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.

CA city to test universal basic income…with $500 a month?

Stockton, California is about to embark on a social experiment providing a universal basic income:

Stockton is one of many Bay Area cities on the fringe of the wealth accumulating in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. The Central Valley city went bankrupt in 2012, and for decades it has been trying to diversify its agriculture-based economy…

Tubbs is coordinating an effort to test a new way to sustain residents: universal basic income, or UBI. For one year, several dozen Stockton families will get $500 a month, no strings attached.

Dorian Warren co-chairs the Economic Security Project, which is contributing $1 million to the initiative. He said the goal is to gather data on the economic and social impacts of giving people a basic income.

In addition to tracking what residents do with the money, Warren said they will be monitoring how a basic income affects things like self-esteem and identity.

While the commentary I’ve seen so far on this story focuses on the long-term viability of universal basic income, I would raise another issue: how much of a test can $500 a month provide? That is not a big sum at all. Stockton is a relatively average place to live regarding costs and quality of life – see here and here. How far can $500 stretch, particularly for those that have a family and/or do not have a decent full-time job? That amount would not pay for an average rent or it could take some work to get food and essentials for a family for a month.

One of the larger questions that will need to be answered about universal basic income involves the amount of money provided. At least in the experiments I have seen thus far, the money is not necessarily meant to be the primary source of income. Yet, isn’t this supposed to provide a floor of income so that everyone can survive? If it is a smaller amount like $500 a month, it is one income source among several that an individual or family would need to put together. I would guess that many would say an extra $500 a month would be helpful but would it make enough of a meaningful difference for the people who need it most?