September 24, 2021

The Biden-Harris administration’s first 100 days: How to assess progress for workers

11 min read
In the first 100 days, the Biden-Harris administration has taken a number of promising steps...

In the first 100 days, the Biden-Harris administration has taken a number of promising steps toward crafting an economic policy approach that would boost living standards and security for all U.S. families. But much remains to be done.

In this post, we highlight—in very broad strokes—what is needed to build an economy that generates faster, more sustainable, and more equitably distributed growth. We then identify where the administration has made progress in the first 100 days and where more forceful action is needed.

Building an economy that works for everyone requires the following:

  • Pursuing a “go-for-growth” approach to macroeconomics that aims for labor markets where jobs are plentiful and employers have to work hard (including offering higher wages) to attract workers, so-called “high-pressure” labor markets.
  • Crafting and enforcing fairer rules for markets, particularly through labor market institutions and standards that provide workers a more level playing field when bargaining with employers for better pay and working conditions.
  • Constructing deeper and more protective social insurance systems that use a larger public role in providing unemployment benefits, health coverage, and retirement income security— including long-term care for older adults and people with disabilities.
  • Undertaking ambitious public investments in both people and physical capital, including physical infrastructure, early child care and education, higher education, and green investments.
  • Reforming taxes in a way that helps finance the needed fiscal spending in this program, curbs growing inequality, and discourages the economic “bads” of greenhouse gas emissions and financial speculation.

Below, we expand on these points and assess the Biden-Harris administration’s progress in the first 100 days. The brief summary is:

  • A comprehensive $1.9 trillion relief and recovery bill—the American Rescue Plan (ARP)—has passed that will secure a go-for-growth approach to macroeconomics for most of its first term—a very large accomplishment.
  • One proposed plan—the American Jobs Plan (AJP)—calls for investments in traditional infrastructure, green investments, and long-term care—all financed with progressive taxes. But this plan has not yet passed, and the labor standards included in it have no real enforceable mechanism yet.
  • Another plan just released today—the American Families Plan (AFP)—proposes large investments in children and higher education and is financed by progressive taxes on capital incomes accruing to the richest households.
  • Decent first steps in improving administration of unemployment insurance (UI) and affordability of health care have been made in the ARP and AFP, but concrete plans for permanently deepening crucial social insurance programs are yet to be done.
  • Tough-minded but realistic strategies to pass transformative policies like the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and Raise the Wage (RTW) Act remain to be formulated.

“Go-for-growth” macroeconomics

The first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration deserve very high marks on this front. In the face of loud voices declaring that their plans for macroeconomic rescue would lead to economic “overheating” (inflation and interest rate spikes), the administration held firm and secured passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). If measures to suppress the coronavirus work and it is safe to return much closer to economic normality in coming months, the ARP will drive rapid and large reductions in unemployment. This is in stark contrast with the too-small efforts at fiscal rescue following the Great Recession of 2008.

A go-for-growth approach to macroeconomics can never be secured forever with one piece of legislation—it requires consistent monitoring of macroeconomic trends and requires an evidence-based Federal Reserve to buy into it. But the ARP is a great start, and the Fed has so far been admirably supportive. The benefits of high-pressure labor markets are large, and they accrue disproportionately to workers facing historic discrimination in labor markets, making them a powerful tool for fostering both economic and racial equality. This solid macroeconomic approach is a superb first achievement for the administration.

Crafting and enforcing fairer marketsespecially through labor standards and institutions

The two most important changes to labor standards and institutions currently being proposed are the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Raise the Wage Act (RTW). The PRO Act is a comprehensive reform of labor law which would significantly improve the prospects of U.S. workers trying to organize unions in the face of growing employer hostility and abusive union-busting tactics. The RTW Act would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and index it thereafter to growth in typical workers’ wages. Combined, these two pieces of legislation would rebuild two of the most important bulwarks to wage growth for the large majority of U.S. workers. Further, collective bargaining and large expansions of the federal minimum wage have in the past been two of the most powerful measures we’ve ever seen for fostering greater equality by both race and income class.

