Sunday, November 30, 2014

Our patchworked bridges, and our children, need a New Deal

(This is a bridge on route 301 on the eastern shore of Maryland. It's beginning to look more like a patchwork quilt than a bridge. Photo by Brent McKee, November 2014.)

 (WPA workers building a new bridge in Harford County, Maryland, 1936. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

In 2013, it was noted that the "investment backlog for the nation's bridges is estimated to be $121 billion..." Interestingly, the richest 400 Americans have added almost two and one-half times that amount to their personal wealth, in just the past year alone (while enjoying historically low tax rates and a Justice Department that will keep their tax-evading habits secret, should they choose to engage in illegal offshore banking). Of course, all this should come as no surprise since America has adopted an economic philosophy that values personal wealth over the common good and, indeed, over the rule of law. Under such an economic and legal philosophy, it's inevitable that problems like child homelessness and deteriorating infrastructure will worsen right alongside the increasing wealth of the wealthy (see, e.g., "Child Homelessness in U.S. Reaches Historic High, Report Says," Newsweek, November 17, 2014, and "Child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world," Washington Post, October 29, 2014).

Our nation's infrastructure--and our nation's children--are on the losing side of an economy that, with every passing year, seems more and more like a zero-sum game (and a fraudulent one at that).

History shows us that it doesn't have to be like this. For example, workers employed in the New Deal's WPA performed 124,000 bridge and viaduct projects (including new constructions, repairs, and improvements). And the wages that these formerly unemployed workers earned helped keep their families intact. A woman who grew up during the Great Depression described the importance of her father's WPA employment, " father immediately got employed in this WPA. This was a godsend. This was the greatest thing. It meant food, you know. Survival, just survival" (Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel, 1970). Another survivor of the Great Depression said, "With my family, we would have starved to death, because we had no other way to make any money. The New Deal for us, the WPA in particular, was just a lifesaver for us. Most of our neighbors felt that way" (The Dust Bowl, a documentary by Ken Burns, 2012).

So, we have choices to make: On the one hand, we have our infrastructure, our children, and our economic well-being. On the other hand, we have the personal wealth of a very few individuals who know how to work and game the system to their ultimate advantage. Sadly, it's pretty clear that we've chosen the latter. Hopefully, some future generation of Americans will choose differently--hopefully they'll choose a new and even stronger New Deal.   

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