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The need for public investment is now

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the serious need for more public investment in the United States. An obvious need is for improving the public health system, but other areas also require help.

The Covid-19 pandemic is exposing major policy flaws in the United States. This includes the major misplaced priorities of cutting taxes, putting more money into the pockets of cash-rich corporations, and making wealthy investors even wealthier than before. The problem is that more funds have been needed for decades on such projects as repairing and rebuilding America’s infrastructure, building back public health, and investing in rural America.

With the rapid explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic, the serious flaw in the nation’s public health system has been exposed with the need for more hospitals, improved health care, and increasing the number of frontline health care workers such as nurses and doctors. The pandemic has also exposed the need for more rural hospitals as well as increased investment in rural America through such projects as more telecommunications systems and greater access to the internet. A common thread of these areas is the repairing and rebuilding on the nation’s infrastructure.

But in order to accomplish these tasks, there must be a shifting of economic and financial assets and resources to public investments. This must be done on a national scale in order for public investment to be effective, efficient, and beneficial for every American. There must also be a goal of how public investment projects will benefit the poor and middle class rather than just weighing whether a project will pass a cost-benefit test. The bottom line should be that public investment has substantial benefits for all Americans, not just improving the lives of a wealthy few.

Repairing and rebuilding infrastructure

If there is one key aspect of the American economy that needs dire help it is infrastructure. Infrastructure is important since it can help the American economy grow at a more effective and efficient rate. If American infrastructure does not function properly it will mean enormous costs that must be borne by both businesses and consumers. For businesses, decaying roads, bridges, highways, along with poor railway transportation and inefficient airports will mean that goods and diverse products will take longer to reach other businesses and the retail consumer. For example, according to Henry Petroski, author of The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure, poor and inefficient infrastructure will mean huge costs imposed on the American economy. He states that delays due to traffic congestion cost the American macroeconomy over $120 billion a year. Petroski goes on to state that delays due to the negligent state of the nation’s airport system results in a cost exceeding $35 billion every year to the American economy.

Even with internal reviews of America’s infrastructure, the news is not good. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), after conducting a serious study of the nation’s infrastructure concluded that it merited a grade of D+ and that there is an estimated $2 trillion gap in funding in     order to bring it to the level it should be by the year 2025. The study felt that not enough was being spent on America’s infrastructure: In the 1930’s, approximately 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP went toward infrastructure investment while by 2016 the amount decreased to 1.5 percent.

There are numerous aspects of American infrastructure that needs immediate help. Among these areas are:

Water and Wastewater infrastructure: Water is vital to human existence whether it is for drinking, bathing, crop irrigation, or for use in industry. But the problem with the nation’s water system is bleak and dangerous. According to the ASCE, drinking water is delivered to end users through 1 million miles of pipelines throughout the United States, with a good amount of it installed in the early to middle part of the twentieth century but only having a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. And most of this system is approaching, if it has not already, its end: The United States has an estimated 240,000 water main breaks annually. Another serious problem deals with wastewater infrastructure which is considered old and due for a replacement. It has been estimated that approximately 56 million new users will need to be connected to hundreds, if not thousands, of water treatment plants in the next twenty years with a price tag of a minimum of $271 billion.

Energy: As our country moves more toward being a service economy and depending more on the use of electronic equipment, the need for cheap, reliable, and a modern energy grid is more important than ever. Not only is the need for energy necessary to help expand and advance our macroeconomy as well as create jobs but also to reduce our carbon footprint. But this means modernizing our energy grid in order to make it more efficient and effective. Currently, the United States experiences more blackouts than any other developed country. Federal data states that the American electric grid system loses power 285 percent more frequently now than in the year 1984 with businesses incurring a cost of as much as $150 billion annually. The problem is not just expanding our energy grid but also making it more reliable.

Other aspects of the nation’s infrastructure needing modernization include ports, inland waterways, dams, school buildings, and mass transit. It can be accomplished, but it means public investment in the trillions of dollars done with good intentions by the federal government.

Building back public health

If there is one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed is that the public health system in the United States is sorely in need of critical help. The pandemic has shown that what was once regarded as a system admired around the world is now being questioned on many levels. Among the areas in the nation’s public health system needing revamping is that there must be a major change in order to stabilize the public health system workforce. There must be expansion of the nation’s public health workforce which means hiring more nurses, technicians, doctors, nurses’ aides, pharmacists, and physician assistants. The states and the federal government must put more money into training programs whether it means grants, student loans, or subsiding education systems in order to increase the number of public health workers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2009 that there was a “persistent lack of commitment to the public’s health” in revealing that the highest-priority risk-based federal emergency planning scenarios showed that 14 out of 15 disaster scenarios would require governmental public health agencies, laboratories, officials, as well as hospitals as “either primary first respondents or essential members of coordinated team respondents.”

This also means raising the salaries of public healthcare workers not only to attract workers but also to retain them and make a livable wage. According to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials more than 20 percent of public health workers in local or regional departments in rural or suburban areas made $35,000 or less per year in 2017. In urban settings, 9 percent of public healthcare workers made that amount.

Another key factor that the Covid-19 pandemic revealed was that preparedness in the United States is frightfully low. The problem first starts at the federal level in which it drastically cut funds for state, local, and tribal health preparedness from $940 million in 2002 to $675 million in 2019 which now comes to approximately $2 per citizen. To make matters worse, within the same time period, health care emergency preparedness was reduced by almost 50 percent from $515 million in 2004 to $265 million in 2019 and comes to less than $1 per individual.

