Inequality and Infrastructure

U.S. funding of infrastructure has declined dramatically since the 1960s, and Congress appears to be moving in the direction of even more cutbacks in the years ahead.

There is a bit of irony to this. With borrowing costs still very low and the market still somewhat depressed, now would be an ideal time for government to step up investment in infrastructure. In other words, it costs a lot less to build roads and bridges today than it might down the road if we hold off on the billions of dollars in needed repairs.

Sam Pizzigati laments this irony in a recent op-ed in The Star Ledger of Newark, N.J. And he has an interesting take on why infrastructure is getting short shrift: blame income inequality:

The cost of borrowing for infrastructure projects has hit record lows — and the private construction companies that do infrastructure work remain desperate for contracts. They’re charging less.

Yet our political system seems totally incapable of responding to the enormous opportunity we have before us. Center for American Progress analysts David Madland and Nick Bunker blame this political dysfunction on inequality.

The more wealth concentrates, their research shows, the feebler a society’s investments in infrastructure become. Our nation’s long-term decline in federal infrastructure investment — from 3.3 percent of GDP in 1968 to 1.3 percent in 2011 — turns out to mirror almost exactly the long-term shift in income from America’s middle class to the richest Americans.

Pizzigati notes that middle-class families rely on good roads and mass transit more than wealthy families, but the middle class tends to be weaker in unequal societies:

That leaves Americans with a basic choice. We can press for greater equality. Or spend more time dodging potholes.

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