Members Only | September 30, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Joe Biden’s plan will transform America the way the Great Society did. Here’s 3 ways journalists fail to tell the story

As they did with President Lyndon Johnson's agenda, the press corps should inform the electorate about the existential battle at hand.

Headlines in the 1960s were admirably clear.
Headlines in the 1960s were admirably clear.

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In the 1960s, President Johnson waged one of the most consequential battles in US history: The Great Society. It was a package of legislative reforms that would touch almost every aspect of American life, from healthcare to civil rights to education. Headlines were admirably clear. The New York Daily News: LBJ’S BLUEPRINT: Billions for Schools; Aged; Medicare & War on Poverty. The Los Angeles Times: “LBJ’s ‘GOOD FIGHT’: Pledges War on Hate, Poverty.” The Times covered the philosophy underlying it: “President urges new federalism to ‘enrich’ life” and “Johnson Pledges Great Society; Will Visit 4 Needy Areas Today.” 

In this coverage, Johnson was described as an agent — a passionate one — engaged in an ideological, even visionary, battle. What Johnson was fighting for was clearly delineated: alleviating poverty, investing in schools and enriching American life. The societal circumstances that merited this battle were also identified. The country needed to be rebuilt. Both individuals and communities were vulnerable. 

Contrast this to the press coverage of President Biden’s Human Infrastructure Bill, which, if passed, would be the greatest expansion of the social safety net since Johnson’s Great Society. The Times: “As Senate Democrats return to Washington, divisions remain over a spending bill.” ABC News: “Panel OKs Dems’ $3.5T bill, crunch time for Biden agenda.” Politico described the current week of legislative battles simply as, “Joe Biden, Welcome to the Thunderdome.”

When individuals suffer, society suffers. The bill thus represents not only a paradigmatic shift in American political policy, but also an existential battle about the proper role of government in ensuring human welfare and a functioning society. 

In these headlines, Biden is rarely described as an ideological warrior advocating for a specific vision of American society; rather, the president, if assigned any agency at all, is depicted dispassionately as negotiating with recalcitrant senators. When Johnson said his agenda was aimed to “enrich life,” this made the front pages. We’ve seen fewer bold citations of Biden’s proclamations that “investment in our physical and human infrastructure are inextricably intertwined” or that he desperately wants to give “breathing room to families.” 

Overall, there have been three main problems in coverage of Biden’s proposal, as well as the congressional battle. 

First, the big picture is obscured. As was the case with Johnson’s Great Society, the overarching concept of “Human Infrastructure” is revolutionary: Democrats are arguing that the structures that allow our society to function are not limited to highways and bridges, but extend to human networks. These structures must be buttressed by investing in human welfare. When individuals suffer, society suffers. The bill thus represents not only a paradigmatic shift in American political policy, but also an existential battle about the proper role of government in ensuring human welfare and a functioning society.   

The second problem with the coverage is that significant details of the proposal are glossed over or ignored. Critical provisions of the bill are rarely mentioned in headlines. Universal pre-K. Childcare for working families. Tuition-free community college. Support for small businesses. Investments in school infrastructure. Workplace development and job training. Affordable housing. Investments in clean energy. Drought and forestry investment to reduce carbon emissions and prevent wildfires. The list goes on and on. And yet these stakes seem often absent from media portrayals of the congressional battle. 

The third problem with the press coverage is that the economic impact of the bill is badly misrepresented. Although headlines focus on the package’s $3.5 trillion cost, few reports note that this cost would be spread over a decade. And even fewer mention the bill’s possible long-term economic benefits. Consider how its provisions would actually save Americans money and generate revenue.  

  • Climate Change. The economic toll of climate change far exceeds $3.5 trillion. It’s only going to get worse: The cost of 2021’s Hurricane Ida was $95 billion. 2017’s Hurricane Harvey cost was $125 billion. In 2020, the cost of drought in just the southwest was estimated to be between $515 million and $1.3 billion, not counting forest fires. In 2018 alone, California wildfires cost the US more than $148.5 billion. 
  • Education. High-quality early education for disadvantaged children can return four to nine dollars on every one dollar spent. Children who go to preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and ultimately go to college. Those who graduate from high school will earn more money and, therefore, participate more in the market economy, as well as pay more taxes. Furthermore, investments in K-12 education are estimated to increase GDP by between $32-$76 trillion over the next few decades. Community college, included in the bills, has been correlated with higher earnings and reduced need for social services, saving the economy $46.4 billion a year. 
  • Childcare. Childcare subsidies boost labor force participation, especially among low-income mothers. Childcare helps businesses. Lost earnings, revenue and productivity due to lack of childcare are estimated to total $57 billion dollars every year.   
  • Housing. Investments in affordable housing benefit virtually everyone. According to a 2015 National Low Income Housing Coalition report, over half a million jobs were either created or sustained through housing investments. The creation of just 100 affordable rental homes would generate almost $12 million in local income and $2 million in taxes.  

Those who consider themselves fiscally responsible should enthusiastically consider the proposal on these merits alone. People hear the Human Infrastructure bill’s price — $3.5 trillion — and probably assume that if it doesn’t pass the country is spared $3.5 trillion more in debt. But in reality, the price of inaction is far higher. In this sense, the Washington press corps is failing on a basic empirical metric. If you cite the cost, you must also consider the benefit. 

There is one more consideration worth noting: the function of journalism in our democracy. The press’s role is to inform Americans about the democratic process, including the content of legislation that could meaningfully transform their lives. Farmers should know, right now, that Congress is debating how much to help them survive the devastating effects of climate change. Coastal communities should know Congress is debating how to protect their homes from extreme weather. The adult children of elderly parents should know Congress is debating providing assistance for eldercare to relieve families of the painful strain. Parents of young children should know Congress is trying to relieve strain on their end, too, by providing childcare assistance. None of this has been well-conveyed to the public. 

As they did with the Great Society, the press should inform the electorate about the existential battle at hand. They should be clear about the various motivations of the political agents. There is no need to call Biden a “warrior,” but there’s also no need to obscure his stated intention to help families as well as to combat climate change.

Furthermore, the American citizens — including children, parents and the elderly — who will be affected by these policies should be highlighted. The potential cost-saving and revenue generation of the bill’s provisions should be mentioned just as much as its initial cost. 

In the 1960’s, Johnson’s vision was for a “Great Society.” He was fighting for “needy communities” in a “war” against poverty. Now, 60 years later, by advancing Human Infrastructure, who does Biden claim he is fighting for? And what is his vision? The press is failing to tell us. 

Magdi Semrau writes about the politics of language, science and medicine for the Editorial Board. She has researched child language development and published in the New York Academy of Sciences. Born and raised in Alaska, she can be found @magi_jay.

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