By Julie Margetta Morgan
August 20, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
In her first speech as former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris proclaimed that this country needs to build back better, echoing a line that features prominently in Biden’s economic recovery plans. With Congress unable to agree on the very basics of an economic response including the extension of crucial unemployment benefits, building a better economy can seem unattainable. But Harris and Biden are exactly right: Returning to normal is unacceptable, because normal means too little economic power for far too many. Our country’s response to COVID-19 can and should create an economy that works for and includes all Americans.
Every aspect of the COVID-19 crisis, from who is likely to get sick to who faces the greatest financial suffering, is shaped by the underlying inequities, injustices and fragilities in the American economy. The concentration of wealth and power with the biggest companies allowed them to rig the government’s COVID-19 economic response to further enrich themselves without having to help anyone else. The deep-seated erosion of worker power means employees have little say in the terms of their employment — from their earnings to their health and safety on the job. The government’s retreat from vital public services in favor of market provision left our health care system unprepared to adequately handle COVID, and left millions with inadequate health care. And the systemic racism embedded in our economy and society ensures that Black and brown people fare worse on virtually every measure of COVID’s effects.
Thus far, the government’s economic response to COVID has focused on providing funds that meet the immediate financial needs caused by the pandemic. There is no doubt that America needs immediate relief to address the devastation COVID-19 is causing, including mass production of tests and vaccines, effective and generous unemployment insurance, debt relief and aid to state and local governments.
However, addressing acute needs cannot be a barrier to larger structural change. Providing financial relief without addressing underlying power structures might help avoid a depression, but it would only serve to rebuild our racially and economically unequal society – a prospect that is not only uninspiring but also shortsighted. The wealth inequality and concentrated power that created the conditions for an unequal pandemic also undermine robust economic growth and make our country far more vulnerable to the crises that lay down the road.
Fortunately, we don’t need to trade off between stemming the bleeding for American families and businesses and building a better economy. In fact, many policy interventions can do both at the same time. Investments in publicly funded health care and medical-debt cancellation can relieve financial pressures on households, while also providing all Americans with economic security, improving workers’ agency to bargain for higher wages and ending the stranglehold that powerful health insurance companies have over all of us. A federal jobs guarantee could provide employment to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and mobilize sectors of the economy needed to address the pandemic like testing and contact tracing, while also providing a floor for wages and benefits and a pathway into the labor market for individuals who have been excluded, like the formerly incarcerated. A federal commitment to building affordable childcare could help working parents make it through the pandemic and address the permanent closure of childcare centers affected by COVID-19, while also boosting earnings for childcare workers and funding the care infrastructure that is a critical component of a strong economy.
Building back better means planning for recovery from all the things that ail our economy, not only the COVID-19 pandemic. A progressive economy like this country has never seen — one that is intentionally inclusive, moral, green, and strong — is within reach.
Julie Margetta Morgan is the vice president of research at Roosevelt Forward.
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