3 ways $2 trillion for infrastructure can fight inequality too

Imagine you have US$2 trillion to spend on patching up America’s crumbling roads, levees and other infrastructure. What would you fix first?

The nation’s needs are great. The American Society of Civilian Engineers’ latest report, from 2017, highlighted derailing trains, roads full of potholes, levees breaching, bridges collapsing, undrinkable tap water and wastewater systems that are a menace to public health.

Choosing what gets funded – and what doesn’t – may be a question U.S. lawmakers will have to answer now that President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have agreed to a very tentative $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

While it’s still unclear where the money will come from, or how much they’ll ultimately pony up, the more important question for me is where that money should go – and whom it should help. I believe three areas stand out: water, roads and rail.

This train carrying ethanol derailed just last month in Texas. KDFW FOX4 via AP

Infrastructure and inequality

A sudden infusion of infrastructure spending could benefit all Americans, creating good jobs and higher incomes for many.

Decrepit infrastructure costs each U.S. household an average of $3,400 every year due to productivity losses, higher transportation costs and other problems, according to the ASCE. That amounts to about $4 trillion in total over a decade, plus 2.5 million in lost jobs. It can also result in lost lives or severe health risks, such as when a bridge collapses or lead from an old pipe enters the water supply.

That’s likely why the public overwhelmingly supports more spending on infrastructure – and why the deal between Trump and the Democrats finally came together.

But it’s unclear whether Congress will ultimately agree to spend the promised $2 trillion – or even whether that’ll be enough. So it’s important to establish spending priorities.

Spending in areas that will help struggling working and middle-class families hurt by ever-rising economic inequality would be a good place to start. As research by myself and others has shown, inequality makes almost every aspect of human life worse, from infant mortality and crime to politics.

The Flint water crisis affected low-income communities most. Reuters/Jim Young

1. The water crisis

That’s why a top priority should be addressing the lack of potable water in many parts of the country.

Water is necessary for basic human survival. And unsafe water puts people’s health and even their lives at risk. This has long-term consequences, especially for children. Furthermore, it reduces earnings and increases health care costs, which are ultimately paid for by everyone through lower tax collections and higher insurance premiums.

The ASCE report gave America’s drinking water a D grade due to all the waste and risks from the nation’s ancient, leaky and corroding piping system. And it’s a problem that primarily afflicts poor communities, like Flint, Michigan.

Affluent communities usually have the political power to ensure safe drinking water and the money to pay slightly higher taxes for clean water if necessary. Low-income neighborhoods are usually neighborhoods with little political clout and will suffer most from water problems.