangerous, low-wage jobs into opportunities for upward mobility and security. Home care workers have been excluded from labor protections – Poo said this effort places them at the forefront.

“There’s nothing more fundamental and enabling to our economy than having good care for families,” she said. “Without that, nothing else can function – we can’t even build roads, bridges and tunnels without care.”

Biden’s plan also provides for $100bn for high-speed broadband internet alongside provisions to improve access and affordability, which White House officials say will help to close the digital divide between white and Black and Latino families.

“The internet is a tool that all of us rely upon,” said Angela Siefer, executive director at National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “And when certain segments of the population, particularly those who have been historically left out, don’t have access to the tools, they fall even further behind.”

Biden said his plan would help drive down costs by increasing competition and providing short-term subsidies for low-income households. Siefer said these measures are important, but she was skeptical rates would fall enough to make high-speed internet affordable for low-income families without more permanent subsidies.

Improving digital literacy is also critical to confronting racial inequality, Siefer said, adding: “To really achieve equity, we have to get beyond the thinking: let’s just make it available.”

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Construction work continues in Wheeling, Illinois last week. Photograph: Nam Y Huh/AP

The proposal also includes $5bn for community based violence-prevention programs, an investment Black and Latino activists have long argued will help reduce the impact of gun violence.

The administration has suggested additional efforts to close the racial wealth gap, like universal pre-kindergarten, affordable higher education and improved family leave, will come in the second piece of what could be a $4tn program.

Republicans accuse Biden of delivering a “Trojan Horse” to fund progressive initiatives.

Related: ‘A good start but miles to go’: progressive Nina Turner on Biden and Democrats’ future

“Biden’s plan includes hundreds of billions of spending on leftwing policies and blue-state priorities,” the Republican National Committee said. It singled out parts of the bill that aim to tackle racial and gender inequality, such as “$400bn for an ‘unrelated’ program for home care that ‘was a top demand of some union groups’.”

While many senior Democrats welcomed the plan, many progressives have said it doesn’t go far enough. They have called for $10tn over the next decade to confront climate change, including more robust investments in renewable energy and a target of shifting the US to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Biden has said he is open to negotiation and hopes he can attract Republicans to the plan. The president suggested Republicans would rush to act if they learned the drinking water on Capitol Hill flowed through lead pipes.

As Congress begins the process of turning Biden’s blueprint into legislation, progressive groups are mounting a campaign to pressure lawmakers to embrace an even more ambitious agenda. The WFP is part of a coalition of groups staging protests to demand Congress deliver “transformational economic recovery”.

“If you’re going to be big and bold, be big and bold and solve the problem fully,” Mitchell said. “We are at a crisis moment and we won’t get another shot.”

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