President-elect Joe Biden has named inequality and labor market specialists as leaders in his economics team, who promised to prioritize policies aimed at women and minority workers especially devastated by the pandemic.
Biden is building his team as an estimated 12 million Americans are bracing for the loss of unemployment benefits on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas, and as other programs providing student loan forbearance and protection from evictions are set to end by Dec. 31.
They will need to find ways to help those who are historically the last to benefit in an improving economy, and whose livelihoods have been disproportionately upended by the pandemic crisis as jobs in the hospitality, entertainment and travel industries evaporated.
Biden’s nominees include former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as Treasury secretary, Obama Foundation head Wally Adeyemo as her deputy, and Center for American Progress Chief Executive Neera Tanden as budget director.
Cecilia Rouse, a labor economist at Princeton University whose research focuses on education, was nominated to be chair of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Also chosen for the council were Heather Boushey, the chief executive of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, known for her research on inequality and economic growth, and longtime adviser Jared Bernstein, who has pushed for policies to help close the employment gap between Black and white workers.
“It’s essential that we move with urgency” to combat the impacts of the coronavirus downturn, Yellen said during a news conference.
As the country rebuilds, it has an “obligation to redress deeper structural problems,” she said, including race and gender gaps in wage, housing and job opportunities.
Adeyemo and Tanden echoed Yellen’s remarks, citing US policies that had helped their immigrant parents; Boushey and Rouse said they were drawn to careers in economics after witnessing the impact of previous job crises.
The pandemic also brings “the opportunity to build a better economy in its wake, an economy that works for everyone,” Rouse said.
Biden’s focus on labor economists is “no coincidence,” said Adriana Kugler, a professor of public policy and economics at Georgetown University.
“This is the key issue of our time,” said Kugler, who worked as chief economist for the Labor Department during the Obama and Biden administration. “This is what we need to fix.”
The selections signal a return to the original intent of the CEA, which was created after World War Two with the Employment Act of 1946, which declared that “all Americans” have the right to full-time work, said William Spriggs, chief economist with the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of US labor unions.
“It is very important in this economy to have a CEA that understands the importance of full employment,” said Spriggs.
Unemployment sank to half-century lows before the pandemic hit during the Trump administration, but even then the jobless rate for Black workers, for instance, was nearly twice what it was for whites.
Public service is about “offering hope through the dark times,” Adeyemo said Tuesday, and “making sure that our economy works, not just for the wealthy, but for the hardworking people who make it run.”
Biden on Tuesday called on lawmakers to pass a fiscal stimulus bill that has been stalled in Congress for months, and promised more action to reactivate the economy after he takes office on Jan. 20.
The people Biden is putting on his economic team have stressed the ways these benefits can stabilize households and help the economy recover from a downturn.
Some have also favored using so-called automatic stabilizers, which tie benefits such as jobless aid to measures of economic health, such as the unemployment rate, and reduce the need for further action from Congress.
Testifying in July before the Senate’s Joint Economic Committee, Boushey called for issuing more direct payments, renewing the $600 supplement to weekly unemployment benefits, and suggested the enhanced jobless benefits be set up to continue automatically until the economy improves.
That would avoid scenarios when benefits expire because of stalemates between lawmakers, one of which is looming right now.
One key step this team is likely to take is to push for an increase to the federal minimum wage, which Biden supported on the campaign trail and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris highlighted Tuesday.
Increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current $7.25 an hour “has huge implications for income inequality and particularly for Black women,” said Spriggs.
According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 2.7 percent of hourly wage-earning Black women made the minimum wage or less, the highest percentage of any racial or ethic group.
Boushey has also spoken about how raising the minimum wage can lower the poverty rate, boost productivity and reduce income inequality. These efforts could face strong resistance from Republican lawmakers in Congress, said Diane Swonk, chief economist for accounting and advisory firm Grant Thornton.
Boushey’s research on the ways family-friendly policies can support growth gained new relevance during the pandemic, which has pushed many women out of the labor force.
Biden’s plan for caregivers, which calls for increasing tax credits for child care, expanding services for elder care and improving pay and benefits for caregivers, includes many of the policies Boushey studied throughout her career.
“My life’s work has been centered on ensuring our families and work are properly valued within our economy,” Boushey posted on Twitter on Monday.
The Biden team has pledged to invest in improving US infrastructure – which can be broadly defined as “what the government does so people can get to work,” including improving access to training programs and child care, said Spriggs.
Both Rouse and Boushey are likely to focus on that definition of infrastructure, he said.
Policymakers and businesses can help people facing long-term unemployment by investing in targeted retraining programs that help workers prepare for in-demand jobs, such as healthcare, information technology and renewable energy, said Kugler.