K. Sabeel Rahman, president of the think tank Demos, proposes wisely in The Atlantic that the way to fix our nation’s economy and restore equity is to reverse decades of privatization and instead invest in public infrastructure. This would not only create millions of jobs but would restore the balance between the public and private spheres, which are dramatically skewed in favor of the haves and against the have-nots. I wish he said more about the privatization of public schools, but he does not fail to mention the subject.

He begins:

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 But under America’s reigning ideology, public infrastructure like this is seen as costly, inefficient, outdated, and low-quality, while private alternatives are valorized as more dynamic, efficient, and modern.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.