Politics

Americans Are Fine With a Broad Definition of ‘Infrastructure”

Voters want bridges and roads, but they want child care, long-term care, and clean energy too.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell frowning in front of a microphone and an American flag.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters about the Republican infrastructure plan. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Democrats want to spend a lot of money to upgrade America’s infrastructure. They might get only one or two more shots at passing legislation this year, so they’re taking a broad approach to what infrastructure is. Republicans want to spend less, and they claim that the public supports their narrower approach. “The Democrats are trying to redefine infrastructure” to include “a long list of social spending,” said Sen. John Barrasso, the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, at a GOP press conference on Tuesday. Barrasso argued that the Republican infrastructure plan is better because it focuses on “things that the American people think of when we talk about infrastructure: roads, bridges, ports, airports.”

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But Barrasso is wrong. Americans support a broader definition of infrastructure. And they support spending a lot of money on it, too.

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Voters already like Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. They support it, 51 percent to 36 percent, even when they’re told it “may increase the national debt.” They’re quite willing to raise corporate taxes to fund it. And they trust Biden more than they trust the GOP: They support an infrastructure plan from “President Biden” more broadly than they support an infrastructure plan from “Senate Republicans,” even when the goodies in the Republican plan are spelled out—“transportation, broadband internet, and water systems”—and the goodies in the Biden plan aren’t.

Republicans have some leverage on the question of how the plan becomes law. When voters are asked whether an infrastructure bill should be rammed “through Congress using parliamentary techniques and a razor-thin majority” or whether it should be “passed only with bipartisan support,” 65 percent choose the latter. But when pollsters leave out the scare words, bipartisanship hardly matters. Fifty-seven percent of voters support “Biden’s infrastructure plan,” and 58 percent support it when the poll adds that Biden is “seeking to work with Republicans to get bipartisan support.”

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The Republican strategy, illustrated by Barrasso, is to define infrastructure as roads and bridges while dismissing other parts of the Biden proposal, such as subsidies for caregiving, as unrelated “spending.” That’s how Echelon Insights, a GOP-affiliated firm, framed the question in a poll last month. The survey described Biden’s plan as “a $2 trillion spending package of which $500 billion is focused on infrastructure spending like roads and bridges, public transportation, and broadband Internet,” while “$1.5 trillion is focused on other spending priorities.” When the plan was phrased that way, voters preferred a smaller bill “focused solely on infrastructure.”

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The Echelon Insights survey presented a binary choice as to whether expenses such as caregiving should be considered infrastructure (yes or no), and it instructed respondents to disregard the importance of these expenses (“Regardless of how important you think it is …”). Under these conditions, only about 30 percent of voters included broadband, public housing, or “clean energy sources” on the list. Only 10 percent to 15 percent included child care, Medicaid, paid family leave, or caregiving for the elderly.

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But when voters are allowed to answer these questions with more nuance and consider which expenses they view as important, the numbers increase substantially. In April, when a Politico survey asked “to what extent” various expenses could “be considered part of America’s infrastructure,” most voters agreed somewhat or strongly that child care and caregiving could be included. A 47 percent plurality said the same of paid leave. And when a Marist poll inquired, “Do you consider long-term health care to be part of the country’s infrastructure or not,” 56 percent of voters said they did.

Polls show broad support for Biden’s position. When Americans are asked whether Congress “should solely address infrastructure such as roads and bridges” or should also include “other types of infrastructure such as energy, water, housing, health-care, manufacturing and communications systems,” 51 percent choose the broader bill. Only a third choose the smaller bill or nothing. Seventy percent of voters support “investing in clean energy generation and storage, like solar panels and wind turbines” as part of the package, and 61 percent support “building electric vehicle charging stations across the country.” Seventy-six percent support the inclusion of “$400 billion to improve caregiving for aging and disabled individuals.”

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Ultimately, the negotiation between congressional Democrats and Republicans comes down to how the funding will be allocated. Here, the Echelon Insights survey provides a guide. When the poll invited voters to distribute money within the infrastructure bill, they allocated about half of it to roads, bridges, ports, airports, public transportation, the electrical grid, drinking water, sewage, and drainage systems. They spend a quarter of it on broadband, “technology research and development,” and “American manufacturing.” The final quarter went to “public housing,” “electric vehicle subsidies,” “child care facilities,” and “caregiving for the disabled and the elderly.”

Republican voters differed little from other respondents in allocating this money. And in general, Republican voters are a lot closer to Biden on infrastructure than Republican senators are. In March, when a Navigator poll asked which of various ideas should be included in the legislation, 71 percent of Republican voters endorsed “making more affordable child care options accessible for all families.” Sixty-two percent supported “expanding family and medical leave for all workers,” and 50 percent supported “investing in clean energy infrastructure, like solar panels and wind turbines.” In April, 64 percent of Republican voters said the legislation should include $400 billion for caregiving. When they were asked to define infrastructure, 43 percent included caregiving, 40 percent included child care, and 31 percent included paid leave.

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On many of these questions, there’s a big partisan gap. But often, there’s a gender gap, too. In the Marist poll, men were divided over whether long-term health care counted as infrastructure. For women, it was a no-brainer: By a margin of nearly 30 points, they said it did. In a Monmouth survey, men leaned toward a bill to fund “roads, bridges and trains, internet access, power grid improvements, and clean energy projects,” but women leaned toward a bill “to expand access to healthcare and child care, and provide paid leave and college tuition support.” In the Echelon Insights poll, men allocated considerably more money than women did to roads and bridges. Women allocated considerably more than men did to caregiving.

At any rate, Republican politicians are free to argue that we shouldn’t spend infrastructure money on electric vehicles, solar panels, caregiving, or paid leave. But when they say these things are beyond what “the American people think of when we talk about infrastructure,” they’re wrong. The public is on Biden’s side. So is much of the Republican electorate.

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