Opinion | Joe Manchin Is Missing the Big Picture on Spending

The $3.5 trillion plan is jam-packed with thoughtful investments. Take early childhood. There are now entire bodies of work showing huge returns to spending money on high-quality preschool. One study that followed low-income children who were enrolled in high-quality preschool found that such investments generate $9 in benefits for every dollar spent — an astounding return. While that study focused on one particular preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., that wasn’t available to all children, a study that looked at universal preschool in Boston found similar results.

Those figures also don’t take into account the impact that investing in more high-quality care settings for children has on parents. A study of Washington, D.C.’s universal preschool program found that it increased the labor force participation of mothers with young children by 10 percentage points.

There are also huge returns for cash payments to parents along the lines of an expansion of the child tax credit, which Democrats have proposed doing through 2025 in their larger infrastructure package. A recent analysis found that if the country were to spend $100 billion a year on a more generous and widespread credit, the country would reap nearly eight times that cost in rewards gained from improved health, education, earnings and longevity. “That’s an incredible investment,” Irwin Garfinkel, an economist at Columbia University who was one of the authors of the analysis, told me. “It’s not just a compassionate thing to do, it’s a wise investment.”

It’s true that these kinds of benefits can take a while to materialize and may not be easily felt by every voter immediately. They are about a “theoretical greater good and productivity, way off in the future,” said Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But that doesn’t make them less real or important.

Some programs may be less about the return we can expect to wring out of money spent than they are about the society we want to build and inhabit together. We provide all children a guarantee of education for ages 6 through 18. Why wouldn’t we also want equal access for children ages 3 to 5? Paid family leave has been shown to keep parents attached to their jobs and the labor force, but it also improves babies’ well-being and allows parents to bond with and care for their children without being forced back to work weeks into babies’ lives.

Care for the elderly may not be a traditional investment at all. “Treating older people better is not going to make them more productive,” Dr. Stevenson pointed out. It may help unpaid family caregivers juggle those responsibilities while working remunerative paid jobs, as well as attract more people to work as health aides, a role for which the demand far outpaces supply.

But what it’s really about is how we believe the elderly should be treated. Social Security, for example, was not created as an investment in the productivity of our economy, but as a promise to the aged that we wouldn’t abandon them to destitution when they could no longer work. What other promises do we owe the elderly, and how do we each want to live out the end of our lives?

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