Fix America by Undoing Decades of Privatization

Investing in public infrastructure should be at the center of a 21st-century civil-rights agenda.

An illustration of playground slides stylized in the colors of the American flag.
Getty / The Atlantic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall, the Trump administration has ruled out any further action on a federal relief package. Meanwhile, state and local governments, lacking federal support, are considering deep cuts to budgets and public services. These measures reflect a deep problem in American policy and culture: the systematic undermining of public infrastructure.

When I refer to public infrastructure, I mean something much more expansive than roads and bridges; I mean the full range of goods, services, and investments needed for communities to thrive: physical utilities such as water, parks, and transit; basics such as housing, child care, and health care; and economic safety-net supports such as food stamps and unemployment insurance. But under America’s reigning ideology, public infrastructure like this is seen as costly, inefficient, outdated, and low-quality, while private alternatives are valorized as more dynamic, efficient, and modern. This ideology is also highly racialized. Universal services open to a multiracial public are vilified, coded in dog-whistle politics as an undeserved giveaway to communities of color at the expense of white constituents. The result has been a systematic defunding of public infrastructure since the 1970s.

Now under the extreme pressures of the pandemic and the economic collapse, the true costs of this underinvestment have become appallingly clear. As the country looks at how to respond to both the recent demands for racial justice and the needs of survival and rebuilding from the COVID-19 crisis, any recovery agenda will have to overcome these ideological and institutional attacks on the idea of public infrastructure, and commit to investing more dollars into our public infrastructure, dismantling racialized barriers to access, and embracing an economic narrative that defends these public goods.

On an economic score alone, massive investments in public infrastructure would pay off. Every dollar invested in transit infrastructure generates at least $3.70 in returns through new jobs, reduced congestion, and increased productivity, without accounting for the environmental and health benefits. For each dollar invested in early-childhood education, the result is $8.60 worth of economic benefit largely through reductions in crime and poverty. A universal health-care system would save Americans more than $2 trillion in health-care costs (even accounting for the increased public expenditure that would be needed) while securing access to life-saving care for more than 30 million Americans. The fact that federal and state governments fail to make these investments is not a matter of limited resources, but rather of skewed priorities. The 2017 Trump tax cuts of $1.9 trillion sent most of its gains to corporations and the wealthiest Americans; the United States has spent more than $820 billion on the Iraq War since 2003, and hundreds of billions every year to fund the prison-industrial complex.

Any 21st-century civil-rights and economic agenda must involve a massive shift in our public investments. The human cost of the failure to invest in these crucial social goods falls disproportionately on Black and brown communities. In the midst of the current economic crisis, more than a quarter of Black and Latino households report missing their last rent payment, and more than one-fifth of Black and Latino households are food insecure. Our public-investment decisions reflect who and what we value: Too often, the decision to underinvest in public infrastructure has stemmed from a desire to restrict access to those  goods and services for people of color, in an attempt to preserve the benefits of public infrastructure for wealthier and whiter communities.

The public provision of certain services, and universal access to them, has been a central fault line in the long quest for economic and racial inclusion—and for democracy. In the 19th century, for example, as the industrial revolution began to transform the economy, local judges and reformers became concerned with the problem of private actors controlling access to new infrastructural services such as water, electricity, or transportation systems. If control remained in private hands, owners could employ arbitrary, profit-driven policies that left individuals and communities utterly dependent on those owners’ benevolence and good will.

The response of reformers was to imagine a radical alternative: public oversight and control of these utilities, if not outright municipalization. This “sewer socialism,” at the state and municipal levels, led to the first electric, water, and transportation utilities. Over time, the idea of the public utility became the forerunner of the modern administrative and regulatory state, as state officials pioneered public-utility regulation over other necessities, including milk, ice, and banking. Practically as soon as public utilities and other public services emerged, they became the heart of the struggle for racial equity. After the Civil War, Congress briefly seized the opportunity to advance a variety of foundational civil-rights provisions. A hostile Supreme Court invalidated these efforts, helping usher in a century of Jim Crow segregation—until the civil-rights movement vindicated the aspiration for desegregation and equal access to public goods.

