Joe Biden's human infrastructure bill (aka Build Back Better) promises the largest expansion of the social safety net since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is also one of the most pro-women and pro-child bills in US history. Among its progressive provisions are expanded child tax credits, paid leave and assistance with childcare expenses.
According to Axios, one reason the bill has stalled in Congress is due to US Senator Joe Manchin's demand that only one of these progressive provisions be included in the final version of the bill.
Manchin said he opposes these elements of the bill. He said: "I don't believe that we should turn our society into an entitlement society. I think we should still be a compassionate, rewarding society."
So what does Manchin mean when he says Biden's human infrastructure bill would transform our "rewarding society" into an "entitlement society"? And would that be so bad?
"Entitlement" has potent negative connotations in US politics. Entitlements are, above all, undeserved. Listeners, upon hearing the word, are invited to imagine lazy slobs leaching off those who actually work. It conjures images of free-riders and "welfare queens," the latter being another example of how conservatives skillfully use language as a tool of oppression. Thus, calling a policy — any policy — an "entitlement" is a convenient way to disparage it, requiring none of the work usually associated with policy criticism.
Yet what the term denotes — that individuals in a society have rights to certain provisions — is extremely positive. It is fundamental to liberalism, and even found in the work of conservative intellectuals.
Friedrich Hayek, beloved icon of Paul Ryan, said: "There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has … the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom. … [T]here can be no doubt that some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody."
Hayek's argument is not unlike that made by President Roosevelt while advocating for the Social Security Act of 1935: "If, as our Constitution tells us, our Federal Government was established … to 'promote the general welfare,' it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends." Thus, the idea that citizens are entitled to certain societal security is not a foreign or toxic concept.
While the US lags behind in securing its citizens the means to thrive, the few major programs it does have are extremely popular.
Social Security ensures that citizens receive financial assistance so they do not have to work until they die. Medicare and Medicaid provide healthcare for the elderly, poor, and disabled. Public education provides every child at least 13 years of education.
What more does President Biden believe American children and their parents are entitled to receive? To answer this question, consider the status quo, Manchin's "compassionate" and "rewarding society."
- In 2019, one out of seven American children lived in poverty. In West Virginia alone, Joe Manchin's home state, 17 percent of parents reported their children don't eat enough because the family couldn't afford food.
- On average, across the country, childhood poverty costs $700 billion a year. That's 3.5 percent of GDP.
- Children who experience poverty early in life are less likely to finish high school and more likely to be unemployed later.
- Only 8 percent of children raised in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution rise to the top 20 percent as adults, a rate of upward mobility that lags behind other democracies
- US families, on average, spend 40 percent more of their income on childcare than what The Department of Health and Human Services considers affordable.
- The cost of childcare rose 37 percent between 2000 and 2012, while the average middle income for families fell by 8 percent. Post-2012, these costs have only continued to rise.
- Parents spend roughly $11,000 a year on care for a single child, more than the cost of public college in 33 states.
- The cost is indeed so immense that three out of five millennials report delaying having a child due to financial reasons.
- Prior to the pandemic, 42 percent of American children under the age of 5 lived in a "childcare desert," where no childcare was accessible. The pandemic only exacerbated this crisis.
The childcare crisis also has significant economic consequences, reducing productivity and market participation:
- Women frequently leave the workforce to care for children and are twice as likely as men to say this time off hurt their careers.
- Leaving the workforce for five years of childcare is estimated to cost American women 20 percent of their earning potential.
- On average, businesses lose an estimated $12.7 billion annually due to childcare problems, such as when a worker must take time off to care for a sick child.
- Lack of childcare in general is estimated to cost the US economy $57 billion every year.
- When parents leave the workforce to care for their children, childcare centers close and childcare workers — primarily working class women — lose their jobs.
This is Manchin's "compassionate" and "rewarding society."
Women choosing between raising children and pursuing careers. Couples, facing economic security, waiting to start a family, if they start one at all. Impoverished adults giving birth to impoverished children who later become impoverished adults, perpetuating a cycle of suffering. Our "compassion," apparently, extends just far enough to ensure that few in poverty actually starve to death. So "rewarding" is our society that children born to wealthy parents are rewarded with the security of wealth. Children born to poor parents are rewarded with the insecurity of poverty.
So how would Biden's human infrastructure bill change things?
Recall the bill's more progressive provisions: an expanded child tax credit, paid leave and childcare. These, you'll notice, are responsive to exactly the problems facing American families. These "entitlements" would, of course, improve the welfare of countless America citizens.
But, as the economic data indicates, they also serve to strengthen society overall by increasing the labor force, increasing economic output and market participation and, importantly, caring for children.
Additionally, if Americans who want children are unable to do so for financial reasons, we risk a lopsided population crisis such that, in a generation, there will be fewer workers to participate and pay taxes to support the programs we already have, such as Social Security.
The word "entitlement" has long carried negative connotations. But it shouldn't. We should be proud that, as a society, we have decided the elderly are entitled to financial assistance. We should be proud that we have decided that children are entitled to an education. And, now, Joe Biden and other Democrats should be proud that they are arguing that women are entitled to freedom and children are entitled to care.
Democrats should fight to preserve every pro-family aspect of the human infrastructure bill. And individuals like Joe Manchin should be challenged as to why they argue for the vicious status quo.
A status quo that hurts individuals and the economy. A status quo that rewards few but punishes many, especially women and children.