There must also be more funds put into education as well as research and development. This should be money not only for training of public healthcare workers, but also for education of the general populace as to the necessity of wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. Perhaps if the general public was more aware of the necessity of these actions, there would be a much higher level of acceptance by the general public and less of a possibility of it becoming a political controversy.

There must also be more funding and resources devoted to improving rural health care in the United States. This country has slowly evolved into two worlds: prosperous, wealthy urban areas or cities and poor, underserved rural areas. For example, residents of urban areas have a greater chance of experiencing longer lives while this is not so in rural areas. According to a recent study of the five leading causes of death in the United States, which include heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke, it was found that the age-adjusted mortality rate for each was higher among individuals in rural areas. For inhabitants of rural areas, it has been found that they are more than likely, on average, to live in a state of poverty, lack a formal education, and not have access to adequate health care. Combining these factors with poor health behaviors along with being exposed to highly toxic stress levels makes their situation worse than for urban dwellers.  This has resulted in a rapidly increasing rate of deaths for rural working-class individuals from such causes as suicide, liver disease, as well as opioid and drug overdose. The sad fact is that an individual who lives in a remote rural area has a 54 percent greater chance of committing suicide than someone from an urban area.

Investing in rural America

Rural America has had very serious problems in the past ten years and is badly in need of solid investing in order to improve its condition. There are a variety of areas that need improvement so that rural America can be on an even scale with the nation’s urban sector. The first of these areas are education.

Schools in rural America not only need funding, but must be able to attract and retain quality teachers. A key problem many schools in rural America have is being able to attract quality teachers since their salary is considered low as opposed to urban schools. Teachers coming straight out of college are attracted to urban areas since the salaries are higher so they can afford to pay off their student loans. Another problem is that very often the technology used in rural schools is far behind that used in urban schools. The Obama Administration pushed for greater use and access of broadband in public schools in rural areas in which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) invested $2 billion to expand high-speed internet connectivity for schools and libraries. But this should be regarded as a starting point.

Another key area that rural America needs more investment is in infrastructure. In order for any economy to grow and develop in the long term, it must have a modern and flourishing infrastructure. A key area that rural America is lacking is in is high-speed internet. According to a 2017 report by the FCC, 26.4 percent of individuals residing in rural America and 32.1 percent of people residing on tribal lands had no access to even minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/3 Mbps) versus 1.7 percent of residents in cities. The problem here is individuals in rural America have fallen behind in access to information that people around the world can find at their fingertips. There must be greater investment by the federal government in making broadband more accessible to rural America rather than waiting for private corporations and vendors to do so. Private corporations and vendors do not find it cost-effective to provide broadband to rural areas since it is considered too expensive due to low population densities versus urban centers that have a high amount of people living in a compact area. Broadband, as part of America’s infrastructure, is necessary for its economic development. For example, a study in 2013 stated that rural counties where at least 60 percent of the population had and used broadband internet experienced a much faster rate of growth of income and a lower unemployment rate than those counties that did not have broadband internet. Broadband allows firms in rural areas to compete with businesses in urban centers, therefore leveling the playing field between the two.

There is also the need for affordable housing in rural America. Better housing is a crucial step toward improving a society. Unfortunately, rural America is behind. The Housing Assistance Council reported that the 2010 Census showed that of the approximately 116 million occupied housing units in the United States, only 25 million units were located in rural and small towns.  To make matters worse, it has been found that of the over 30 percent of the nation’s homes lacked hot and cold piped-in water which are found in rural and small towns. There must be a way for the federal government to provide for more affordable housing in rural America. In other words, housing must not be a financial burden for residents of rural America. For example, the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reported in 2017 that 41 percent, or 5 million households, of rural renters are regarded as cost-burdened. In this case, the renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing costs while 21 percent, or 2.1 million households, in rural America who are renting are paying more than 50 percent of their income toward housing costs.

Money well spent

There are critics who say that government involvement in America’s economy should be minimal and that corporations and private entities know what is best. These critics feel that funds could be spent in a more efficient and effective manner if the market determined where it should be used. The problem is that corporations, private entities, and the marketplace is often short-sighted and concerned about profits, cash flow, payback periods, and return on investment. That these factors must be low on risk, benefit shareholders, and pay back creditors, while letting public investment be someone else’s problem.

Well, public investment is everyone’s problem since, in reality, no corporation, private entity, nor individual lives in a bubble. All are affected, one way or another, by public investments, whether it is better roads and highways, improving the nation’s public health system, affordable housing in Iowa, or high-speed internet access in western Nebraska. In the long run, public investment affects America’s gross domestic product, whether the critics like it or not.

 

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Arthur Guarino

Arthur Guarino is a finance professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Professor Guarino’s professional career has been deeply involved in the financial services industry with such corporations as TIAA-CREF, Met Life, and The Bank of New York Mellon. He has held various positions in the financial services field including sales, training and development, administration, product development, customer service and relationship, and management. His teaching experience as a full-time instructor has been at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and currently at Rutgers University in Newark. His teaching background includes graduate and undergraduate courses in macroeconomics and microeconomics, as well as managerial accounting, financial management, corporate finance, portfolio theory, financial institutions and markets, and investment analysis. Professor Guarino received his B.A. in Political Science, M.B.A. in Finance as well as a graduate certificate in International Business all from Seton Hall University. He also has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and received his J.D. from Rutgers University School of Law in Newark.

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