The Infrastructure Debate Is About Black Women

July 1, 2021

By Kate Taylor Mighty

From COVID-related deaths to unemployment rates, Black women have suffered disproportionately in category after miserable category throughout the crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. In every boom and bust on record, Black women almost always fare worst — and economists have observed that their exclusion holds back the broader economy. Misogynoir, or the combination of misogyny and anti-Blackness directed toward Black women, is even worse than a scourge on individual Black women — it poisons policies and norms in every corner of our society.

Misogynoir has defined the “care debate” on Capitol Hill and in the press in the days and weeks since the White House proposed new investments in care infrastructure, jobs, and policies. White male politicians and pundits have rushed to define “infrastructure” as narrowly as possible and resume their strategic hand-wringing about the deficit. In other words, they have manufactured a debate just in time to exclude Black and brown and immigrant women — whose paid and unpaid care labor has kept the economy afloat for generations — from prioritized investments.

For centuries, markets have artificially devalued care work because of who tends to do it: women, especially marginalized women. In the U.S., the prioritization of jobs for “men in hard hats” over the care labor of Black, brown, and immigrant women is part of the legacy of slavery. Generations of white men and women enslaved, then employed Black women for poverty wages to take on care work, leading all the way to the intentional exclusion of Black domestic workers from the nation’s first labor protections. Our modern, multi-racial care workforce is still paying the price of that exclusion, facing low wages and poor working conditions in a high-demand industry deemed essential during the pandemic.

Despite the economic consensus that the federal government has plenty of room to spend, certain critics have attempted to gin up deficit panic to force a false choice between physical and care infrastructure. With real interest costs on the national debt making up roughly 1% of GDP, the federal government can easily afford the major new investments our economy needs — in complete infrastructure, climate readiness, and more.

Federal care infrastructure is at least a 90-year-old idea. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, infrastructure investments included funding for care structures and services. Now, as the economy continues to struggle under the weight of the deepest recession since then, white men in power are scrambling to redefine infrastructure as nothing more than roads and bridges.

Bold public investments in care infrastructure are a down payment on the centuries of debt owed to care workers. Today’s care workers are mostly Black, Latinx, and AAPI women, but they care for all of us — from cradle to grave — and investing in them will benefit the entire economy. Care jobs create jobs in additional sectors by allowing unpaid caregivers to enter the labor force and spend increased earnings on goods and services. In fact, research shows that every dollar invested in care systems produces twice as many jobs as those invested in physical infrastructure.

Even vocal opponents of care infrastructure won’t say outright that care work is unimportant or unworthy — they claim that they’d merely prefer to see it under another category, or another bill, or left entirely to individuals. As the pandemic has shown, our economy runs on care work, and sputters without it — that means care is infrastructure, and that those investments can’t wait. But as critiques of the recently-released American Families Plan roll in, we’ll continue to see that the problem isn’t what you call investments in care, but who might benefit from them.

For the white political class, it’s never the right time to invest in Black, Latinx, and AAPI women. The fight to exclude care from infrastructure investments is merely the current front in the ongoing war to exploit the labor of women of color. Delayed and deprioritized investments in essential care infrastructure are yet another example of how exploitation of Black women hurts first other women of color, and then the economy at large — and how ending the exploitation of Black women will pay dividends for all.