YAMHILL, Ore. — The best argument for President Biden’s three-part proposal to invest heavily in America and its people is an echo of Franklin Roosevelt’s explanation for the New Deal.
“In 1932 there was an awfully sick patient called the United States of America,” Roosevelt said in 1943. “He was suffering from a grave internal disorder … and they sent for a doctor.”
Paging Dr. Joe Biden.
We should be cleareyed about both the enormous strengths of the United States — its technologies, its universities, its entrepreneurial spirit — and its central weakness: For half a century, compared with other countries, we have underinvested in our people.
In 1970, the United States was a world leader in high school and college attendance, enjoyed high life expectancy and had a solid middle class. This was achieved in part because of Roosevelt.
The New Deal was imperfect and left out too many African-Americans and Native Americans, but it was still transformative.
Here in my hometown, Yamhill, the New Deal was an engine of opportunity. A few farmers had rigged generators on streams, but Roosevelt’s rural electrification brought almost everyone onto the grid and output soared. Jobs programs preserved the social fabric and built trails that I hike on every year. The G.I. Bill of Rights gave local families a shot at education and homeownership.
Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration provided $27,415 in 1935 (the equivalent of $530,000 today) to help build a high school in Yamhill. That provided jobs for 90 people on the relief rolls, and it created the school that I attended and that remains in use today.
In short, the New Deal invested in the potential and productivity of my little town — and of much of the nation. The returns were extraordinary.
These kinds of investments in physical infrastructure (interstate highways) and human capital (state universities and community colleges) continued under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. They made America a stronger nation and a better one.
Yet beginning in the 1970s, America took a wrong turn. We slowed new investments in health and education and embraced a harsh narrative that people just need to lift themselves up by their bootstraps. We gutted labor unions, embraced inequality and shrugged as working-class America disintegrated. Average weekly wages for America’s production workers were actually lower in December 2020 ($860) than they had been, after adjusting for inflation, in December 1972 ($902 in today’s money).
What does that mean in human terms? I’ve written about how one-quarter of the people on my old No. 6 school bus died of drugs, alcohol or suicide — “deaths of despair.” That number needs to be updated: The toll has risen to about one-third.
We allocated large sums of taxpayer dollars to incarcerate my friends and their children. Biden proposes something more humane and effective — investing in children, families and infrastructure in ways that echo Roosevelt’s initiatives.
The most important thread of Biden’s program is his plan to use child allowances to cut America’s child poverty in half. Biden’s main misstep is that he would end the program in 2025 instead of making it permanent; Congress should fix that.
The highest return on investment in America today isn’t in private equity but in early childhood initiatives for disadvantaged kids of all races. That includes home visitations, lead reduction, pre-K and child care.
Roosevelt started a day care program during World War II to make it easier for parents to participate in the war economy. It was a huge success, looking after perhaps half a million children, but it was allowed to lapse after the war ended.
Biden’s proposal for day care would be a lifeline for young children who might be neglected. Aside from the wartime model, we have another in the U.S.: The military operates a high-quality on-base day care system, because that supports service members in performing their jobs.
Then there are Biden’s proposed investments in broadband; that’s today’s version of rural electrification. Likewise, free community college would enable young people to gain technical skills and earn more money, strengthening working-class families.
Some Americans worry about the cost of Biden’s program. That’s a fair concern. Yet this is not an expense but an investment: Our ability to compete with China will depend less on our military budget, our spy satellites or our intellectual property protections than on our high school and college graduation rates. A country cannot succeed when so many of its people are failing.
As many Americans have criminal records as college degrees. A baby born in Washington, D.C., has a shorter life expectancy (78 years) than a baby born in Beijing (82 years). Newborns in 10 counties in Mississippi have a shorter life expectancy than newborns in Bangladesh. Rather than continue with Herbert Hoover-style complacency, let’s acknowledge our “grave internal disorder” and summon a doctor.
The question today, as in the 1930s, is not whether we can afford to make ambitious investments in our people. It’s whether we can afford not to.