“Gloom” and suburban women ahead of 2022 elections

Focus groups convened by a set of Democratic groups suggests suburban women are not feeling good about what is happening in Washington, D.C.:

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Earlier this week, 10 women from across the country met on Zoom and talked for two hours as part of a focus group on politics. All of the women were white, lived in the suburbs and had been identified as swing voters. One was a mother from Iowa who owns a small business. Another teaches special education in Florida. And there was a school bus driver from Pennsylvania….

Democrats need support from suburban women if they want to keep their House and Senate majorities in November. The women in the focus group didn’t necessarily dislike Biden. They supported the infrastructure law and opposed measures that restrict voting access. They applauded Biden for his hot-mic moment — the one when he muttered a disparaging remark about a Fox News reporter. They disliked Trump, and they were disgusted with those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Despite all of that, they weren’t eager to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections in November…

“It’s absolutely essential that by Election Day, these suburban women are looking at Washington and seeing it as a place that can get things done,” said Meredith Kelly, a Democratic strategist.

There is a lot of time until November elections but the pattern is clear for the national political parties: appeal to suburban voters, particularly those who have voted for Republicans and Democrats in their past and need some motivation to go one way or another.

My sense is that historically Joe Biden has been a politician who has successfully made this appeal. Throughout his career, Biden has talked about the middle-class and providing opportunities for people to provide for themselves and their families.

But, Biden is now operating in a particular context. Suburban politics have some new wrinkles – school board elections, mask mandates – and some long-standing concerns: protect property values and a way of life, ensure success for children, enable local government to serve and adjust to local conditions.

Perhaps neither party has to have a wave of suburban voters in their favor but rather (1) get the right suburban voters in the closest races that matter the most for the Senate and House and/or (2) drive up voter turnout for their side. As I live in a district that is somewhat mixed politically, I will be watching how appeals are made and how they work.

Who is affordable housing for? Biden Build Back Better edition

The Biden administration includes affordable housing as an important part of the Build Back Better initiative. Under the heading “The most significant effort to bring down costs and strengthen the middle class in generations,” here is how whitehouse.gov describes the affordable housing plans:

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Makes the single largest and most comprehensive investment in affordable housing in history.

The framework will enable the construction, rehabilitation, and improvement of more than 1 million affordable homes, boosting housing supply and reducing price pressures for renters and homeowners. It will address the capital needs of the public housing stock in big cities and rural communities all across America and ensure it is not only safe and habitable but healthier and more energy efficient as well. It will make a historic investment in rental assistance, expanding vouchers to hundreds of thousands of additional families. And, it includes one of the largest investments in down payment assistance in history, enabling hundreds of thousands of first-generation homebuyers to purchase their first home and build wealth. This legislation will create more equitable communities, through investing in community-led redevelopments projects in historically under-resourced neighborhoods and removing lead paint from hundreds of thousands of homes, as well as by incentivizing state and local zoning reforms that enable more families to reside in higher opportunity neighborhoods.

There is certainly a need for affordable housing throughout the United States as well as in specific places. What interests me at the moment here is the references to how this investment in affordable housing will benefit the middle class. The whole package is aimed at the middle class. The introduction states, “President Biden promised to rebuild the backbone of the country – the middle class – so that this time everyone comes along.”

On one hand, affordable housing is important to the middle class. For decades, homeownership has been a marker of being in the middle-class. The postwar suburban housing boom was driven in part by attainable mortgages. This middle-class homeownership is then often related to a number of middle-class goals. Since housing is such a big expense in many household budgets, having cheaper housing enables spending in other areas.

On the other hand, many people need housing assistance, not just the middle class. Middle class is a broad category and some in that group have plenty of resources (this is a little different in high housing cost areas). Housing is foundational need as good stable shelter is connected to a number of other positive outcomes. If this money is aimed at the middle class, will it go to educated young professionals or older downsizers (as it sometimes discussed in suburban communities)? Or, would it be more needed for those who work lower-wage wages or have fewer family and community resources to draw on?

Perhaps the devil is in the details and where exactly this money goes. Or, middle-class here is intentionally broad as many Americans like to think of themselves even if their circumstances suggest they are not and some Americans are averse to resources directed to narrower groups. Regardless, if the plan comes to fruition, it will be worth seeing whether these efforts can make a significant dent in the affordable housing needs in the United States.

The language of “human infrastructure” versus human rights

President Joe Biden was in the Chicago suburbs yesterday and talked about his proposal for infrastructure improvements in the United States:

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President Joe Biden promised jobs and better access to education in an appeal that may resonate with suburban swing voters during a historic trip to McHenry County College.

“America is back,” Biden said Wednesday, promising to fund transportation through an infrastructure package that faces opposition in Congress…

During his remarks, the president touted the infrastructure program and the American Families Plan, which includes checks of up to $300 for eligible families starting this month.

“That’s good for families and is good for the economy and it will create more jobs,” said Biden, who repeated the word “jobs” several times during his speech.

Infrastructure often refers to physical structures operating in the background of society. Electricity, gas pipelines, power plants, roadways and mass transit lines. I would guess many people do not think about these much until there is a problem or it becomes very visible. As a recent example, I drove down a highway that had a pipeline pass over the roadway. While I know that pipelines are essential, I do not think about them much until I hear about them on the news (the recent pipeline ransomware, the Keystone Pipeline, etc.).

The Biden administration is pushing to include more human capital elements in its infrastructure plan. In terms of the essential pieces for society to function, jobs, health care, and other benefits are indeed important. Particularly in the era of the knowledge economy and more attention paid to inequality, including a more human element to infrastructure would hold some appeal.

At the same time, I wonder if the goals of the Biden administration fall more into the category of human rights. Should people have a right to a job, which provides income and worthwhile activity? Should there be a right to good affordable housing? A right to Internet access?

Perhaps the political calculation is that moving toward a conversation of human rights is a bridge too far. Americans have resisted the right to housing or public housing. But, call it infrastructure and housing is not guaranteed but rather an important foundation for society. On the other hand, electric lines and gas lines are essential for everyday living yet are they a right? Is the difference that infrastructure might require a cost while rights are supposed to be free or really cheap?

Given the current public conversations, this may be the way societies are headed: people should have more rights. Universal basic income might be the next area where this occurs: jobs are not enough and people should be able to have a guaranteed income source to have a decent life.

For now, American political leaders will debate exactly what infrastructure means. At the least, there will be acknowledgement that numerous building blocks of social life must be in place for desired outcomes.

Fighting zoning restrictions with “carrot, no stick” approach

The Biden administration has plans to encourage more housing by offering infrastructure money for loosening zoning regulations:

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The Biden proposal would set up a $5 billion fund for local governments to compete for grants to pay for new schools, roads or bridges if they agreed to loosen zoning rules.

“This is a new approach that is purely carrot, no stick,” said a White House official on condition of anonymity…

Trump himself explicitly campaigned against the idea last year, warning “suburban housewives” that crime would spike and home values drop if zoning rules were relaxed.

Housing experts praised Biden’s proposal, but said it may do little to influence affluent communities that have the tightest zoning laws, which have little need for federal assistance.

It will be interesting to see which communities would accept the carrot and loosen zoning. My guess: suburban communities that are already in the midst of demographic and community change and looking for funds that could help point the community in a particular direction.