Most of the U.S. public doesn’t “know anything at all” about congressional Democrats’ Build Back Better infrastructure plan, according to a CBS poll released this week. Even though the provisions the plan contains could help countless families, the language of “infrastructure” is both distant from our daily lives and too obscure to generate a sense of urgency. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” the prophet Hosea warns (Hosea 4:6). How true that rings now.
In Hosea’s case, Israel’s lack of knowledge was tied to their unfaithfulness, which precipitated the Northern Kingdom’s fall to the Assyrians. Today, the public's lack of knowledge around the infrastructure bills that target both traditional physical infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and human infrastructure, like child care and health care, has resulted from a combination of disinformation and weak messaging that is failing to break through. The truth is, these bills are about ensuring that families and communities of all kinds across the United States can make a sustainable living, provide quality education for children, afford medications when they get sick, have clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, equip the next generation with a livable planet, and so much more. Together the bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation package represent the most pro-family and pro-common good agenda we have seen in over a generation. When so much is at stake, leaders must better communicate what’s in these bills — and make the case for why they will significantly improve our quality of life as a society.
One cause of confusion is the money: What is the price tag and who will pay for it? While we must consider the cost, it’s important to note that this new spending is over a 10-year period. Even if the budget reconciliation bill — the bill that targets crucial human needs like child care, paid family leave, and health care — were passed at its initially proposed price tag of $3.5 trillion, that comes out to $350 billion per year. That’s less than half of the military budget, which totaled more than $770 billion last year. It’s worth asking why the military budget is universally discussed in annual terms but programs that would fight the climate crisis and provide vital support to families are discussed in terms of their total cost over the course of a decade. As for how to fund the programs, the bill proposes a more equitable tax system in which the uber-wealthy and major corporations pay their fair share.
So what’s in the budget reconciliation bill? As Sojourners political director Lauren W. Reliford laid out a few weeks ago, the bill would dramatically cut child poverty, which today affects nearly one in five children in the United States. And while the bill’s final details are being negotiated as we speak, the House version includes 12 weeks of universal paid family and medical leave. It would also make child care more affordable by capping the amount of income parents spend on it and provide funding to states that implement universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, with the goal of making pre-K available nationwide. The reconciliation bill’s climate provisions reward electric companies that use more clean, renewable energy and fine those that don’t and provide tax breaks to renewable energy industries like wind and solar. These provisions would help transition our economy off of fossil fuels, enabling us to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50 percent by the end of the decade, while creating clean energy jobs in the process.
Between this bill’s family-focused programs and climate-focused provisions, it’s not a stretch to say that this legislation could save countless lives both now and long term.
And what about the bipartisan infrastructure bill — the one that targets traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges? It would spend over $100 billion to fix crumbling roads and bridges across the country. It would invest an additional $100 billion in public transit and rail, which will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A billion dollars would go toward reconnecting communities that have been divided by large highways, which are overwhelmingly communities of color. It would also invest $65 billion to finally deliver high-speed internet to every community in the United States. It would make electric vehicles more practical and widespread, modernize the national power grid, fund damage mitigation from extreme weather, and invest in clean water and soil. It’s an important bill for environmental justice and the climate crisis, and it complements the transformational nature of the budget reconciliation bill.
Far too often the political Right narrowly defines a pro-family agenda as restricting abortion and standing in the way of LGBTQ rights and is then largely silent on policies that would clearly benefit families. In the debate over these bills, many Republican politicians have used scare tactics, mischaracterizing the bills as socialism or arguing that they will destroy the economy. Just as Jesus expressed his moral indignation against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, we too should call out this hypocrisy. Saying “free market” doesn’t make child care more affordable or offer those providing it a living wage. These bills would provide lifelines of support where market forces have clearly failed.
Rather than talking and thinking about these bills through the lens of infrastructure, we must reframe them through the lens of our faith, particularly the biblical call to advance the common good and serve as “repairers of the breach” (Isaiah 58:12). In one of my favorite passages from the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Isaiah speaks directly about the dual call to renew and build a society rooted in a commitment to compassion and justice. Isaiah speaks to a broken and demoralized people in roughly 540 B.C., 45 years after the Babylonian Empire had destroyed Jerusalem, Judah's capital city, and deported many Jews to Babylon. Isaiah denounces their empty worship, which is superficial as long as it is disconnected from a commitment to maintain justice and provide for the common good. Isaiah makes it plain:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
These verses make it crystal clear that what pleases the Lord is when we engage in acts of compassion and justice, which in turn advance the common good. And these requirements are not confined to individual acts but also apply to our communal acts — in other words who and what we prioritize in our politics and budgetary priorities. As the Second Vatican Council put it, the common good is “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” Pope Francis, in the encyclical Fratelli tutti also emphasizes that we must recognize the equal dignity of all people and to work together to build a world where people love and care for one another as brothers and sisters. Isaiah forewarns us not to let our worship devolve into a purely private or personal enterprise and makes it clear that our spiritual and material prosperity is tied to the liberation and welfare of the people who are most downtrodden and shut out in our communities.
Isaiah goes on to say that after we prioritize compassion and justice, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly … then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday … Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:8, 10, 12). Not only will a commitment to prioritize compassion and justice bless others, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized, it will ultimately bless and uplift all of us. In other words, a politics and economy that prioritize the common good will produce more abundant life and wholeness for all.
The debate over these bills presents a historic moment and an opportunity in which we must respond to the continual call to be repairers of the breach. Through the Circle of Protection, Christian leaders representing a broad cross-section of denominations and faith-based organizations have created and promoted videos that speak to this moral imperative. We must all raise our voices to demand that our elected representatives pass the infrastructure plan and a budget bill that fundamentally transforms our economy in ways that allow families to thrive and the planet to heal. A more compassionate and just economy and nation are both possible and necessary, and it’s up to us to convince our legislators of the importance of these bills in getting us there.