Planes, trains, and working women

April 16, 2021 Mother Jones

The carpenters training facility near Pittsburgh looked just like the sort of place where President Joe Biden would roll out a jobs and infrastructure plan. There was the circular saw perched on a workbench, easy to spot near the phalanx of American flags behind Biden’s lectern. The emblem of the carpenters’ union, a jack plane within an interlocked ruler and compass, hung high on the wall, perfectly framed in photographs of the president in profile. And then, of course, there was the location itself: Pittsburgh, a city still synonymous with the grind and glow of steel manufacturing more than half a century after much of the industry had left.

The setting matched the string of Bidenisms the president unspooled early in his remarks. “Wall Street didn’t build this country,” Biden declared. “You, the great middle class, built this country, and unions built the middle class.” But something happened halfway through his speech. The optics conjuring white men in hard hats no longer applied. Biden spoke of the “enormous financial and personal strain” families faced trying to care for children and aging parents. He talked about the professional caregivers—”disproportionately women, and women of color, and immigrants”—who have been “unseen, underpaid, and undervalued.” There in the carpenters training center, a new working class was being joined to the cultural memory of the old one.

Biden’s plan has plenty of line items that conform to the “infrastructure” of the popular imagination: Roads and bridges got their due, and Amtrak Joe called for an $80 billion boost in funding for trains. But about a fifth of the $2 trillion in the American Jobs Plan was devoted to “caregiving infrastructure,” Biden’s term for the ecosystem of workers and services that take care of older and disabled Americans. That proposal, Biden promised, would provide “better wages, benefits, and opportunities for millions of people who will be able to get to work in an economy that works for them.”

Within days, Republicans had seized on the caregiving provisions as their main line of attack. “When people think about infrastructure, they’re thinking about roads, bridges, ports, and airports,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told Fox News the Sunday after Biden’s announcement. “President Biden’s proposal is about anything but infrastructure,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) tweeted, pointing specifically to the $400 billion Biden had designated for “elder care,” in her terms. “I don’t think any of those things are infrastructure, but you know what is??? THE WALL,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., a characteristically oafish response to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) assertion that caregiving, child care, and paid leave all counted as such.

The Washington press corps soaked up the debate and even began to referee it. A week after Biden’s announcement, Politico declared the caregiving portion of Biden’s proposal “not even close to infrastructure.” Democrats countered by portraying the GOP as old fuds unable to grapple with the realities of a 21st-century economy. “Infrastructure is not just the roads we get a horse and buggy across,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki quipped during a briefing.

The semantic argument obscured a remarkable aspect of Biden’s proposal: It’s the first time a president of either party has attempted an economic recovery focused on women workers. In the coming weeks, the White House plans to release another plan that is expected to include similarly sweeping changes to how the country addresses child care and paid family leave. “There is a real recognition, in a new way, of how not investing in care is a huge liability for our economic health,” Rakeen Mabud, chief economist of the Groundwork Collaborative, a left-leaning think tank, tells me. “It’s actually really, really great for our economy, and supports some of the people who have historically been most left out in our labor market policies.”

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