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On infrastructure, Democrats shouldn’t miss the moment

Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically expand the social safety net and save millions from poverty. They must not squander it.

Children from Nurtury Early Education take a walk around the neighborhood in Roxbury on Aug. 9.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Even before the pandemic, it was plainly clear that major federal investments in America’s infrastructure were long overdue — so much so that both parties have been aiming to pass an infrastructure package, albeit different ones, for some time. That’s why there were so many attempts at having an “infrastructure week” during the Trump administration, even though that ever-elusive week never actually materialized. But now, after years of trying, Congress is finally poised to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, which means it may actually be infrastructure week in America soon.

The only problem is that one infrastructure bill is not enough. Though much of the $1 trillion bipartisan bill, which the Senate passed earlier this month, focuses on hard infrastructure — funding roads, bridges, broadband, and the like — it leaves out the kind of infrastructure investments that the pandemic has made all the more necessary: soft, or social, infrastructure. That’s why Democrats in Congress and the Biden administration have been pushing for an additional $3.5 trillion infrastructure package that would transform America’s social safety net.


The second bill — which would fund programs like paid family leave, child and elder care, and universal preschool, among other things — is widely popular among the American people, but it still faces hurdles to passage because it so far has no congressional Republican support and some moderate Democrats have aired concerns that the price tag might be too steep.

The reality, however, is that Americans are in desperate need of social infrastructure investments and reform, and the window of opportunity to do something about it is quickly closing. With narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, minor Republican gains in the midterms would spell doom for these kinds of transformative policies. If there is any hope to strengthen and expand social programs that would help reduce poverty and support American workers, it lies in Democrats passing a social infrastructure bill as soon as possible, if necessary without Republican support.


Though the details of the reconciliation bill have not yet been finalized, what it is expected to do — raise taxes on individuals making over $400,000 a year and companies in order to dramatically expand the social safety net — is worth fighting for. Take, for example, the child income tax credit, which was temporarily enhanced in the COVID rescue package that passed earlier this year. That expanded benefit, according to analysts, is projected to cut child poverty by nearly half. In fact, the program has already reduced food insecurity by 24 percent since it was implemented last month

The child tax credit also disproportionately benefits families of color. The current poverty rate among Black children is 24 percent, for example, and the tax credit, which gives families an annual allowance of $3,000 to $3,600 per child, is projected to reduce it to 11 percent. Democrats should not squander an opportunity to extend the enhanced benefit, which the infrastructure package is slated to do, if not make it permanent.

Some Democrats, however, have been reluctant to fully support a $3.5 trillion package, citing concerns about the cost. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, for example, have already said that it’s too much spending and they don’t plan on approving the bill — at least for now. “Over the past year, Congress has injected more than $5 trillion of stimulus into the American economy — more than any time since World War II — to respond to the pandemic,” Manchin said in a statement. But what Manchin fails to mention is that the package would not instantly inject another $3.5 trillion into the economy; it would be spent over a 10-year period.


Opponents to big spending packages often also fail to account for the cost of inaction. In this case, failing to pass the reconciliation bill — which will also include provisions to combat climate change — would only leave people in poverty, if not push more people back into poverty, and make the odds of climate disasters worse. Those realities would probably eventually come back to demand trillions of dollars from taxpayers anyway.

In the end, the infrastructure package would start helping people in need sooner rather than later. After all, the COVID relief programs that have already been implemented, like the child tax credit, have reduced poverty in the United States at a record rate despite the economic turmoil the pandemic unleashed. There’s no reason to stop now.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.