But even formal desegregation has not assured equitable access to public infrastructure. Governments, usually at the prompting of coalitions of business interests, wealthy Americans, and white voters, have restricted access to these services and systems through a range of other hidden strategies. Austerity and privatization have driven the defunding of public infrastructure—even as wealthier and whiter communities have maintained access to their own private versions of these systems. Schools are the perfect example: The shift to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education prompted vociferous efforts by white communities to relocate to more homogenous suburbs, while civil rights made conservative appeals for lower taxes and deregulation more potent as “public” goods came to be seen as racially inclusive goods. More broadly, the rise of conventional anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric has been more politically effective since the late 20th century for this very reason: Corporate interests committed to deregulation made common cause with opponents of desegregation to form a shared anti-government coalition that has powered the modern conservative movement. These measures effectively ensured that wealthier and whiter communities could maintain preferential access to parks, schools, and other municipal infrastructure without sharing them with the wider multiracial public. Meanwhile, the trend toward onerous bureaucratic requirements for enrollment into safety-net programs such as food stamps and unemployment insurance reflects paternalistic and racialized attitudes against beneficiaries of these programs, and has further winnowed away access.

What, then, is the way forward? First, the public needs to broaden its conceptions of public goods and infrastructure. Beyond roads and bridges, reformers should focus on those services and systems that are essential for full-fledged membership and well-being, that expand the capabilities and capacities of individuals and communities, and where leaving the provision in private hands would create too great a risk of exclusion or unfair, arbitrary, and extractive pricing. Concretely, this means focusing on two types of public infrastructure in particular: foundational back-end services such as water, electricity, mail, credit, broadband, and the like; and the safety net and systems for community care, including health care, child care, public schools, and more.

Second, we need to ensure that these infrastructures are, in fact, public. That means subjecting them to stringent regulations ensuring quality, nondiscrimination, fair pricing, and equitable access. It might mean outright public provision—either through a public option as in the health-care debate, or through outright nationalization or municipalization. And it means creating oversight to ensure racial and gender equity in access, just as the Civil Rights Act led to the creation of administrative offices charged with preventing discrimination and resegregation in access to services including hospital health care.

Many reformers and social movements today have advanced proposals that evince this broader recommitment to public infrastructure. In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations have proposed an “Essential Workers Bill of Rights” to fill gaps in access to the safety net and a broader push to create a public-care infrastructure spanning child care and elder care as part of the new post-pandemic social contract. The Medicare for All debate is fundamentally about public options and the public provision of health care; other advocates have also proposed public options and the public provision of basic banking and credit systems. Critics of big tech, meanwhile, have proposed that information platforms such as Facebook be regulated like public utilities as a way to fight the proliferation of disinformation and extractive data mining, an approach that also addresses some First Amendment concerns about online-speech regulation. The climate-justice movement has, over time, embraced proposals to convert energy utilities into more democratic utilities with mandates for assuring equity.

Inevitably, these proposals will crash into old frames and rhetoric. “Can we afford it?” “How do we know public versions will actually be high quality and effective, instead of corrupt, costly, and hapless?” These ready retorts are more about how deep our anti-public conventional wisdom runs, and less about reality. As the trillions of dollars of crisis spending in the early months of COVID-19 highlight, we have ample resources to fund extensive public infrastructure. The Movement for Black Lives’ demands for defunding the police turn in part on exactly this point: The billions we spent on mass incarceration and the policing of Black and brown communities dwarf what we spend on positive public infrastructure; radically reallocating our budgetary priorities would transform our economy and society for the better. Nor is the fear of public corruption or failure that compelling: We’ve all seen that the private provision of essential services, including food, health care, and banking, is often predatory, extractive, exclusionary, and not especially efficient. Nevertheless, we should not be Panglossian about the prospects of public provision; real public infrastructure will also require truly democratic, accountable, and responsive administrative bodies.

If we are to survive this crisis—and imagine a more equitable, dynamic economy to come, we must start with a recommitment to the value of universal, inclusive public infrastructure. Tens of millions of Americans currently face homelessness, are unable to put food on the table, and lack access to schools or child care or health care, even as the stock market booms and CEOs like Jeff Bezos gain billions in wealth. Instead, we could have an economy where these public needs are fully funded, securing the health and well-being of millions. That alternative future is still possible—should policy makers choose to make it real.