Why Infrastructure Matters

An article in today’s New York Times (July 23, 2013) tells us why infrastructure is important to the overall economic well-being of our country. The article summarizes a study by several economists of the regional differences in upward mobility across the United States. The study found that where one grows up is an important factor determining whether or not one can move up from poverty to prosperity. The authors found a correlation between a number of factors and mobility, including quality of education, but one that struck me (perhaps because for many years I depended on it) was the quality of public transportation. Atlanta is cited as one of the cities with the worst prospects for upward mobility, in large part because the city is segregated by income, i.e., poor people live in their own neighborhoods surrounded by other poor people and these neighborhoods are distant from the good paying jobs. The article gives several examples of low-wage workers who have long commutes from home to work and who must transfer buses and/or trains several times to reach their jobs. The time they spend commuting is lost to other activities, such as earning an associate’s degree or spending time supervising their children’s homework, or even working a second job to increase their income.

Good public transportation is an essential service depended upon by low-income people in every city, but the emphasis on automobiles and their roads and highways literally leaves poorer people behind. Cars are expensive to purchase and maintain, gas is increasingly expensive. The choice is often between a car and food on the table and rent. Yet oddly, while we are willing to spend billions on road and highway improvement and construction, we are unwilling to support public transportation; it’s as if prejudice against the poor dictates transportation policy. Indeed, given how much is invested in the conveniences of the well-off and in rescuing the rich from their own follies (TARP, etc.), there seems to be a pervasive prejudice against the poor, as if being poor were their own fault, or as if a large population of disadvantaged children were of no importance to society as a whole. But in the long run, when public services are neglected, the entire nation suffers.

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