The word “infrastructure” brings to mind the big physical systems that underpin the U.S. economy, such as highways, bridges, tunnels, and water and sewage systems. Indeed, infrastructure is composed of the very basic organizing structures that the economy and our society need to function. Without such necessities as electricity, for instance, daily life and economy activity would quickly grind to a halt.

Yet physical infrastructure isn’t the only type of infrastructure the U.S. economy and society needs in order to keep running. A less visible but equally important type of infrastructure is the social infrastructure that provides a foundation for other economic activity and helps maintain standards of well-being. Social infrastructure is the policies, resources, and services that ensure people can participate in productive social and economic activities. This includes social services, public education, and healthcare.

Two other fundamental components of social infrastructure are adequate care and adequate income. Ensuring that individuals and their families have the care they need—whether to address their own or a loved one’s medical issues or child care—allows people to meet their personal needs and participate in broader societal and economic activity. Similarly, having sufficient income to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead is a necessary precondition for maintaining a minimum standard of living and an ability to participate fully and productively in the economy.

Electricity, running water, transportation, and internet connectivity facilitate modern U.S. workers’ ability to get to their jobs and do them well. In the same vein, social infrastructure is essential to ensuring economic well-being for individuals and for society as a whole.

Conversely, the inadequate provision of social infrastructure can be a barrier to economic and social activity. When people have to scramble to arrange care for a child, an elderly parent, or a disabled family member; when they lack the health supports they themselves need; or when they are hungry, cold, or unhoused, they are hard-pressed to attend schoolgo to work, or otherwise participate in civil society.

Read the full article about social infrastructure by Alix Gould-Werth, Sam Abbott, and Emilie Openchowski at Washington Center for Equitable Growth.