YAMHILL, Ore. – The best argument for President Biden’s three-part proposal to invest heavily in America and its people is an echo of Franklin Roosevelt’s explanation for the New Deal.
“In 1932 there was a terribly ill patient called the United States of America,” Roosevelt said in 1943. “He was suffering from a serious internal disorder … and they sent for a doctor.”
Paging Dr. Joe Biden.
We need to be sparse both on the enormous strengths of the United States – its technologies, its universities, its entrepreneurship – and on its central weakness: for half a century, compared to other countries, we have underinvested in our people.
By 1970, the United States was a world leader in high school and college attendance, enjoyed a high life expectancy, and had a strong middle class. This was achieved in part thanks to Roosevelt.
The New Deal was flawed and left out too many African Americans and Native Americans, but it was still transformative.
Here in my hometown of Yamhill, the New Deal was a driver of opportunity. A few farmers had installed generators on the streams, but Roosevelt’s rural electrification brought almost everyone on the grid and production skyrocketed. The employment programs have preserved the social fabric and built trails that I walk on every year. The IG Bill of Rights gave local families a chance to access education and home ownership.
The Roosevelt Public Works Administration provided $ 27,415 in 1935 (the equivalent of $ 530,000 today) to help build a high school in Yamhill. It provided jobs for 90 people on the relief lists, and it created the school that I attended and which is still in operation today.
In short, the New Deal has invested in the potential and productivity of my small town – and much of the country. The feedback has been amazing.
These types of investments in physical infrastructure (interstate highways) and human capital (state universities and community colleges) continued under the Democratic and Republican presidents. They made America a stronger and better nation.
Yet from the 1970s America took a wrong turn. We have slowed down new investments in health and education and have adopted a tough talk that people just need to get up by their boots. We emptied the unions, embraced inequality and shrugged our shoulders as working-class America disintegrated. Average weekly wages for American production workers were in fact lower in December 2020 ($ 860) than they had been, after adjusting for inflation, in December 1972 ($ 902 in today’s money). hui).
What does this mean in human terms? I wrote about the fact that a quarter of the people on my old # 6 school bus died of drugs, alcohol or suicide – “death of despair”. This number needs to be updated: the toll has dropped to around a third.
We have allocated significant amounts to taxpayers to incarcerate my friends and their children. Biden is proposing something more humane and effective – investing in children, families, and infrastructure in ways that echo Roosevelt’s initiatives.
The most important common thread of Biden’s program is his plan to use family allowances to halve child poverty in America. Biden’s main misstep is that he would end the program in 2025 instead of making it permanent; Congress should resolve this problem.
The highest return on investment in America today is not in private equity, but in early childhood initiatives for underprivileged children of all races. This includes home visits, lead reduction, pre-K, and childcare.
Roosevelt started a day care program during World War II to make it easier for parents to participate in the war economy. It was a huge success, looking after perhaps half a million children, but it was allowed to expire after the end of the war.
Biden’s proposal for the daycare would be a lifeline for young children who might be overlooked. Aside from the wartime model, we have another one in the United States: the military runs a high quality base day care system because it helps the military do their jobs.
Then there are the investments offered by Biden in broadband; this is the current version of rural electrification. Likewise, a free community college would allow young people to acquire technical skills and earn more money, thus strengthening working class families.
Some Americans are worried about the cost of Biden’s program. It is a fair concern. Yet it is not a fresh but one investment: Our ability to compete with China will depend less on our military budget, spy satellites or intellectual property protections than on our high school and college graduation rates. A country cannot succeed when so many of its people fail.
As many Americans have criminal records as university degrees. A baby born in Washington, DC, has a shorter life expectancy (78 years) than a baby born in Beijing (82 years). Newborns in 10 counties in Mississippi have a shorter life expectancy than newborns in Bangladesh. Rather than continue with Herbert Hoover complacency, let’s acknowledge our “serious internal disorder” and summon a doctor.
The question today, as in the 1930s, is not whether we can afford to make ambitious investments in our people. It’s about whether we can afford not to.