The Biden administration has admirably expressed support for both measures. The fact that the Biden administration has issued an executive order establishing a White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment is particularly welcome, as is their Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) in support of the PRO Act. (In contrast, the Obama administration never issued a SAP in support of the labor law reform effort made in its first term.)

But the U.S. Senate remains the principal roadblock to both the PRO Act and the RTW Act. A serious strategy is needed to move these vital pieces of legislation past this roadblock, and the White House is the most obvious place for such a strategy to originate. In particular, the Senate filibuster imposing an implicit 60-vote threshold on most legislation means that a significant modification of Senate norms is likely needed to pass these bills. Either filibuster reform is needed, or the budget reconciliation process (which provides an end run around the filibuster for budget-related legislation) needs to be stretched further than it has been in the past, even in the face of unfriendly opinions from the Senate parliamentarian.

Much of the progressive agenda can pass through budget reconciliation if 50 votes can be found in the Senate. Under current Senate norms (and that’s all they are—norms—which have been broken repeatedly by Republican-run Senates), the PRO and RTW Acts could not be passed with 50 votes. If the current Biden administration ends with no progress on these fronts, the upward march of inequality in the U.S. is near guaranteed to continue. Rhetorical support from the administration is a good first start on these vital bills—but more is needed, and soon.

While labor standards that apply economywide, like the PRO and RTW Acts, are the really transformational changes to the economy’s rules, there are smaller measures in the labor standards space that could still help groups of workers in nontrivial ways that remain to be secured. For example, in a following section, we discuss the administration’s proposals for ambitious public investments which, if enacted, would be important steps down a path toward broadly shared prosperity. One key way to make these investments even more impactful in supporting high-quality jobs would be to make sure that the labor standards associated with them are strong. Much like their rhetorical support of the PRO and RTW Acts, the Biden administration has called for strong project-specific labor standards to accompany the investments in the American Jobs Plan (AJP), but a legislative and regulatory strategy to ensure they do is yet to come forth and is crucial.

The administration also yesterday issued an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay a minimum wage of $15 per hour. This is a very welcome step and will increase the earnings of up to 390,000 low-wage workers on federal contracts. We encourage the administration to go further to help ensure that the estimated two million total jobs held by federal contract workers are good jobs. This would include steps like ending practices that allow low-road contractors to win bids that are so low they are inconsistent with decent pay and working conditions, and banning federal government contractors from requiring contract workers to sign forced arbitration and class action waivers.

More generous and accessible social insurance

During the COVID-19 pandemic, huge but temporary changes were made to the U.S. unemployment insurance (UI) system to make it more protective and generous to jobless workers. But decades of disinvestment in state-run UI systems meant that this aid was fraught with administrative problems and took too long to reach millions. Worse, the more generous aid “turned off” for months due to congressional inaction. While the ARP extended the more generous pandemic UI provisions through September of this year, no structural reform has happened yet. Going forward, a comprehensive reform of UI that makes it more generous, more automatically responsive to economic conditions, and easier to access should be a key priority. The American Family Plan (AFP) provides money for states to invest in their delivery systems and calls for more fundamental reform, but it does not contain policy specifics, so more work on this front is needed.

The job losses spurred by the pandemic also cost millions access to health insurance they received through their employer-based plans. Moving to a U.S. health system with a much larger public role is needed to provide real economic security to jobless Americans. A larger public role would also greatly increase economic flexibility and opportunities for workers and for aspiring business owners. The ARP included a welcome and large increase in subsidies provided for health insurance purchased in the marketplace exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and the proposed American Family Plan (AFP) would make more generous subsidies permanent. Encouraging Medicaid expansion into states that have not yet adopted the ACA provisions on this and allowing a lower age of eligibility for Medicare (including perhaps a “buy-in”) are other key priorities that the administration and Congress should take up in coming months.

