What IS “General Welfare?”

In our book Fault Lines in the Constitution, we give the Constitution a grade. Every good grading system needs a rubric to insure impartiality and fairness. We use the Preamble as our rubric—in particular, the purposes, or goals, for which the Constitution was ordained and established. One of these is to “promote the general Welfare.” The Framers didn’t clarify what they meant by this term. But we can presume it referred to the need to think beyond the personal interests of oneself or one’s community or state and consider instead the interests of the country at large.

The words “general welfare” appear again in the very first sentence of Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which address the powers held by the new Congress. These included the “Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States….” These taxes were to pay for arms and soldiers’ salaries as well as lighthouses and roads connecting one part of the country with another to make commerce easier to conduct. From the very beginning of the country, many people understood “general welfare” to include the investment in what we today call “infrastructure.”

That term—infrastructure—is currently the topic of much discussion. Does it refer just to roads and bridges or to less tangible ways to improve daily life for Americans as well? Does making sure that American kids become educated in the technology that operates today’s roads and bridges count as “infrastructure”? Without engineers and people able to build and repair bridges, they will fall down, after all. Does guaranteeing adequate medical care so that workers will remain healthy enough to operate bridges and build tunnels count? What about protecting them and everyone else from contracting COVID-19 by providing vaccinations for free?

If current debates in Congress are a guide, most Republicans focus on literal structures while most Democrats prefer a broader definition. President Joe Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan calls for investing three trillion dollars in infrastructure, which includes funds not only for railroads, bridges, and roads but also for an expanded electrical grid, green energy projects, and clean water delivery. Those all seem tangible enough. But what about high-speed broadband for all Americans, worker training, and even childcare and programs for the elderly so people can go to their workplaces? Don’t we all benefit—that is, doesn’t it contribute to the “general welfare”—if the general population is able to participate in economic development and safeguarding the overall environment?

This is not the first time the federal government has invested in a broad range of such efforts. From 1790 to 1820, more than 3,700 miles of toll roads were built in New England alone. In the years following, federal lands were in effect given to railway companies to encourage the development of the new “iron horse” that would radically transform the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s presidency not only saved the Union and emancipated enslaved persons; it also saw the development of “land-grant colleges” that helped to create the greatest system of public education in the world.

During the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” funded the building of great dams by the Tennessee Valley Authority as well as the hiring of artists to paint murals in federal buildings; writers to travel throughout the country collecting the reminiscences of former enslaved persons and folktales of the American people; and photographers to document the realities of American life during the Great Depression. All were thought to contribute to the “general welfare” as well as provide employment for those hired to do the work.

Currently Republicans, however, are complaining that Biden’s suggested legislation not only costs too much money, but also that it does not serve the “general welfare.” Senator Mitch McConnell, for instance, stated that Democrats want “to convince everybody that any government policy whatsoever can be labeled infrastructure.”

What do you believe? Is infrastructure only things you can touch or does it include other kinds of support? What best promotes our general welfare? And, based on your definition, what grade would you give the Constitution?

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