Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Some call for investment in people, not bricks and bridges

A recent Milwaukee Talkie blog post asked, “Can’t we all get along when it comes to spending stimulus funds?” That post tackled state-vs.-local issues with regard to infrastructure spending, but not everyone is even at the point of agreeing that President-Elect Obama’s forthcoming New Deal-like plan to stimulate the economy by funding infrastructure has the right target.

In articles like “First, Repair the Human Infrastructure,” the head of a community health initiative claims that stimulus funding used to prevent chronic illness would save billions down the line in medical care and disability costs. Similarly, another blog makes a bid for human capital: “Lots of infrastructure is decaying in this country, and that includes the people and systems that comprise our social, educational, health and other kinds of human infrastructure. It isn’t just a matter of bricks and bridges.”

In the article “Don’t Forget the Human Infrastructure,” the Brookings Institute’s Isabel Sawhill presents some pragmatic arguments for making strategic investments in the nonprofit sector, which employs 10 percent of the workforce while providing a safety net for many, but is suffering in the bad economy. She notes that if such "human infrastructure" investments were made, the nonprofit sector would:

· Spend the money quickly and fully
· Employ people with a broad range of skills
· Be able to rely on a network of preexisting institutions
· Have the capacity to spread the dollars widely
· Avoid shrinkage, thus not adding to the ranks of the unemployed.

In Milwaukee, nonprofits are feeling the crunch. A Journal Sentinel article advised the sector: "Now is a time to be wary." The Nonprofit Portal of Milwaukee's most recent online newsletter links to five articles on weathering the economic crisis.

A commenter on a Seattle blog disagrees with Sawhill and others' human infrastructure arguments, cautioning against investing too heavily in recurring costs, “When you finance a building [or a road, bridge or rail line], you’re expecting to be able to use that building for maybe 50 years. You don’t need to build it again next year. . . . When we hire a teacher, however, the cost of their salary will recur each year.”

Others agree that we should be building things, but stress that short-term projects should be emphasized to stimulate the economy more quickly. An L.A. Times article describes how complex infrastructure projects like subways have a long lead time devoted to preparing engineering studies and environmental surveys, which can delay their stimulative effect. Lawrence E. Harris, a USC professor of finance counters, “But lots of tradesmen who know how to build houses can build community buildings, senior citizen centers and early childhood centers, which don’t take a long time.” Despite its emphasis on large infrastructure projects, Obama’s stimulus package is likely to highlight modernizing schools.

At least one women’s group is also concerned about Obama’s plan. Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal expressed alarm that the recovery package will emphasize construction jobs “which notoriously under-represent women workers.” She cautioned, “Although we support a physical infrastructure stimulus package, we believe it must be accompanied with a human infrastructure component that will employ a majority of women workers.”

Evidence abounds that many aspects of physical infrastructure have been neglected for too long in this country, as well as locally in Milwaukee. The number of voices pointing out that other aspects of the country’s “infrastructure” – from education to the nonprofit sector to hurricane protection – also are in disrepair speaks to the myriad challenges facing the new Obama administration. But perhaps no challenge is greater than this: while consensus seems to have emerged that we must stimulate the economy somehow, and while the battle therefore will continue over what sector or project gets the money, in the end we are still spending money we don't really have.

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