Finally, the pandemic has highlighted that the primary constraint keeping people who would otherwise like to work out of paid labor markets is caregiving responsibilities. Public investment in early child care and education (which we discuss below) could help families meet many of these caregiving responsibilities, but expansions of public caregiving for older adults and those with disabilities that is proposed in the administration’s American Jobs Plan (AJP) could also help many. These investments would allow everybody—not just the rich—to afford decent care for loved ones who are elderly or have disabilities and would improve the job quality of caregiving jobs.

Both the vital services provided by the increased caregiving spending as well as the boosts to job quality of caregiving employment will provide disproportionate benefits to women. In particular, women bear a hugely disproportionate burden in providing unpaid eldercare, and women (and particularly women of color) make up a very large majority of paid care workers. Given the large and progressive benefits of this expansion of public caregiving spending, it is encouraging to see these investments included in the AJP proposal.

Ambitious public investments

The U.S. clearly could benefit from large public investments in traditional infrastructure, but large investments in decarbonization strategies and in people are also needed.

The case for traditional infrastructure is well understood. The case for a large public role in financing and directing green investments is even more vital. Until the price of emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) is raised significantly by policy (like a carbon tax or direct regulations), private investment in GHG mitigation (like building weatherization or installing solar panels) will remain far below efficient levels.

This green investment is optimally financed directly through the public sector, and most of it should be financed with debt, even if the economy has largely recovered. After all, our children and grandchildren will be far better off inheriting an economy with a higher debt ratio but lower stock of GHGs in the atmosphere than inheriting an economy with low debt but higher temperatures.

With regards to investment in people, besides the expansions in care investments for older adults and those with disabilities highlighted above, early child care and education and higher education could be made much more affordable and higher quality for U.S. families. This would not only benefit the receiving families directly, but would also have large spillover effects in building a more productive economy overall. Further, anything that improves the resources available to poorer families with children has been shown to have large effects down the road in boosting their productivity as adults. This includes direct provision of health and nutrition assistance, but also cash. Finally, since these investments also call for higher pay and better training for the early child care and education workforce, they will provide disproportionate benefits to women (and disproportionately women of color), who make up the large majority of workers in this sector currently.

The American Jobs Plan (AJP) includes many of the investments in traditional infrastructure and green investments, while the American Family Plan (AFP) has excellent provisions to make both early child care and education as well as higher education more affordable for families. The AFP also extends the large increases in the Child Tax Credit included in the ARP until 2025. These are big steps in the right direction.

Tax reform for the common good

Much of the spending proposed so far by the Biden administration—particularly those meant for macroeconomic stabilization and one-time investments—can and should be financed with debt, not taxes. But expansions of permanent programs should be mostly financed with more revenue. The U.S. can certainly afford this—we are among the most lightly taxed rich nations in the world. The first tranches of increased tax revenue to finance permanent spending expansions should be raised from high-income households, either through increases in the progressivity of the tax code or through greater and more progressively targeted tax enforcement. Other areas of tax reform should aim to correct economic “bads” like GHG emissions and financial speculation.

So far, the Biden administration’s proposed taxes are clearly progressive. The AJP includes increases in taxes paid out of corporate income (essentially repealing large chunks of the most egregious bits of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) from 2017), and the AFP is said to include tax increases on capital gains accruing to the highest-income households. This includes the elimination of an egregious loophole (“step-up basis”) that allows large intergenerational transfers of wealth to happen untaxed. All these taxes affect high-income households while barely touching low- and middle-income households.

The administration has also made several welcome and concrete steps in moving toward greater tax enforcement, particularly on high-income households and corporations. This includes a multilateral effort to crack down on abusive tax havens.

Taxes on economic “bads” like GHG emissions and financial speculation have not yet been mentioned. We hope further progress on these fronts is made.

Conclusion

The administration deserves praise for what has happened so far and much of what they have proposed. And normally one would want to cut a little slack for strategies yet formed on passing key bills. After all, it has only been 100 days. But the economic challenges facing U.S. families are huge and time is ticking. As hard as it is to believe, every 100 days going forward into 2022 need to be just as productive as the first in meeting these challenges.

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