Going Beyond Recovery with the American Jobs Plan

Wesley Holmes

Photo: Nick Abrams

For patients recovering from a major illness or trauma, doctors stress the importance of improving social wellness as a part of recovery. They prescribe getting back on your feet as the first step, but note that staying healthy requires a long-term investment in one’s physical, mental, and social health. In the American Job Plan, the Biden administration expands the definition of infrastructure beyond roads and bridges to include basic services, public institutions, and community resources. These shared assets bring people together, enabling them to meet their own needs and provide support to others. The plan marks a sea-change in public policy-making, explicitly calling for investments that support better physical, mental, and social health across our society. This reflects a fundamental shift in our cultural understanding of infrastructure and makes the case for social wellness as a prescriptive path to move America beyond recovery and back on its feet.

In 2009, the Obama administration responded to the Great Recession with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (Recovery Act). From 2009 to 2015, SEEA served as an Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) administrator for the Recovery Act, coordinating 16 municipal governments and more than $20 million in grant funds across the Southeast. These local partners deployed a variety of programs providing public education and outreach, residential and commercial audits and retrofits, and a range of financing mechanisms for energy efficiency. In stewarding this cohort, SEEA witnessed the transformative effect that national infrastructure initiatives can have on the Southeast. The experience also gave us insight into how and why these efforts can fall short of addressing the most pervasive and systemic problems.

In economic terms the Recovery Act was a success. It reversed the financial crisis, created tens of thousands of jobs, and rescued the U.S. economy from a second Great Depression. The Southeast saw a 387% ROI on DOE’s $20 million investment in energy efficiency alone. Despite these gains, the impact of the Recovery Act was ultimately stunted by a civic and social infrastructure that was unable to fully leverage the funding due to decades of under-investment. The gush of capital overwhelmed understaffed state energy agencies, makeshift city sustainability offices, and weatherization services operating on shoestring budgets and volunteer labor. In many ways, the Recovery Act revealed the limitations of the Southeast’s ability to marshal resources, make plans, and tackle complex problems. This strategic vulnerability in public management capacity was further illustrated by the COVID pandemic.

The Recovery Act relied on large block grants and a competitive proposal process that left states and local government to figure out where and how to invest funds. While this supported innovation and experimentation, it also missed an opportunity to make long-term infrastructure investments and institute reforms to housing policy, health services, and other foundational areas. Failing to close these gaps meant that low-income communities and communities of color remained largely unable to fully participate in the Recovery Act or realize its benefits, let alone overcome systemic inequities in economic opportunity. In contrast, The American Jobs Plan expressly recognizes the nexus between social wellness and economic growth and makes addressing existing inequities a core component in infrastructure planning.

The American Jobs Plan is an ambitious, wide-ranging proposal that aims to modernize and electrify our vehicles and transportation system, increase the resiliency and clean energy capacity of the electrical grid, and rebuild and refurbish our homes and buildings to be more affordable, safe and healthy. The plan stimulates job growth and invests in a workforce to rebuild the middle class. If fully implemented, the American Jobs Plan would be the most transformational re-making of the American economy since the New Deal. The plan though, is just that, a plan. It faces a number of political and logistical hurdles. Obstacles aside, the framework itself is already transformative in presenting a more inclusive, more humanistic definition of infrastructure and what is needed for people to not only survive but thrive. It has changed the conversation, trajectory, and scope of infrastructure planning from this point forward.

The American Jobs Plan goes beyond the optics of shovel-ready, quick wins and reinforces the cornerstones of our physical, civic, and social infrastructure. The plan would accelerate the growth of clean energy and transportation technology sectors already driving employment across the Southeast. It recognizes housing and buildings as equally critical assets where meaningful investment can yield economy-wide benefits. Most significantly, the American Jobs Plan acknowledges the intersectional nature of poverty and would expand access to needed services such as healthcare, aging in place, childcare, education, and job training. Investments in these life enriching resources expands access to the jobs and benefits that come with revitalized roads, bridges, and energy systems.

The Recovery Act was a historic investment that got the Southeast energy efficiency field on its feet. The region is fortunate now to have more experience in designing and delivering energy efficiency programs, a better sense of what works, and a deeper bench of trained professionals ready to take the next leap forward. Now, with the American Jobs Plan’s emphasis on rural communities, and prioritization of equity and restorative justice, the Southeast has the opportunity to go beyond recovery and invest in a social wellness that sustains the regions trajectory toward a cleaner, more prosperous, and more equitable future.