Sunday, October 18, 2015
A 100-year-old pipe breaks, and cuts off water service to an entire town. A WPA could have prevented that.
(WPA workers installing a new water line in Cumberland, Maryland, 1935. Across America, the WPA installed 16,000 miles of new water lines, much of it still in use today, long past its intended lifespan. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)
Yesterday, a 100-year-old water line broke in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, and disrupted the entire town's water supply. This caused a run on bottled water. One grocery store manager said, "They're buying up everything on hand. Everyone wants clean, fresh water."
The break in Manchester-by-the-Sea was just one of 240,000 breaks that occur in the United States every single year. And conservative politicians couldn't care less, as highlighted by the fact that they didn't mention infrastructure in either of the Republican presidential debates, by the fact that they've consistently blocked infrastructure improvement bills, and by the fact that a top Republican in Congress scolded his own party for hindering infrastructure work.
Manchester-by-the-Sea is "hoping to set aside $6 million in 2017 to fix all of the community's water mains." And, no doubt, they're planning to do this with some combination of regressive taxes, tolls, fees, fines, or utility rates on the middle-class & poor. That's how we do things today. Instead of taxing billionaires more (as they're adding tens of billions of dollars to their already out-of-control wealth), or taxing multi-national corporations more (as they stash $2.1 trillion dollars in tax-avoiding foreign bank accounts), we place the infrastructure burden on local communities - communities filled with residents already steeped in debt and/or barely making ends meet. It should come as no surprise that "Virtually every state tax system is fundamentally unfair, taking a much greater share of income from low- and middle-income families than from wealthy families."
Many Americans don't seem to care too much do they? They just keep paying the higher taxes, tolls, fees, fines, and utility rates... and keep voting for the conservative politicians who promise more tax cuts for the wealthy. If this phenomenon is not the most extreme case of economic self-flagellation in world history, I don't know what is.
During the New Deal, things were very different. For example, if a town could fund 20% of an infrastructure project, the WPA would kick in the rest and get it done. In Massachusetts, WPA workers--who were formerly unemployed and insulted as lazy-good-for-nothings--installed 686 miles of new water lines and 933 miles of new storm & sanitary sewer lines. They also built or improved 73 utility plants, which typically included water & sewer treatment facilities. (Federal Works Agency, Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946, pp. 132 and 136).
We could create a new WPA today. Unfortunately we won't, because we've let super-wealthy Americans hi-jack our democracy with tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. And with that bribery money, the super-wealthy are sure to be pampered... while our nation's infrastructure falls apart.