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What Is Infrastructure? It's A Gender Issue, For Starters

Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in March 2020.
Representative Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in March 2020.

One recent tweet from New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — along with its reams of snarky responses — sums up a key divide over infrastructure in Washington right now.

"Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure," she wrote.

This prompted a wave of backlash, particularly from conservatives — writer Christina Sommers posted a photo of (presumably) her dog and the words, "Izzy is infrastructure." "Ranch dressing is infrastructure," quipped the Daily Wire. And on and on and on.

Spoiler: Washington won't reach consensus over what "infrastructure" means. But Gillibrand's tweet gets at a different facet of that conversation: that infrastructure is a gender issue. And that idea is particularly important as the president pitches his plan as a salve for the pandemic-battered economy in which women, particularly women of color, have been left further behind.

Past infrastructure jobs have been men's jobs

The $2 trillion American Jobs Plan includes more than $600 billion that would go towards things that have historically often been touted as infrastructure, like roads and bridges, though it also includes money for elder care and upgrading childcare facilities.

And there has been a definite gender imbalance in those infrastructure jobs.

"If we were to look at the traditional definition of infrastructure, which includes construction jobs and production occupations and some installation and repair, those tend to be traditionally male," said Nicole Smith, Chief Economist at Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce.

In fact, around 9 in 10 "traditional" infrastructure jobs have historically gone to men, according to a recent report that Smith co-authored.

Biden's plan does offset that somewhat, for example with the care-economy spending.

Smith applauded those moves: "By doing that, by including those domestic concerns in the bill, we might in fact have an opportunity to reach out to women much more so than we did in the past."

But so far, Biden has only released part one. He has yet to unveil the American Families Plan, which is set to focus more squarely on the care economy including childcare services and education.

According to one rough estimate from Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, the jobs from the American Jobs Plan would split 60% to 40% in favor of men.

He estimates the still-unreleased American Families Plan would be 60-40 in women's favor, swaying the imbalance back. That's because it would both create jobs for women and bring more women into the workforce, by potentially giving them more childcare availability.

But the two-part structure, as well as the labels on the plan, worry California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter.

Like many American women, Porter's own family life and work life are bleeding together these days, which caused a problem when she was trying to explain her concerns to NPR.

"Hang on one second," she said, turning away to yell to the adolescent-instigated commotion happening nearby. "People! I will take you to lunch, but you have to wait 10 minutes" — followed by more commotion.

"Let me tell you about the need for childcare in this country," Porter added.

The juxtaposition of "childcare" and "infrastructure" has become a major part of the political debate since Biden laid out his agenda.

"I think that divide of 'jobs,' then 'family,' suggests that these things are in tension when in fact, if we want to have a strong, stable economy, then we need to make sure that families can go to work," Porter said.

She will be watching to make sure that issues like childcare don't get a lower priority than traditional infrastructure, and Porter stressed that it will be Congress that has ultimate say on how the plans are broken down.

In response, a Biden administration official told NPR, "The order in which the President stages his roll-out does not reflect the relative value he places on each policy."

But then again, there is some care-oriented spending in the infrastructure-oriented Jobs Plan. And that has been a big part of the debate over what "infrastructure" really means — and to what degree it includes "family"-oriented policies.

That debate has been going on since well before Biden released his plan. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, made the idea of childcare as infrastructure the centerpiece of her speech at the DNC last August.

The whole conversation reflects an ongoing conversation among progressive Democrats about structural inequalities and biases. That's at the heart of Porter's point of view.

"Why is that word, 'infrastructure,' perceived to have some kind of political magic to it?" she said. "And I think when you look behind that, you start to realize that what 'infrastructure' actually traditionally often has been used as is as code for 'jobs for men.' "

Meanwhile, some Republicans have criticized the administration for looping elder care and childcare-related spending under the infrastructure umbrella.

"I thought it was interesting, this whole concept, 'Well, we also need an infrastructure of care,' " Republican Sen. Roy Blunt told Fox News' Chris Wallace recently. "Democrats have figured out that infrastructure is something we need and something that's popular."

Those labels matter politically, says Republican strategist Alex Conant.

"A lot of this is a big branding exercise," he said. "And if Biden can convince the American people that this actually is an infrastructure bill, its chances of passage are much higher simply because voters are overwhelmingly supportive of spending more money on infrastructure."

It's a debate that won't go away soon; the American Families Plan is expected in the coming weeks. The White House has also indicated it will continue bipartisan negotiations on its plans until Memorial Day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.